Tag Archives: culture

“More Like People”?

My working life has been spent with organisations, in one way or another. (And of course my life before that: schools and universities are organisations too…) I love exploring the way organisations work – what makes them tick. That is why, believe it or not, I loved auditing: auditors dig into organisations, discovering the real processes and structures that enable to them to function. (Clue: it isn’t what managers tell you. And it doesn’t have anything to do with shareholders!)

When talking about organisations – something I do often – I repeatedly find myself describing them as dysfunctional. I don’t think that I have come across or worked in an organisation that couldn’t work better in one way or another, from multinational banks to small, two-man operations. I have long wondered why this is. It isn’t that people in the organisation don’t know this: one thing consultants learn very quickly is that what they tell their clients is very rarely news: organisations know what’s wrong, even if they need someone from outside to help them articulate it.

Their processes could be better, their communications could (almost always) be improved, their structures changed to help the business. Hierarchy and structures get in the way rather than enable, and people in organisations know the work arounds – big and small – to get things done.

(A caveat: “could be better” is a value statement: the corollary has to be “better for whom?” Customers? Employees? Managers? Owners? The wider population? The environment? These groups may not be exclusive, but better for one may very well not be better for all.)

Organisations could be – well, better organised. They are dysfunctional.

I have only one answer. Organisations are made up of people, not processes; people make the organisation work. And people are dysfunctional.

Despite the idea that organisations are separate from people, it is people that are the organisation. We pretend they aren’t. We even pretend that organisations are people!

The thing is that whilst some organisations behave as if they were psychotic, most large organisations’ dysfunctionality works in peculiarly non-human ways. (Small organisations’ dysfunctionality is just like the people behind the organisation!) The veil of incorporation lets everyone in an organisation hide behind the processes, hierarchy and bureaucracy that lets the organisation continue to believe they are “rational”.

Liam Barrington-Bush started a campaign to counter this and humanise organisations, “#morelikepeople“, and he’s developed some of his ideas into a book, “Anarchists in the Boardroom“. (I should declare an interest: I’ve known Liam for quite a while, we’ve discussed his ideas many times, I was involved in focus groups around his book, and I read early drafts of a couple of chapters; he and I agree on much, and probably disagree on more!)

Liam’s focus is on not-for-profits and social enterprises, but I think his ideas are relevant to all organisations. Broadly, Liam reckons (amongst other things) that new media – particularly social media – can act as a counter to the rigid hierarchies and management processes that twentieth century industrialisation created. This is a topic has interested me for a long while – Benjamin Ellis covered it particularly well in a one day conference at Cass Business School three years ago.

Using collaborative tools to develop self-organising structures and flatter structures would clearly have an impact on the nature of work and business; if large organisations were able to embrace them, they might become flexible and responsive.

More likely, I feel, is that small organisations – already more flexible than large, and often unencumbered by rigid structures and processes – that are likely to adapt faster to social media, perhaps becoming more openly networked rather than hierachical.

(Liam is using crowd sourcing to publish his book – itself an interesting example of the changing nature of business in a new, social and collaborative world; he is still looking for supporters.)

Trends About Trends

William Nelson and Richard Hepburn explored some long term trends in the UK – reassessing them and exploring new qualititative techniques such as crowd sourcing. Such trends have an impact on economics and government policy, as well as fundamentally affecting the way we live our lives (ten years ago I would never have guessed the impact carrying a mobile phone would have on my behaviour!).

The themes they identified were

  • changing structure of households (what Nelson called “home-alone v ‘all together now'”): there have been increases in young people staying at home, people living by themselves, couples cohabiting, and young people sharing till later in their lives.The current state of the economy and the jobs market is driving a lot of this as young people stay at home or have to because they can’t afford a place of their own (apparently leading to an increase in squatting in London and some novel approaches to communal living and working elsewhere), but of course it also has economic impacts. Immigration and demographics (which Nelson also covered) will have an effect, too.(
  • “smart v connected”: drawing on “the internet of things” – the ability to give any object its own internet identifier – Nelson argued against the need for “smart objects” (all those food-ordering fridges PR-savvy white goods manufacturers say we’ll be buying) but reckoned our homes would become more connected – but under our control. He foresees us using our mobile phones as universal controllers, switching on heating, lights and cookers remotely. As technology converged, he also believed that it would be gas or electricity companies who would own the interface, not the telecoms or media companies that currently own our broadband connections, prompting competition for control of our homes: remote controlled central heating might be the killer app. (Maybe Sky will buy British Gas?)
  • social networking to networked socialising: we’ve been living in a technology-mediated networked society since the advent of the telephone in the early 20th century, but we’re increasingly connected. The ability to carry the internet in our pockets has changed the way we behave. Whilst our lives might be more and more busy, we’re also procrastinating more: we might arrange to meet people, but the details – where, when, what – are more flexible and subject to change: we are less willing to commit to a fixed schedule, with frequent and repeat rescheduling. People are more willing to take the best offer that comes along (apparently 40,000 people are stood up every day!). A lot of this happens on mobiles – people are checking what’s on and booking more last minute tickets, which effects artists’ and venues’ planning and pricing strategies.Their is also an increase in “leisure as performance” – people tweeting or Facebooking (is that a verb? I guess so…) photos of themselves at events – the ease of one-to-many communications is turning us into a nation of show-offs – and sharing information about our plans to go to events becomes a currency. Interestingly, one doesn’t actually need to go to the event – you can share the information that, for instance, you’ve got a ticket for the Olympics (posting the details and a photo of the ticket, perhaps) before selling it on. Data about the event can be more valuable than the event itself.

