Category Archives: Conversations

Models, Metaphors and Analogies.

It is common to consider business structures by metaphors to other things. For instance, some people discuss organisations as if they are machines, where if you were to pull a handle a specific outcome will happen. Others consider societal models – battalions, tribes and so on. (Business leaders in particular seen to like military metaphors. Perhaps they like to imagine themselves as generals deploying the troops. Misguided, I’d say.) Yet others see medical metaphors, discussing organisations as if they were diseased bodies with issues to be cured.

Metaphors do serve a purpose: they help us to understand an organisation by thinking about it in a different way.

But they can also confuse. Organisations are made up of people, they are not strictly controlled and limited machines. They rarely work in the way you expect them to.

The more you know about the original subject of the metaphor, the weaker the metaphor can seem. There are two biological – botanical – metaphors that I have regularly come across that baffle me. Because I have been knowledgeable of botany (I have two degrees in the subject); and when I hear people using them, it seems that maybe the words don’t mean what they think they mean.

Let’s start with “rhizomes“. Rhizomes are, botanically, underground stems. They grow through the soil, occasionally putting up the visible bits of the plant. Iris have rhizomes; banana plants have rhizomes; bracken, the plant I am most familiar with, has rhizomes. I spent five years working with rhizomes. Whole hillsides can be covered by bracken, the visible fronds rising up from the subterranean rhizome. The rhizome grows through the soil, occasionally dividing, unseen. It divides and divides, growing on. The old rhizome rots away, and, reaching a dividing point, the divided rhizomes become two separate (though genetically identical, save for any random mutations that might have occurred).

Not a rhizome.
Photo by Tylerfinvold on Wikimedia, used under CC free licence GFDL.

When people talk to me about organisations with rhizome structures, what I see is a hillside covered in bracken, the rhizomes underground. True, it might be that my knowledge of bracken and other rhizomatous plants fogs the discussion somewhat. I’m sure that’s not the meaning they intended. But then I can’t help thinking maybe I know more about rhizomes than they do. And perhaps they should use a different model.

Not a “mycelium“, though. Mycelia might be considered to be the fungal equivalent of rhizomes. They are one of the fundamental parts of many (though not all) fungi: they grow as unseen filaments through a substrate – the soil, a dead tree, your skin. (Athlete’s Foot is a fungal infection, the fungus mycelia growing in your skin.) Mycelia are multi nucleate – fungi have a very different form to most organisms we’re familiar with – and they divide and reconnect. The visible parts of fungi we’re familiar with, mushrooms and toadstools growing above the ground, are specialised reproductive structures formed from mycelia: the fibres of the mushrooms we eat are composed of mycelia.

Not a mycelium.
Photo by chris_73Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When business people talk to me about mycelium organisation structures, what I see is athlete’s foot, or a fairy ring, the outward sign of fungal mycelia growing out from a point in the soil.

I can’t help but wonder what it actually is that they’re trying to describe, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. (I have tried to understand, but the use of the word seems woolly; I got several pages in on Google before I found a definition, unclear as it is.)

The thing is, the mental models we create to explain and describe the world matter. If we think of organisations using a doctor-patient metaphor, it will lead to examining them in that way; if we instead use a mechanical metaphor, or a military one, we will find something different.

There’s no right answer, of course. Models, metaphors and analogies help us investigate the world around us. But they also skew our thinking. And they need to be used with care.

Talking ‘Bout A Referendum…


A couple of weeks ago, a friend said that they hadn’t heard any good reasons to vote “No” in this week’s referendum. Sensing a challenge, I started to write a post, outlining the reasons why I’m going to vote “No”. But it didn’t get very far, in large part because my feeling was that the two sides are so fed up that they have long given up listening to each other, instead spouting repetitive tracts to their own supporters and completely missing the undecideds who may well determine what looks like being a very close result. The gulf between the two sides seems larger than ever, despite my belief that actually not much separates us, and that both sides truly want the best for Scotland.

It also seemed hard to believe that there were any undecideds left after what feels like years of fact-throwing.

