Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.

(more…)

The clue, as they say, is in the title. Or rather, two clues. Umair Haque’s argument in this short but fascinating and energising book is that our model of economics – and of ‘business as usual’ – has had its day, and that it now fails to serve us. Not an entirely novel argument, except that he has the bravery to move beyond mere protest and offer us at least a preliminary sketch for a more uplifting alternative. If you have the mental appetite for a challenging wake-up call, this is the textual equivalent of a pint of espresso (although you will need a Kindle to read it on).

The challenge begins with a comparison between economics and psychology. While the latter traditionally sought to address and minimise pathologies (on the basis that an absence of them meant a healthy mind), it has spawned a new paradigm of positive psychology that focuses on fulfilling human potential rather than merely on curing mental illness. The scale was extended to cover not just zero down to a negative figure, but also upwards to a positive figure. Haque contends that economics, however, still operates on the basis of a negative paradigm. What we call a healthy economy is one where ‘economic pathologies’ have been minimised or removed: if we remove barriers to commerce or trade, the economy will enjoy ‘health’. And as business is based on this economic paradigm, business-as-usual follows suit:

“Business” as we know it, live it, and do it is the expression of this economics of antipathology.”

(more…)

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it ...From some recent posts, you might think we were either consistently sceptical about the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) or picking on them for some social media kudos. We do understand the merits of keeping our fingers on the zeitgeist and cutting a certain profile, even if we haven’t necessarily mastered it (a quick ‘back of a calculator’ moment indicates we’re 9,250 hours short of the mythically required 10,000 hours), so today we are going to use the ‘f’ word in the opening paragraph. Yes, fairness. And we’re going to applaud John Philpott, CIPD’s Chief Economist. You might want to sit down.

At CIPD’s Annual Conference in Manchester, delegates heard employment minister Chris Grayling calling for employers – and their HR functions – to support the government in providing ‘good work’ and to support the Government’s Work Programme. (As you would imagine, there’s been commentary: here and here, for example.)

(more…)

Young things need nurturingI weighed 2lb 2oz when I was born, seven weeks prematurely, in nineteen-hundred-and-do-I-have-to-confess? Without incubators, I almost certainly wouldn’t be here. Other than for those who wish I wasn’t (I’m guessing most of us have been there!), a reason to be grateful for innovation. And to remember that new things – life forms, ideas, newly acquired learning – can be fragile: their chances don’t always depend solely on their own optimism. And the kind of reflection that can be randomly triggered – in my case, by starting to read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. (A full review may follow if time allows me to finish reading it.) What really caught my attention in the book was not just the story of the introduction of incubators, but also a more recent issue that made me think of parallels with HR and management struggling to maintain an engaged workforce in testing times.

(more…)

I emailed my real friends, but they were busy or washing their hair, so my partner and I queued behind a thousand teens blackberrying intently while they waited to buy tickets for Vampires Suck and Paranormal Activity 2. Despite having gone to the cinema with people, everyone around us was talking to someone who wasn’t there. Eventually, and appropriately, we waded through the fast food wrappers to see The Social Network, the story of Facebook. Or more accurately, mostly the story of the lawsuits that later erupted around those at Harvard during the time that ‘thefacebook.com’ first debuted and the rather messy years that followed.

Much has been made in comments on the film of the irony of a social network whose driving force is a man portrayed as so lacking in the social graces that lubricate and enable friendship. As much as been made of the film’s suggestion that Facebook was a response to getting dumped in a bar by an erstwhile girlfriend. (She gets the film’s best line in the process), with Mark Zuckerberg, the central figure, denying it while other websites dig a little deeper into what may or may not be the truth behind what actually happened. So this posting is a reaction to watching a film that may or may not be exactly what happened in Harvard and in California in 2004 – 6: that the film itself suggests that truth is a highly interpretable abstract concept is a comment worth slipping in at this point.

(more…)

On the eve of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, one industry at least is running at maximum capacity: the rumour mills are turning feverishly. Whether the world’s Cassandras see the future as driven by ideology or mathematics, the axe is coming and the crystal ball clearly predicts amputations. As with any amputation, however, the point should be to save the patient from worse, rather than disable them.

One of the rumours strongly indicates a major change to learning and development across Government departments, suggesting that an overwhelming majority of this will in future be delivered through e-learning. We’re not Luddites: we were delivering major programmes of web-based learning in 1998 (and took the trouble to include features such as hurdled assessments and online views of individual and cohort progress and analysis for tutors), and we make extensive use of webinars, multimedia and many other offspring from the ‘new media’ family in our current blended learning programmes.

(more…)

The quote is from Bill Hicks, deceased US comedian, but it swam back into my memory as I alternated between flicking through the pile of unread broadsheet newspapers by the sofa and watching University Challenge. (OK I’m middle-aged and a little sad, but on the basis of Monday’s episode I know more than a whole Oxford college. Allow me some cardigan-clad pride.) The contestants were young, bright and youthful in their anxious optimism. Being Oxbridge students, no doubt they will prosper, but in a year of record numbers of university applicants being turned away (280,000 according to the Independent on Sunday) and high unemployment in the under 25s, Hicks’ question – I’ll replay the joke later – has a new resonance.

(more…)