    (It also means we are under self-imposed scrutiny: the more we share online, the more we are building the panopticon… And I am shocked that there is a data analysis firm called Panopticon. Maybe we get the future we deserve.)

  • the gender revolution finally happens: decades after the 1960s, Nelson reckoned that changes in gender relations have now become so normal as to cease to be newsworthy – and when things get boring, change has happened. (I know many feminists who may disagree with this; please don’t blame me for sharing his views with you!) There are now more female graduates than male, and they get better degrees; they’re also better at getting jobs than male graduates. Nelson said that women aged 20-29 now have higher hourly wages than men (I have searched the ONS website, which is full of fascinating data, but I can’t figures split by gender and age, so I’ll just have to take his word for it!).As women become more equal to men, they are becoming less equal to each other: there are growing disparities between women. And whilst pay hourly pay might have moved in their favour, women still spend more time on housework (in the US) and are the prime provider of childcare. It’ll be interesting to see if those roles change with women having the higher earning potential.

    There may also be pressure on employers to change their models of employment (strongly rooted in the early 20th century?) to cope with highly qualified, high earning women who want to fit in childcare and their home life, too: this might add pressure to develop more flexible models of employment.

  • ageing population: the “demographic timebomb” has almost become a cliche, but it remains important, affecting policy and opinions for decades. 2012 sees a spike of people reaching 65 – the results of a mini baby boom in 1946 and 1947 as soldiers returned from the war. Since Britain didn’t really recover economically for another decade or so – it was in 1957 that MacMillan asserted “you’ve never had it so good” – it won’t be until the 2020s that the wave of over-65s resulting from the 1950s baby boom reach 65.The ONS predicts that the proportion of over-60s will continue to grow whilst the proportion of under-14s is static and the proportion of those aged 15-59 decreases – hence worries of a decreasing working population having to support an increasing number of the old.

    None of this is news – the “demographic timebomb” has been written about for decades. But by looking at the detail, we can plan and change – both public policy and our personal choices. For instance, Willie pointed out the market for Saga will grow by 7% pa (I think – I didn’t write the figure down!), without the company doing anything at all. The effect of demographics on policy – the provision of health care, pensions and social care for the elderly, for instance, as well as indirectly affecting, say, transport, housing and industrial policies – and of course the economy

  • “the youth of today”
    It was in his discussion of youth that Nelson really challenged our assumptions. The young are not hoodie-wearing rioters drunkenly threatening passers-by: Nelson gave figures from the UK for reducing youth crime, decreasing youth drug and alcohol use and a decreasing teenage pregnancy rates – not the stuff of tabloid headlines.At the same time, parents are being more protective of their children – driving them to school and managing their leisure time (back to the panopticon there…) – in part driven by a culture of fear: children are taught about “stranger danger” when other risks may be more relevant. What effect will “paranoid parenting” have on future generations? Will they learn to assess risk if protected during childhood – surely a key part of growing up? And what will such cosseting have on our children’s future health?

These are just some of the trends that Nelson has worked on; perhaps most interesting is where they intersect: for instance, the effect of the changing nature of networked socialising as the population ages; or the changing form of households when examined through the lens of changing, less rebellious youth; or the impact of changing economic power of (some) women on household structures and the balance between generations.

Richard Sennett on “Together”

Once more at the RSA, to hear Richard Sennett talk about his new book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”. (Audio here.) He had some very interesting things to say – it was thought provoking – but I was not necessarily convinced.

Sennett reckons that cooperation and collaboration is natural to people – indeed, he said he believed that it might be genetic in nature (though I’d have thought it would be easily explained through culture, especially as Sennett said it develops as we learn – a lot of play is about developing cooperation).

But he then said it is difficult and requires practice – if it is innate, there is clearly a learnt element. Still, it is clearly a complex skill: Sennett focused on three attributes which he contrasted with their modern antithesis, to show where we might be going wrong.

  1. dialogics v dialectics: education and legal systems (and much else) lead us to dialectic debate, often confrontational (anyone listen to the “Today” programme or watch “Question Time”: they may then understand that confrontational debate does little to promote understanding and collaboration…); in contrast, dialogic requires the exercise of listening skills – more listening than talking, and what talking there is is questioning and probing. Co-operation requires understanding built on dialogue

  2. subjunctive v declarative: Sennett lambasted the “fetish of assertion” – aggressively asserting “I think…” or “I believe…” demanding for a (usually confrontational) response. Instead of confronting others with our convictions, Sennett advised using subjunctive propositions – “It seems to me…” to open discussion and invite participation – building collaboration and teamwork rather than confrontation
  3. empathy v sympathy: identifying with others – sympathetically feeling their pain – closes down discussion: understanding another’s position without being able to identify with it, but accepting their need to attend to it, sends messages and builds understanding, It requires curiosity rather than compassion – an interest in other people

[I’m not sure that I am in total agreement with Sennett about these, particular his second and third assertions, though he maintained there is research to support his position.]

Sennett proceeded to discuss co-operation in urban society and workplaces; once more, he was interesting if not (to my mind), wholly convincing. He asserted that the way that we organise work and (his word!) community in modern [western?] society reduces and disables learning to co-operate with those who differ from us.