I have certainly stopped listening, even to my own side, whose negative tactics have lived up the “No” on their posters. So when I was asked to come up with an introductory question to kick off the seasonal dialogue – which is all about listening – that was the topic I chose. I remembered the last of the James plays which I saw during the festival, full of nationalist fervour but also using the mirror tool to reflect the of the nation. I thought about using Burns’ ” To A Louse” as an opening text – “to see oursels as ithers see us!” – but instead, being me, I opted for music: Arvo Pärt’s quietly reflective “Spiegel im Spiegel” (“The Mirror in the Mirror”) to get us listening to each other.

The purpose of the evening wasn’t to discuss the referendum per se, but talk (and listen) about how we can heal the split between two camps after the vote: what would it take for us to listen to others’ views?

But the conversation inevitably strayed into the referendum itself. It was very civil and non-partisan (despite one member of the group apologising for being too stridently partisan – I didn’t think he been!) but understandably emotional. People have strong feelings about this, including me.

There were a great many different views: since we could all see good and bad things about both sides the debate, there were more views than participants. We talked for a couple of hours, and I can’t remember all that was said – we followed lots of tangents.

But here are some of my impressions – what I remember of what I heard (which may not be what was said…).

  • even after two years of campaigning, we were still very engaged in the process (even if we were looking forward to it being over)
  • there were several people who were undecided. My guess is that the group split three ways – “yes”, “no” and “don’t know” about a third each
  • we all wanted to create something better – a better country, a better society, a better community – even if the route (and perhaps the goal) may be different.

The number of undecideds surprised me. I have been pretty sure how I would vote for many months, having listened to early arguments and found them generally unconvincing. Everyone in the discussion last week was intelligent, aware and actively participating in the debate – but hadn’t been convinced either. One person felt they had had an epiphany that very morning and had decided how they would vote whilst sitting in the sunshine in their garden; but they have subsequently changed their mind. (I included them in my unscientific poll as “don’t know”!)

None of the undecided were quite sure what it would take for them to make a choice

Someone else, an expat from a European state, didn’t feel comfortable having a say in determining another nation’s future (despite believing they would never live anywhere else). I have heard that a lot from English-born voters, too. But the rules say you have a vote – so I reckon you should use it.

In many ways, this felt like many conversations I have had over the last year or so. Perhaps a bit more intense – more listening and more concentrating – but in essence, the same kind of discussion I’ve had over pints in pubs or over coffee in a cafe.

Within 48 hours, we’ll know the outcome – the result is expected around 7am on Friday. And then we can get down to rebuilding relationships and – perhaps – building a new country. Either way, I think we’ll have to learn to listen to each other again.

What unites us is a lot more than what divides us.

[Nb I have revised the last paragraph of this post since it was brought to my attention that I had said precisely the opposite of what I intended. This is what I wanted to say. One word wrong completely changed the meaning. And that is why one should respect sub-editors!]

Some Thoughts About Unconferences…

I spent several hours during the summer at two conferences – both very interesting, and of different topics, but in the same building which has a classical lecture theatre with a raked auditorium; both conferences featured talks followed by short Q&A. This seemed somewhat ironic, given that both were about change (one technological, the other political): the format of these conferences was one that had remained constant for decades, with one person lecturing to the audience, who sat and listened.

I mentioned to someone in the coffee break how it might have been beneficial to have more participation and engagement – after a day and a half in the lecture theatre, I certainly needed it – and I started to talk about the unconference format. My friend hadn’t come across the idea of an unconference before, and as I tried to explain it, I thought I must have blogged about it before and told her I’d send a link.


It turns out I was wrong. I have written about several unconferences before – BarCamp and another BarCamp, ConnectingHR. and another ConnectingHR, TweetCamp, and BarCampBank, for instance – but I have only obliquely written about unconferences per se.

This post aims to put that right. (Also, I have just read Lloyd’s post asking what people would like an unconference about.)

Unconferences sprang out of the experience that many conference goers have – that the real value of some conferences comes from the conversations over coffee and lunch rather than the lectures themselves. Lectures didn’t engage and could inhibited discussion – one person standing at the front of a room of peers holding forth.

