Tag Archives: change management

“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.

“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.)

Two Changed Processes That Fail Badly

I have recently been surprised by the way two – very -different – process have been changed that make things way, way more difficult for the user.

Haringay Parking Permits

I live in Haringay, and like many other urban boroughs, there are parking restrictions. I don’t have a car, but I occasionally need visitors’ parking permits, which I can buy from the council.

How It Used To Work

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form
  • hand form to council worker
  • pay for the permits using credit card
  • receive permits from council worker, up to the limit I’m allowed if I so wish

There may have been an online option, but since this was the first time I needed permits and I needed some quickly, it made sense for me to pick them up from the office and register in person.

How It Works Now

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form detailing how many permits I wanted (32 in this instance)
  • hand form to council worker
  • council worker explains that they can’t take payment at the office
  • receive eight two-hourly permits from council worker – all she was allowed to distribute – without paying for them
  • another council workers makes repeated phone calls to my phone (which I ignore, because I don’t recognise the number)
  • council worker finally leaves a message on my voicemail
  • I call council back
  • I give the council worker my credit card details
  • council worker takes payment from my credit card
  • council worker puts 24 permits in an envelope (32-8, since I already took 8 permits)
  • council worker puts envelope in the post
  • postman delivers envelope
  • I receive permits

The whole process has been redesigned to create more touch points from the council, meaning much more work for them, much less convenience for me, and decreased security since I have to give my credit card details to someone over the phone (who could be using my card right now…). What’s more, they had to wait three weeks for their money: I wanted to give them money, and the council didn’t want it. It is, frankly, bonkers, and I can’t work out why they would have designed it the way they have: separating out the supply of permits from the payment, and restricting the number of permits that can be given in person, imply there were some issues with the face-to-face parts of the original process. How these were solved by greatly increasing the complexity – and the work done by the council – baffles me.

Photographs from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum

At last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, they had some great interactive software that allowed you to select your favourite pictures. They had something similar this year. Except that they completely broke it.

How It Worked Last Year

I think. As much as I can remember…

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • type in your email address
  • go home
  • log into email
  • open email
  • click links
  • look at favourite pictures online

Simple. Really.

How It Worked This Year

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • scan barcode on ticket stub
  • go home
  • go to http://www.nhm.ac.uk
  • click on the link to the exhibition
  • click on the link which said something like “how to view your favourite pictures”
  • type in 16 digit number from ticket stub – yes, a sixteen digit identifier – were they really expecting trillions of visitors?
  • register to join the Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year community”, which required giving my email address and a password (which must include an upper case character, a lower case character, and a number)
  • wait for them to send a confirmation email
  • log into email
  • click link to confirm my email address
  • log into the community site
  • look for the link to access my favourite photographs (which the instructions said would be at the bottom of the community page)

Guess what: no link, no photographs.

So the Natural History Museum took a process which was so simple it impressed me last year and did exactly what it needed to do – and which I raved about, sharing the photographs with friends and giving the exhibition free publicity – and ruined it.

What’s more, why do I require a password? Why does the museum make me choose a variety of characters to secure an account which I do not want with a community I have no interest in joining which contains no information about me except my email. What is the security risk? That someone might pretend to be me to look at some pictures which the system has singularly failed to deliver? (Actually, my guess is that the community is open to children of all ages, so they feel the need for some control: but their process has not verified my identify at all. And I am trying to imagine young children navigating this process.

The thing is, I can look at all the pictures without this process anyhow, by going to the exhibition’s online gallery. You could have told me that before going through all this bloody process!

The whole thing has been a waste of time.

I can only think that the Natural History Museum has been told by some social media consultant that they need to have a community, and that they have decided the best way to do this is to force visitors to the exhibition to do this.

Of course, maybe I have been doing something wrong. The process is so complicated – unnecessarily so – that I may have made a mistake. So I’ve just logged in again, following the instructions once more. No photographs, no link.

And apparently no way to delete my account.

Great job there.

What Is The Future of Work?

My one criticism of ConnectingHR Unconference3 was that no one really talked about “the future of work”, which I thought was the theme: it was a bit like we talked around the edges, leaving a theme-shaped hole in the middle…

In the spirit of the unconference, then, I thought I would put down my own thoughts on what work might look like in the future. I say my own thoughts, but frankly they probably all come from other people – not least The Economist, which recently had a special survey on the future of jobs – and people like Charles Handy have been writing about changing working structures for decades. None of this will be new. Most of it will probably be a bit random…

Of course, there will probably be many different futures for different people in different careers, and at different times. All futures are contingent. Some of these futures may even be reality now.