With regard to work, the focus on project work with short term timeframes plays lip-service to teamwork, but doesn’t let us develop the understanding required of each other to actually pull it off. We don’t have the time to spend with others building that understanding, instead focussing on our short term objectives – after which we move off to work on the next project. We do not have enough invested in the success of our enterprise, instead seeking the next fix.

I disagree about this: those working in a project environment rely on others in the team to deliver the result. We have to co-operate – and having the skills to do so is crucial to our success: those informal “people” skills which might not appear in the job description are necessary to help us build our reputation.

Sennett believed that despite cities being full of difference, we are living in more and more homogenised societies, and rarely mix with those from different races, religions or classes. We are segregating ourselves.

Whilst I can see some aspects of this, I do not believe it is new: surely society was much more homogenous one hundred or two hundred years ago? There are many more opportunities to mix in today’s multicultural society: it might be easier not, but the opportunities are still there.

Sennett had some interesting things to say about the Occupy movement – he has taken an active interest in the movement in the USA, and it seems to fit his model of dialogic, subjunctive, empathetic behaviour. Politicians of all flavours – the dialectics supreme – literally don’t get it: non-hierachical, self-organising, learning, the Occupy movement is about experiences rather than demands, and growing from the shared experience.

Much of what Sennett had to say resonated – particularly stemming from conversations at Tuttle and the C4CC, as well as institutions like the RSA itself creating space for discussion – but the very existence of these fora actually weakens Sennett’s thesis.

Culture, Transparency and Profitability

It is a difficult time for business: busted banks and a financial system that feels like it is creaking at the edges, waiting for yet another EU summit to push it over the edge; a relentless recession that feels like a never-ending Narnian winter. Media and public scepticism about business seems at an all-time high…

Last week, Dan Currell of Corporate Executive Board spoke at the RSA on Doing Better Business – business integrity, transparency and profitability. (There were four other speakers on the podium, but, frankly, they added little.)

Currell was discussing recent research by CEB across over 500,000 employees in 130 organisations, which identified seven factors (out of 200 investigated) which mitigate against wrong-doing by employees or the organisation, and are indicators of an ethical organisation culture. These factors are

  • comfort speaking up
  • trust in colleagues
  • direct manager leadership
  • ”tone” at the top
  • clarity of expectations
  • openness of communications
  • organisational justice

I don’t think any of these are surprising: if one were to describe a positive, healthy organisation culture, these features would probably feature high on the list. (Indeed, the research by CEB supports a service they provide, which includes a “cultural audit”.) Of all seven factors, the first – “comfort speaking up” – apparently trumped all the others. Again, not necessarily surprising – the seven factors may be pretty well linked – if you are comfortable speaking up, the others are likely to be in place, too. An ethical culture may be embodied by comfort at speaking up (which would make it pretty easy for an organisation to assess).

The interesting thing was the relationship between “integrity”, measured on these factors, and ten-year shareholder return – a highly significant (p < 0.01) correlation of 0.58. Those organisations that score highly for integrity also make more money shareholders over the medium term.

Of course, as Currell acknowledged, correlation is not causation: it could be that integrity causes organisations to be more profitable, or both are caused by another factor – or, as someone in the audience pointed out, maybe only highly profitable organisations can afford an open, trusting culture. Currell’s money was on the second – that good management fosters both an open culture and a profitable organisation. With a healthy, ethical organisation culture, these features are likely to form positive feedback – management will recruit those who fit and promote the culture; employees are more likely to listen and act on customer feedback; and managers will manage their staff in ways that reinforce the culture.

My thoughts on ConnectingHR Unconference3… #CHRU3

Last week I went ConnectingHR Unconference 3 – #CHRU3 to its friends. I went to the first ConnectingHR unconference a year ago, though I had to miss the second event in the spring.

The theme this time around was “The Future of Work”. Given rising unemployment, increasing lifetime work (and decreasing pensions funding) and changes in the nature of careers, it seemed like a pretty prescient theme.
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As seems to be common in these kind of events, we started off discussing some very open questions to get our mental facilities going and to help us come up with topics for discussion later. The first up was “what’s good about work?” The table I was at debated what work actually meant – how were we meant to interpret the question? (Being an unconference, of course, it was down to us to decide…) The answers to this preliminary included parenting, volunteering, hobbies and community activity as well as paid employment – though we generally concentrated on the latter, since that seems to be how society defines it. It is a spectrum, though.

Back to that first question, then: what IS good about work? Work is many different things to different people. My table came up with a long list: variety; social; money; security; routine; learning; something to keep us occupied; helping others succeed; making a difference; providing a purpose and identity; a sense of belonging and community; ambition; achievement.

Most of these are covered by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – things which we need to feel fulfilled. The interesting thing for me is that these needs can be met in many different ways – not just through employment: those other things we identified as “work” can go a long way to filling any gaps left in our needs by paid work – though to meet the most basic of Maslow’s pyramid – the physiological and safety needs – in our society we generally need money, and for the majority that means paid employment.

The second question was the flipside, then: “what is bad about work?”. A long list, again: stress; lack of skills; [rigid] job descriptions; unemployment; underemployment; perceived value; self esteem; how others value you; other people; tribal competition. There must be more. Many of these seem to reflect the social side of work – how others see us and, specifically, value us. For many people, their own sense of value stems from others’ perception. In a capitalist environment, society puts a financial value on our labour. The unemployed may think that they have no value.