The first unconference-like events I attended were corporate events to aid organisation change programmes, using open space technology. (The “technology” here refers to the process – just as a stone can be technology, and a pencil can be technology. Some of the best open space events I have been to have been the most lo-tech; and the best technology talk I have been to used no technological aids at all!). The grounds rules for open space events are (as far as I remember them…)

  • it starts when it starts
  • the people who are there are the right people to be there
  • everyone has to be prepared to contribute to the discussion
  • when it’s over, it’s over (so don’t keep going over the same issue if you have sorted it out)
  • “the rule of two feet” – it is fine to get up and walk away, either because you want to hear another talk or because you feel you have nothing to add to the one you’re at

The same apply for unconferences, and they have some very profound effects. They are very empowering: there is no one controlling the discussion. The agenda is decided by the participants: an unconference is “self-organised”: if there’s is nothing on the agenda that interests you, do something about it! Start your own session – even if it is “Nothing else interests me – what should we talk about?” You don’t need to ask anyone permission. You are only there because you want to be.


There is a paradox, though: unconferences happen because someone – the lead-organiser, perhaps – has decided there is something worth discussing – a central topic. (This is not the case for BarCamps.) So there is an element of curation. And self-organised doesn’t mean disorganised: there is usually a lot of pre-event organisation which, I imagine, takes a lot of work. Someone has to find the space, find sponsorship, sort out catering, and so on. (I am sure it would be possible to do without some or all of these things, but not for an unconference of any size.)

But the day itself is self-organised. That agenda – it is decided by participants offering to run sessions, slotted into a skeleton timetable. And there can be “wash-up” sessions, so people can share anything they have learned.

There is one last common feature of open space events that is not necessarily found in unconferences. Open space events are often focused on action and change, and one of the outcomes is therefore a list of actions. An unconference may produce an agenda for change, but it is often more personal change rather than organisational – people taking away their own change.

Because of the participation and the large amount of sharing of ideas, unconferences can be very energising – and exhausting! I believe they work best when they attract people from many disciplines who come together to explore their ideas. If you want to learn how to do plumbing, don’t go to an unconference; but if you want to explore what different things you might be able to do with pipes – well, that’s sounds about perfect… An unconference can be very liberating!

(Here are a couple of posts I came across recently on others’ experiences at unconferences – one about a ConnectingHR event I wasn’t at, the other about a pair of events. It isn’t just me who finds these things empowering, energising and liberating!)

“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

Personal Learning Systems?

At a recent Everything Unplugged session (the Wednesday morning London meetup I went to), we discussed what systems and processes we use for learning. This struck me as being a bit too structured for me: I am not sure that my learning works like that. When I need to know something – a specific piece of knowledge for a bit of work, for example – I will either Google it (and start a trail of links, maybe making paper or digital notes as I go along) or ask someone (either face to face, on the phone, by email, Twitter or text message – indeed, whatever medium is the most appropriate for the person or the information).

Most of my learning, though, is adventitious and informal – accidental or serendipitous: things I come across in conversation or on the web, via Twitter or one of the many blogs I read. I may or more likely not record this learning: I don’t keep a record of what I read, although I do keep a pile of links I want to follow up on Twitter by favouriting (is that a verb? ‘Tis now…) others’ tweets. I also use Diigo for links I come across (and its mobile app, PowerNote) – and one can add tags and notes to Diigo (a real limit for Twitter, I think).

(Some definitions of learning require the setting of learning goals – most common in formal education and training. I don’t that on my own account: it is much more informal than that.)

I also use Evernote to write down ideas and lists of books and other things I want to follow up. (Evernote has distinct advantages to Diigo, I think – it is usable when one is not connected to the internet, and has much better text handling capabilities, I think – but Diigo is much better at bookmarking and tagging.)

I go to formal talks and lectures (the RSA has been a boon for this whilst I have been in London – I will be taking advantage of their live streaming and video channels in my new home) and have informal conversations at, say, Tuttle or Everything Unplugged which are nevertheless full of learning (and frequently more challenging than formal talks, since there is more feedback and exploration through questionning). I often blog about lectures, talks and conversations – one way I record and explore what what I have have learned – like this!

And then there are filed emails, my calendar, my (paper) diary and notebooks. (Paper has a lot of advantages for me over digital note taking: it helps me make connections and remember things better. I often make mindmaps, and those only work for me on paper; and in a lecture or a talk, using a device more sophisticated than a pen and paper distracts me from the talk itself! I can see that tablet devices – without a screen to get in between me and the speaker – might solve this; but pen and paper works just fine! I am not one of those people who can type faster than they write…)

So, not so much a system, more a random group of methods that seem to work for me in an unstructured, somewhat haphazard fashion.