Here are two videos which aim to show two remarkably similar visions of a connected future at work and at home, by Microsoft and Ericsonn respectively:

These things may come true – they even be working as portrayed for a very few early adopters – but I believe that for most people in the world – probably even most people in the rich nations – these realities will never happen. (Please don’t get back to me in ten years’ time when it turns out this is exactly how we all live our lives…)

One of the many the futures of work may be no future at all: economist Chris Dillow has looked at the numbers, and reckons mass unemployment may be with us for a very long time. He reaches this conclusion on the basis of forecast of economic growth, which is way below the growth needed to reduce unemployment significantly. Thus, under- and unemployment are likely to be features of the work environment for a long time to come.

This may have major social implications, making competition for (some) jobs intense, perhaps reducing the income generated by work, and severely restricting applicants and employees expectations.

Another possible future may be an increase in the freelancing. Since I started freelancing a few years ago, the number of freelancers I know has increased dramatically. The use of job-websites such a elance and oDesk makes connecting freelancers or contract workers with their clients easier, and – for tasks that can be done anywhere – can cut costs. Why pay a freelancer in New York if you can pay one in Islamabad a tenth of the cost? Social networking sites like LinkedIn will play a part in this pattern too, oiling networking and building a contact base – maybe everyone will need their own CRM system to keep up with all their contacts (and potential clients and customers), too.

The Economist survey describes a world of micro-freelancers, in which tasks are broken down and bid (and paid) for in terms of minutes rather than hours or days – Amazon’s Mechanical Turk does this already, and yesterday I learned of two sites – TaskRabbit, which enables those with time on their hands (be they un- or underemployed) to do tasks that the rich, but time-poor, haven’t time to do, and CloudStaff, which provides virtual PAs based in the Philippines to anyone online anywhere. The Economist sees this as leading to a polarisation of work between “good jobs and commoditised ones in America and many other rich countries”, and describes a world in which

One strategy could be [for the unskilled] to find a high-flyer and stick close. Even if joining their posse is out of reach, there are still horses to be fed and watered. The time-poor new rich are generating demand for household staff, and this sort of work can be very well paid. A private secretary and general factotum can earn up to $150,000 a year nowadays. Salaries for standard butlers range from $60,000 to $125,000 and a head butler can make as much as $250,000, according to the website of the Butler Bureau.

This sounds like a return to a feudal society, with a increasing inequality across many measures.

Coupled with this is the flattening of organisations to the extent that they may become virtual – all the functions outsourced. I heard of a company yesterday that has only two people running it – a managing director and a sales manager, all the other functions being outsourced or bought in. This company was spun out of a university to capitalise on intellectual property created by academics, but other organisations can now do the same. Nike is seen as a popular manufacturer of training shoes and sports equipment, but it can also be envisaged as a specialised design company, with its other functions outsourced – notably manufacturing and distribution.

Much has been written about “portfolio careers” – I have certainly changed direction several times, and I reckon many freelancers would view that they have portfolio careers. It can be a very flexible lifestyle, but the freedom to do lots of different things is balanced by a lack of stability and security which would not suit everyone. (Not having responsibilities like a mortgage or children helps…) Many might view this new world as a frightening place, full of rapid change and lacking in security.

I remember a discussion I had twenty years ago with my then-boss in a consultancy. (I wasn’t a consultant – I was working in the finance function.) He described how he wanted to move the firm to a “donut” structure: a core of full-time employees, with associates to call on outside that, and freelancers to help on specific tasks: this was a variable resourcing model, where the firm didn’t have to pay for people to hang around (or to learn, or help others learn…) in slack periods. I don’t know if that company moved that way, but it seems to me that whilst the donut model would work well, not many organisations have adopted it. (What would you call a flat donut model? A pancake? The pitta end?)


I’m not quite sure where this leaves us: a myriad of future working patterns, with everyone someone on the spectrum of work from fulltime at one end through parttime to freelancing to unemployed at the other. Some people may just opt out altogether – my guess is that the black economy would prosper at a time of high unemployment and uncertainty. It sounds as if it will be a time of growing inequality. Alternatives might be sought – perhaps the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy LSX” movements are a symptom of that.

The internet may enable some people to prosper – putting buyers and sellers of services together, for instance – and may commoditise others’ skills. Maybe there will be a premium on those with social media skills. Anyone for blogging…?

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 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.

Changing Education: “Education for Uncertain Futures”

I have spent many months over the past few years working with public servants in the Scottish Government on change programmes in the education sector. I wasn’t designing or leading the change – there were pedagogues to do that – but I was responsible for programme management of some workstreams.