Then we were asked what was perhaps the clincher, given the first two: “what would you like to change about work?” This was a bit like opening the flood gates. Here we go: discipline; company culture; society [let’s start big!]; creating a healthy environment; bad management; communication; focus – and identify – the real problems; give people the time to think; litigious culture; create organisations that value their staff; trust; innovation.

The last question is possibly the simplest: “what blocks change?” Another interesting set of responses: fear; uncertainty; risk aversion; organisation culture; mind-set; the economy; media; a lack of self-awareness; lack of time; loss of middle managers and their experience; politics, both internal and external.

I think any one of the points from any of these four lists could be expanded at length, and many of them are open to interpretation – the debate on, say, “bad management” could go off in all sorts of directions.

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Whilst we pondered and decided on topics for the afternoon unconference sessions, there was a panel discussion with a difference. The event was held in the Spring, and one of the projects they run is helping unemployed graduates: several from this group sat in front of us and described their experiences. They were an impressive bunch, articulate and passionate. It must have taken a lot for them to sit in front of 70-odd professionals and discuss their feelings at facing rejection after more than 100 applications. Darius Norrell, one of the people behind the Spring, suggested that any process in which one party get nothing from it has to be wrong: most candidates receive a rejection with no feedback whatsoever. The only outcome is demoralisation – probably on both sides: companies don’t really have recruiters, they have rejectors.

There were tales of typical system dysfunction. Two stick in my mind: graduates told that to be successful, they have to be really focussed in their applications – but to qualify for jobseekers allowance (and presumably other benefits too) they have to prove that they are actively applying for as many jobs as possible; and the large number of applicants for graduate jobs – ie roles for people fresh out of college – told that they didn’t have enough experience. Life is tough for graduates seeking a role.

There were several recruiters in the audience, and they seemed pretty determined to change the way they work – which would be a good start.
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I volunteered to run two conversations in the unconference session. The first – conceived before the session with the graduates – was around how society and workers cope with periods of un- and under-employment. (I can’t actually remember wording I used on the grid of sessions!) I didn’t (and still don’t) have strong views, but I think it is something that we will need to come to terms with. As a freelancer, I can spend long periods when I am not doing paid work; with UK unemployment at 2.6 million (8.1% of the workforce) at the end of August, nearly 1 million of whom are aged under 24, the impact on society could be large.

Needless to say, there were no answers. Periods of unemployment need not be unproductive: several people talked about using volunteer work to obtain new skills and maintain self-esteem and social contact – the “work habit”, perhaps – when society seems to not value our contribution.

The issue of youth unemployment is acute. At a time of high unemployment, 45% of business find it hard to recruit people and report that applicants have poor literacy and numeracy skill (among others). The need for experience before candidates are considered for positions explains the rise internships (and is presumably explained by increasing competition for prestigious jobs), and there was a discussion of the morality of internships – generally these were viewed dimly, limited to those who can afford to work for next to nothing – previously fulfilled by volunteering, now expanded into profitable businesses. It was suggested that making loans or grants available for interns might redress the balance in favour of the less-priveleged.

There were ideas of projects to tackle both unemployment and the bleak nature of high streets in the recession by using empty retail spaces for other types of enterprises, like Spacemakers does. (I worry that there is a danger that volunteering and pop-up enterprises may actually exacerbate unemployment and the recession by crowding out “for profit” enterprises: it would be interesting to know if there have been any studies on that.)

The other session I convened followed on from the third and fourth questions earlier (as well as my interest in organisation culture): what kind of culture makes organisations open to change and innovation? This was another wide ranging discussion. The difficulty of organisations to articulate their culture, and for the actual culture to reflect the espoused culture, featured: to what extent do senior managers really affect the culture on the shop floor? They clearly influence the culture – they set out the foundations – but their vision and values can be diluted by the time they trickle down. (Perhaps another advantage of flatter structures – senior managers’ ability to influence culture?)

The consensus seemed to be that organisations able to adapt to change and innovate would have high trust systems; embedded vision, values and culture promoting openness, listening, and accountability without fear; reward and performance management processes that reflect the values rather than work against them; and essentially embody “the learning organisation”. They’d need to value ideas, recognise and value individual and team contributions, and have a clear view of the behaviours desired in their staff and managers.

I also went to sessions on digital literacy (using digital tools to facilitate communication across teams and to promote collaboration); and using social media in organisations (more specific than the previous session, this looked at specific tools that can be implemented) – these sessions covered much of the ground that the unconference sessions of Tweetcamp did.
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It was a great day – it is impressive what a bunch of people can do in a day. I do have one major quibble, though. The theme for the day was the future of work – the new world of work; it was only after the sessions had closed that I realised there hadn’t been any discussion about the future of work per se – no one painted a picture of what the future of work might look like. Since at an unconference the delegates dictate what will be discussed, I accept my share of the blame for this… But it would have been useful to have some debate. Instead, I think I shall have to paint my own picture in a future blog post…

A Conversation on Public Sector Change…

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a friend who works in public sector change, and we talked about lots of issues around the topic, in which I have been interested for the last year or so. [My friend asked not to be identified.]

My main concern is that, given the scale of cuts to the public sector in this country – traditional cost cutting mechanisms familiar to anyone working in either the public or private sector over the last decade or so won’t work: you can’t “salami-slice” 25% of your costs away without the system seizing up. The complexity of public sector service provision appears to be such that something has to give: it is like that game where you have a tangle of sticks, and try to remove them, one by one: quite quickly the pile becomes unstable. Things could collapse.