Others in the Everything Unplugged group had a much more rigorous approach – indeed, Neil had come along to try out some of his ideas for developing a personal learning portfolio on us, which got us into the conversation. Using online and offline resources, for instance, one of the group has a structured workflow to manage his learning, including using Delicious as a bookmarking tool (similar to Diigo – I started to use bookmarking when the future of Delicious looked in doubt, though it now seems assured; someone mentioned a specific bookmarking service for learning, XTlearn, though I’ve not explored it) and TiddlyWiki as a note-taking tool. (TiddlyWiki looks great but I have failed to get it working properly on any of my devices – though I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the programme! Maybe I should give it another go.)

Creating a learning portfolio means that one would have a record of all relevant learning; someone reckoned that this – a summary of our learning – could be used in place of a standard CV – the summary of our experiences. Neil feels it will be able to identify matches for new roles and to examine knowledge, learning or skills gaps, which one could then plan to fill.

My main criticism was that such a record of learning shows neither the impact that something has had nor what we think of it. One may learn things which have absolutely no influence at all; other ideas may be highly influential and change the way one behaves. Simply recording what we’ve read, watched – learned – doesn’t differentiate. Maybe that is why people use CVs instead of a learning portfolio.

There are clearly some benefits to having a more structured approach to learning – not least being able to retrieve what one has learned. For long form research – writing a book, say – one would need to record all the references. But for every day, informal learning, an unstructured approach works for me: trying to codify it might make it more like work and less like fun.

Talking about Dialogic Learning…

Last week’s Everything Unplugged discussion was about dialogic learning. I first came across the term “dialogic” when I heard Richard Sennett talk at the RSA last month: Sennett contrasted dialogic against dialectic: the first involving discussion, listening, and understanding, the second involving argument, debate, confrontation, polarisation and adversarial stances.

Our discussion could be summed up by “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”: learning through discussion, sharing ideas and collaborating rather than the intervention of an expert (ie a teacher) to direct our learning and lead us to the truth, has clear benefits. But then we are a self-selected group of people with a clear interest in self-directed leaning through discussion. That’s what we were doing there. Of course it seemed obvious to us.

In part, we were talking more about the Wikipedia article on Dialogic Learning, which reads like an essay and really needs editing (which, somewhat hypocritically, I haven’t been bothered to do), rather than the concept of dialogic learning itself.

But despite perhaps being obvious to us, the idea of dialogic learning is useful. Sennett pointed out how it leads to collaboration rather than confrontation. It teaches people to think for themselves, perhaps in a creative fashion, making new connections and challenging established ideas – critical to innovation, perhaps.

At a time when schools are being criticised for schools are being criticised for failing to adequately prepare students for university and “teaching to the test“, dialogic learning could be a useful method.

We may all know this – but it doesn’t make it any less valid…

(David Terrar’s thoughts on our discussion can be found here.)

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.

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.


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.
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.
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, 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.

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…

“Learning Unplugged!”

This week, there seem to be lots of education conferences in town. There’s Education without Frontiers going in the City, BETT over in Olympia, and Be BETTR – a fringe event about “hacking education” – in the Conway Hall on Friday.

You won’t be surprised that Be BETTR sounds most like my kind of event, though I can’t make it…

But David, one of the organisers of the Wednesday morning learning meetup, is giving a talk there, and he decided to pull together his interviews on “agile learning” in paper form. Many of these interviews were done at the Wednesday sessions, and several of the regulars there helped David rework and edit the interviews and write further content; I did some sub-editing.

It was an interesting experience – and, necessarily, a learning one, too. It was good to have some concrete outcomes – to actually produce something from our sessions, albeit paper. It felt like creating something substantial. In these days of online content, it was also salutary to produce something readable on paper: it made me rethink what writing – be it in blogs, on twitter, or on paper – is actually for.

It also forced me to think hard about some aspects of our discussions: as I said before, we each come to the Wednesday morning sessions from different perspectives, and here we were trying to produce a document with a unifying vision and theme.

Reading "Learning Unplugged!" at Tuttle (photo: David Jennings)

David and others will be distributing copies over the next couple of days, but you can also read it online at David’s blog or read or download the PDF version.