What is needed is a different way of looking at the system – and a different way of structuring it – a complete rethink of the way services are provided. Despite recently meeting some very impressive public sector change managers at Tuttle a few months ago (I believe they came from Lambeth, though I couldn’t swear that), I’m worried that to come up with cuts quickly, most public sector service providers will instead do things the way they have always done them. Indeed the culture of the organisations they work in will drive them to this – they have neither the time nor, perhaps, the skills to think through how to do things differently.

Unfortunately, my friend wasn’t able to change my mind: indeed, he seemed as concerned as I was.

There were, my friend felt, many ways in which money could be saved: he believed that a lack of joined up thinking in the public sector wasted many billions of pounds. For example, local councils are responsible for social care of the elderly, the local NHS trusts for medical care; some simple interventions by local councils which could keep the elderly out of hospital were often put in place, because the council could save money by not doing so (at the expense of the NHS). [To counter this, my friend told me a great story of an enlightened local council that gave residents in care-homes a new pair of slippers every year – and, in doing so, reduced the number of falls those residents have, and the number of and length of hospitals stays they require.]

Early intervention appears to be more effective than late; but when money is short, late intervention becomes the rule – crisis management, if you like. This wastes money and time – and with headcount being cut, time isn’t always available. I was told another story of a local authority which had analysed in detail where their money went; it turned out a number of “chaotic families” were responsible for millions of pounds of local authority expenditure across a range of services – housing, social services, education and public order. It would have been much cheaper to send the children from such families to public (ie fee paying) schools and to rehouse the families in hotels. Though expect they might then have spent a fortune defending their actions from the Daily Mail onslaught… Instead of such drastic action, early interventions, joined up across several authority functions, could have saved the authority a lot of money, but the cuts had made this is less rather than more likely: functional managers are responsible for their own budgets, not for enabling other departments realise savings. Managers have a “guilty knowledge” of total saving that could have been made.

There are many services that local authorities have a legal obligation to provide. With funding short, they have to prioritise. It isn’t possible to make any cuts without affecting people (particularly if you are trying to do things the same way – that is, “salami slicing”). People – a service’s users – complain. It is easy to understand why a council such as Brent would seek to cut library services, since the real pain of removing access is less than, for instance, cutting social services. On the other hand, users of library services may be a bit more savvy than users of social services – they know how to use the courts to their advantage.

There are two other players in all this: central government and the media. The government largely controls local authority income: it funds local authorities by government grant and has recently frozen council tax. (Councils can also raise funds through other services, such as parking.) By freezing council tax, central government is stopping discussion of council funding as part of the democratic process – even if voters wanted to pay more for local services through increased council tax, they can’t. Council tax raises only about 25% of council funding (according to DirectGov.co.uk), so councils would have to increase council tax considerably to make up for other government cuts.

Political interference by central government is rampant. Eric Pickles communities and local government secretary (an appointment which isn’t mentioned in the biography on his website), makes frequent pronouncements on the priorities for local government – which is his job – but frequent changes of priority make planning difficult for local authorities. (Personally, I believe that the best place to make decisions on priorities for local communities are at a local level; but I am not certain that the population as a whole trust their local representatives with these decisions. They may be right.)

The media also plays a big part, because they have the create a storm, divert attention and – perhaps – ruin careers. This may sound melodramatic but Sharon Shoesmith, Haringey’s former head of education, was fired by Ed Balls, then Children’s Minister, following a firestorm of media criticism over the death of Baby P. The Department of Education and others lost an appeal (and the right to further appeals) over their action. Devolving decision making to local authorities creates a lot of media heat – the cliché of the postcode lottery as a media scandal is rampant. Frankly, a postcode lottery is exactly what one should expect from local authorities making decisions for their communities, and no one should be surprised that local priorities differ.

Of course it is important that public officials are accountable for their actions, and the media are one of the ways that we can hold elected officials accountable. Scrutiny is important; but it needs balance

This leads to another barrier to change in public services: it can make managers overly risk averse, even when change is needed. My friend told of a meeting with an elected council member during which the councillor bellowed “find out who is responsible for this blame culture – and fire them!” Surprisingly, no one around the table held a mirror up to the elected representative.

A culture of risk aversion and resistance to change may become engrained in an organisation – and when that organisation is trying to change radically, that is a dangerous combination. Trying to bring about change in such a risk averse organisation is a difficult proposition. Not many people would be keen to take on the task, and those within such an organisation are not likely to be up to taking it on.

Which brings us back to the salami slicer as a way to make cuts…

It was a pretty gloomy conversation, all in all. There are clearly pockets of clear thinking – the people I spoke to from (perhaps) Lambeth, my friend themselves – and, surprisingly, the private sector: apparently, some large companies working with the public sector have some bright ideas, in part because they can have a longer term view than those within the public sector. (I foresee media comments about “back-door privatisation”…)

Whatever happens, I hope those working for change in the public sector get it right: many things within our society ride upon it.

“Is It Time To Get Tough On The Press?” – a discussion at the LSE

Like many people, I have been gripped by the news about News International and the News of the World over the last two weeks. It is an ever-changing story – the latest is Rupert Murdoch’s apology to the Dowler family, following hot on the heals of Rebekah Brooks’ resignation – and I just heard of Ms Brooks’ arrest. It is a tale of hubris and arrogance on a Shakespearean scale. [There has been a Twitter meme since I wrote this attributing Shakespeare quotations to Murdoch – #shakespeare4murdoch] “Hackgate” is entertaining; and it is all over the media. When the media becomes the main story on the media – you know something is wrong.

On Wednesday, I went to a discussion on the phone hacking scandal at the LSE, arranged by Polis. (Having spent many years in Scotland, polis has different connotations, but that’s also relevant to the discussion…) The title of the discussion was “is it time to get tough on the press”? I say discussion, because although billed as a debate, the panel were pretty unanimous; and whilst they didn’t actually cover the title, they discussed the current situation – or as it was on Wednesday afternoon – widely.

In a way, I’m not surprised that it wasn’t a debate: who would have opposed the motion? The panel Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust (which is running a campaign called Hacked Off); Paul Staines, better known as blogger Guido Fawkes; lawyer Charlotte Harris; and journalist David Aaronovitch – he writes for the Times, owned by News International.

Despite the potential for conflicts of interest, Aaronovitch probably gave the most coherent and objective view of what had gone on in the press over the past few years. I shan’t go into who said what, but here are my takeaway messages…

  • this is the latest in a series of crises to rock the British establishment – politicians, banks, celebrities and now journalists – “the fourth estate”. Societal expectations of transparency and openness, in part facilitated by social media, and the ease of transmission of information have contributed to the impact of these crises

  • the phone hacking scandal isn’t about regulation – it is about ethics and morality. The Press Complaints Commission was roundly denounced as failing and toothless, but the phone hacking undertaken by one or more journalists or newspapers was illegal anyway. Even if it were legal – as Ms Harris pointed out it was when the story of Ulrika Jonsson’s relationship with Sven-Goran Eriksson broke – that wouldn’t make it right. The Sun may not have broken the law when it put the medical details of Gordon Brown’s son on its front page, but I believe it was still unambiguously wrong to do so
  • it wasn’t just the News of the World or News International that was acting in such a way. Staines raised the Information Commissioner’s Office 2006 report, “What Price Privacy Now? ” [pdf], which found the Daily Mail the worse offender identified by Operation Motorman to have breached the Data Protection Act (see table on p9 of the report); the News of the World was fifth; the list of publications undertaking illegal activities includes “quality papers” such as the Observer and the Sunday Times. It would be naive to believe that on NotW or News International was involved in phone hacking or other illegal activity
  • not all journalists are unethical or immoral. Aaronovitch said that the Sunday Times was offered the documents that led to the exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, but turned down the opportunity of a scoop because they were stolen; the Daily Telegraph took up the offer, and in publishing them changed the political landscape (and I believe they were right to do so – there is no simple black-or-white in these issues). The scandal of hacking at NotW came to the surface largely because of the relentless doggedness of the Guardian’s Nick Davies
  • readers are complicit: we buy the newspapers that print stories based illegally gathered material, and such stories are published because of the commercial pressures facing newspapers. The recent issues arising from “super-injunctions”, and the public’s response to them (largely ignoring the injunctions and implying a right to know everything), are diametrically opposed to the issues coming out of hackgate – clearly, we as consumers of the news want to have our cake and to it eat it… We get the press we deserve
  • politicians are complicit, too: Staines pointed out that the lobby system by which specific journalists are given privileged access in return for non-attribution is itself corrupt and makes politicians unaccountable (a point strongly made by Heather Brooke in her recent book The Silent State); to see politicians now with knives out for journalists seems rather hypocritical
  • the police are deeply implicated, too. The police investigations, and the admission by Rebekah Brooks that the police were paid for information (both illegal and against the editors’ code of practice), implicate the involvement of the police. Harris told several stories of trying to get evidence for her clients from the police investigating breaches of privacy – and the extent of the obstruction

The discussion covered a lot in a short time – and the panel felt they had only just scrapped the surface: they believed the various investigations and inquiries would uncover more wrong-doing.

I have two thoughts of my own, prompted but not covered by the discussion.

Firstly, hackgate seems largely to be a failure of corporate governance: Brooks claims not to have been aware of the activities of her reporters when she was editor of NotW; James Murdoch sanctioned payments to settle privacy claims as executive chairman of News International (News Corps UK arm). These are (or were) senior corporate officers of News Corp.
Much of the hackgate scandal has focused on Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch. The latter has been described as owning News Corporation, and it seems like he treats it as a family business. It is a business with nearly $33bn revenues (2010); it had $8bn and a balance sheet of $40bn on 30 June 2010. This is a big organisation, operating around the world. In August 2009, Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family trust owned between them approximately 80% of the voting (class B) shares and 1% non-voting (class A) shares. News Corporation’s Board of Directors and management are committed to strong corporate governance and sound business practices – apparently. Like the banking crisis within the UK, the board and investors were happy to sanction – or at least turn a blind eye to – unethical and potentially illegal activities when it made them money. Now they too need to be brought to account.

Secondly, the irony of unregulated bloggers – like me! – writing about the regulated press seems deeply ironic.

We Will Overcome: some recent workarounds…

I work a lot in organisations which I think could work more effectively. Indeed, it seems almost like a mantra that “organisations are dysfunctional”.

Often it is in little ways.

I had a meeting with a client the other day at their newly refurbished location. The client had wedged the door open. Everyone did that he said, because the door had an automatic closer on it, to keep it shut. But everyone liked to have their doors open, so they could see what was going on outside their offices and catch up with people as they walked past. Since they are fire doors – it is an old building – because everyone had their doors open all the time, closers were fitted to make sure the doors were kept shut. Now everyone wedges their doors open. My client said he was expecting an email any day now outlawing door wedges…

In a different, open-plan office of the same organisation, wherever I look there are reams of printer paper on desks – still wrapped up. Under people’s monitors. On top of their monitor-risers. Everyone uses a pile of paper to raise their monitor to a useable height, because the monitor-risers are too low. This is a great work-around, using an easily available (and recyclable!) material; but it is a lousy use of a stock of paper.

The same organisation has decided to remove individual wastepaper baskets and centralise the waste disposal. Perhaps this cuts costs and helps people recycle more. So now everyone keeps empty, used, paper tea and coffee cups on their desks, which they fill slowly with their daily detritus.

In three different ways, people have come up with ways around solutions imposed by the organisation. People are very resourceful. Even when they shouldn’t have to be…

Intimate Discussions at School of Everything Unplugged…

The School of Everything Unplugged weekly meetup is the scene of some very interesting conversations and discussions (and I am trying to document them as a record of my learning…). One of the most thought provoking – though also ambiguous and, perhaps, inconclusive (it is the meetup’s style to leave outcomes open-ended; it is about the conversations – the process – rather than the answers!) – was about our concepts of intimacy. Actually, I say “one of the most”, but it was actually two sessions: we’d arranged for Cassie Robinson to come and lead a discussion on intimacy, but the first time around she was unable to make it, so we improvised and had a discussion about intimacy anyhow; and then, a couple of weeks ago, Cassie came and we had a second discussion.

They were very different sessions – in the first, it was the blind leading the blind as we struggled to build a mutual understanding, in the second Cassie talked about her work in this area.

“Intimacy” is a difficult subject, too. We each have our own understanding of the word, internalised, and it is hard to avoid lengthy discussions about semantics. (I thought about having a dictionary definition of intimacy here, but I think I like the ambiguity…) Everyone’s experience is different: families differ, educations differ, cultures differ. It is hard to separate ideas of intimacy from ideas of sex – never an easy topic to discuss in public, with people one barely knows. Indeed, I am writing this in a public space, very aware of those around me and conscious that some of the websites I look up have the potential to offend onlookers… (Anthropologist Kate Fox has a lot to say about the impact of English culture on our general inability to hold any kind of serious conversation in “Watching the English” – she calls it “our social dis-ease” – and has a whole section dealing with sex.)

There is also the illusion of intimacy created through our use of online social media and the internet generally. Things that were once private are freely shared – not only our marital status, for instance, but whether we are interested in seeking other relationships. Virtual worlds like Second Life add another level of illusion and complexity…

On top of which, there may be generational differences, too – societal attitudes to intimacy must have changed hugely in the last fifty years.

So: lots of big issues.

Several people at the first session had experienced living in different cultures, and brought a different perspective to our talk: we kept coming back to cultural aspects of intimacy – the way in which some cultures display friendship in a physical way.

One of the conversationalists had worked in the area of public health, and public sexual health; their take on intimacy at work was of course very different to some others’. The discussion of intimacy at work was fascinating, since different spheres create different expectations. The false intimacy created by people on the supermarket checkout being required to engage customers in conversation – the realm of emotional labour – to build customer engagement (and the discomfort this can create) compares to many corporations’ attempts to increase employee engagement. How much do we – should we – share with colleagues and customers?

Institutions and organisations aim to manage and control, often through hierarchies. This of course gives rise to consideration of power and politics. A teacher started discussing the issues faced when considering issues of intimacy in the classroom – especially in relation to physical contact between teacher and pupil.

Someone else raised the issue of intimacy between pupils: a school head had asked for advice about “sexting” between pupils, and was disconcerted by the assertion that this was simply an extension of age-old adolescent sexual exploration by new means; and probably uncontrollable.

Our discussion was very broad – we were exploring what we meant by intimacy (and I am still not sure that there I understand what we came up with). Cassie brought a bit more discipline to the conversation. She is part of a research project Our Intimate Lives, exploring intimacy in a variety of contexts. Cassie is interested in physical intimacy as an expression of sexuality and how this affects society and ourselves. (Can one have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy? Just a thought.) The increased commoditisation of sexuality and its transmission in society by the media has led to confusion in a variety of contexts. The free availability of sexual images increases this.

Cassie also believes that an open expression of intimacy and sexuality – our “true sexual identity” – is key to our eudaemonic wellbeing. This of course is – intimately – related to sexual politics. The circumstances in which one chooses to share and explore one’s sexuality – particularly whether it is something one chooses to keep private. (The recent tragedy of David Law’s resignation after he was outed by a national newspaper following an investigation into his expenses claims sprang to mind.)

This raises broader questions of identity, too: the extent to which our view of intimacy and sexuality is tied to views of our identity. There was a discussion about whether one has “one true self”, and how ideas of “self” were mediated by society and culture. In the digital world, where it is possible to have multiple (and often anonymous) personas, the public and the private is often confused or merged: we may have multiple “selves”, some of which may be public.

In different situations, we may have a different view of “self”. Many artists have shared their view of “self” – the self-portrait has been a staple of art for centuries (if only because oneself is the cheapest, most available model). But many artists choose to share themselves in a very open way – Jo Spence’s photographs documented her life with breast cancer in a raw, seemingly unedited form (though of course clearly edited and curated to provide a particular picture). [Cindy Sherman’s work may be seen as the antithesis of this, deliberately assuming a variety of anonymous identities in her self-portraits.]

These discussions raised many more questions than the answers they provided; thinking about the possible answers is probably just the start…

ConnectingHR – a most unconference unconference

Last week saw ConnectingHR’s unconference. I like unconferences – I’ve been to a few – they are more engaging than most conferences, and one learns more. What unconferences lose in expertise, they gain in energy: no more people standing at the front telling one the way it is. The unconference format means that the agenda is designed by participants on the day, and anyone can instigate a session. Most sessions are fully participative – a discussion rather than a pitch. And if one feels one isn’t getting anything from a session, you can move to another.

There is something creating an event on the fly – improvising the discussions: making it up as we go along. It is hard to be a free-rider at an unconference: the very idea is to get involved, and if you are not going to get involved, you probably aren’t going to be there anyway.

The only problem is the (very deliberate) lack of organisation means that interesting sessions clash; and so it was. One can’t get to everything.

In keeping with the improvised vibe, the unconference was held in a former factory – the Spring, in Vauxhall. (As well as being near Spring Gardens, it apparently used to be a bed factory. Geddit?) Aside from the cold, this was a great space, well suited to the use we put it to.

The focus of the day was very open, but since ConnectingHR had previously organised tweetups and done a lot of publicity through blogs and Twitter, one of the major topics was social media: most participants could be found on Twitter, and we covered ways in which social media could be used by organisations to communicate, both with customers and their workers. The implications for organisations could be very important.

There were twenty five slots, with five sessions being run simultaneously. I lead one session on “innovation through conversation”, which I think I will make a separate post.

The major theme for me from the rest of the day was that what organisations will be able to do with social media depends a lot on their culture – it is all about culture. As Sam Lizars tweeted on the day,

All conversations coming back to the same thing. Get the culture right – social media behaviour will follow

This might be because I went to the sessions which interested me, too – and I can get obsessive about organisation culture!

But social media represent just another way of communicating: if an organisation is good at communication, and uses lots of tools to communicate internally and externally, they’ll probably see how they can use social media. If they are rigid, bureaucratic and silo-based, they probably won’t – and if they tried, it would probably fail. Social media is just another tool: a blank sheet of paper. If you trust an organisation’s communications, if they are open and honest and engaged, their use of social media will probably work.

(An aside: I heard a great story the other day about an organisation which was developing its social media strategy. The internal communications team required that all employees had their tweets signed off before tweeting!)

The session led by Sharon Clews was all about this: “trust, organisation culture and social media”. There were lots of stories – how one firm going through a major change ignored comments by staff and former staff posted on a YouTube version of their big ad; another on how a media company had used social media evangelists to drive a culture change following a merger of two very different cultures.

The number of firms with restrictive social media always surprises me. As someone – I think it was Bill Boorman in an open session – pointed out, social media policy shouldn’t be any different to any other media policy: if an organisation wants to manage its communications, it shouldn’t matter if it is in a newspaper interview, a press release, a letter to a customer – or a comment on a blog.

I agree – up to a point. Someone else said that it is impossible to police the internet: you can’t control what people say in the pub, and you can’t control what they say on Twitter, Facebook or any other platform.

For organisations, social media should be all about the conversation – with staff, partners or customers. It will reflect the management style. Done well, it could greatly increase engagement, building the shared experience – and reinforcing the culture. Because social media can be a great way to connect people, it should also increase collaboration. (It is this aspect, centred around learning and communities of expertise, that I think could pay most rewards).

Gavin McGlyne gave a couple of great examples of using social media in learning – and collaboration and culture change – in his “pecha kucha” presentation on work he had done with TGI Fridays. OK, TGIF isn’t my bag – much too full on, frankly – but hearing how they used videos and blogs on a recruitment site – which any employee could contribute to – was fascinating. Employees posted links to the work site on Facebook. They posted pictures of the crappy bits of the job – which management were happy about, because they needed people to do those bits as well as hyper-party stuff. And it linked different TGIF outlets. The only time it didn’t work is when TGIF outlet managers tried to manage what their staff would post: when they treated it as a campaign. Then, it fell flat on its face: giving employees a voice means giving them a real voice, and trying to control it will probably back fire.

(By the way, pecha kucha? Sounds too much like pressure cooker to me!)

Ollie Gardener had travelled all the way from Norway to talk to us; I’m glad she did. She lead another discussion, based on her pecha kucha, on social media and learning and development. My bag, really. I agreed with much that Ollie said. Traditional L&D is about creating organisational clones: people who have done the same courses to rise through the hierarchy. (Indeed, to my mind, selecting people for jobs using competency-based interviews results in a monoculture, a very unhealthy place to be.) Ollie reckons organisations need individuals to succeed, and social media can enable people to access the learning to create that. Through connections – a personal learning network, perhaps (or just a bunch of like minded people) – one can map one’s own path: social media as an enabler. Tools such as Twitter (or its internal equivalents – Yammer got a lot of name checks), social bookmarking, wikis and blogs can help people find learning resources and record their progress (many people talked about their learning blogs – and I guess this is one). This is learning merging with knowledge management – but informal. If an organisation is to develop a learning culture, this would be the way to go.

There was a discussion about corporate social responsibility – and I am a sceptic – and how social media can facilitate broader social connections.

This was a very interesting day, possibly preaching to the converted – but there was some great experience shared. One of the best things were the open sessions for reflection which Jon and Gareth – the energetic organisers and MCs – had built into the day. Sharing learning was what it was all about.