Change in the education sector is difficult. There are a lot of deep-rooted interest groups – parents, teachers, unions (surprisingly, learners rarely seem to get a look in…). The change happens in classrooms, far removed from the design and political drivers of change. There is a very long time lag – changing a school curriculum means changing the assessment and exam system. And the political pressures to tinker can be huge.

So changing education is difficult and complicated.

I was therefore really interested in a recent debate at the RSA entitled “Education for Uncertain Futures”. This was held to launch the output of an RSA project, “Building Agency in the Face of Uncertainty: a thinking tool for educators and education leaders”. I haven’t read the pamphlet – yet – but the debate was interesting and raised a lot of issues.

There were four speakers: Keri Facer, who was co-author of the pamphlet (sorry – thinking tool…); Patrick Hazlewood, a head teacher who has been doing some work with the RSA; Carolyn Usted, an educationalist and former inspector of schools; and Dougald Hine, an itinerant thinker (and co-founder of the Everything Unplugged meetup I sometimes go to). A varied bunch, each coming from a different perspective.

It made for an interesting talk, but there was a lack of cohesion in the views and issues discussed. This is what some of the contributors talked about, and some thoughts of my own they prompted. (There was an underlying assumption in the discussion that mainstream education is the way forward. It might not be; but it probably will be the system that most young people work through, so there seems little point in challenging that assumption. Maybe that’s another post!)

The education establishment, like other organisations, faces lots of uncertainty – economic, environmental, technological – but the feedback in the system may take years. Governments and educators are designing the education system in a fog of data: and the educational environment is changing much faster than the system can. The policies being implemented now are not just unlikely to work in the future – they’re unlikely to work today, because they’re based on data that is now outdated.

Beneath this uncertainty, though, is a continuity: the purpose of education remains the same (if we can agree what that is – there seems to be no overriding philosophy of why we educate; we may not even share a common language to discuss learning). The daily business of teaching remains (more or less) the same. Against the background of change and uncertainty, what teachers do and try to achieve remains pretty constant.

The curriculum and its objectives has changed little: the early 21st century curriculum would be recognised by teachers from the early 20th century, though the tools and practice may have changed considerably. Teachers aim to get measurable results – so they “teach to the test”, and always have done (because that is how they are assessed). Teaching is generally a linear, sequential process (though learning may be recursive). Generally, we teach what we know based on the past, not what we may think will be needed for the future (the one thing we can be certain of predictions of the future is that they will be wrong).

Change may be a constant, but the rate of change – particularly technology and the way we use it – has greatly accelerated. Young people – the primary consumers of the education system – are at the forefront of that change, ahead (maybe way ahead) of their parents and teachers. Their access to information and other resources is far superior to previous generations’. Helping people manage the vast amounts of information available now, sifting value from the chaff, would be useful.

One thing that the education system could do is prepare young people to cope with this rate of change: to enable them to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, to improvise in novel situations. Society may come to rely on these skills as institutions – banks or universities or governments – fail. The gap between those in power and influence and those without – consumers of it, perhaps – is changing too, in ways the powerful may not understand (the Arab spring illustrates this, and it could happen anywhere).

Allowing educators to improvise and experiment – removing the yoke of management by results from them – to see what works and what doesn’t in their situation (and every school may be different) might add a lot of value. Teachers are the people who have to manage the change and pass it on to their learners: providing learners with skills rather than answers would be a good start.

Attack of the clones: do competences create corporate monocultures?

The other day I wrote a post about the mismatch between organisations’ HR processes and the way people collaborate; and that got me thinking (again) about competences.

I’m no expert in competences or recruitment (or, let’s face it, much else…), but I have worked with them in one way or another for over twenty years, including thirteen years within a corporation which apparently had competences at the root of much of its decision-making – certainly deeply embedded in its HR processes.

Competences are a way of describing the skills someone needs for a particular role, tailored for a specific organisation. Much work, time and expense is spent designing and documenting the competence framework an organisation uses to describe its roles; consultancies make a lot of money helping their clients come up with a workable competence framework. (I know – I used to work for one of them!)

Competences are of course just a tool – a way of identifying particular traits and skills for a role, and testing against those skills. Using competences within a targeted interview process – with the interviewee describing how they have displayed specific competences in the past – actually makes sense to me. Particularly if you are recruiting a large number of vacancies to fill or have a large number of applications.

In these cases, if the role can defined in terms of competences, you can test for the competence; if you do role-plays, you can construct a scenario to see if the competence is demonstrated. So if, say, you are recruiting a large number of positions for a call centre, using telephone interviews, you can easily see if a prospective hire ticks the boxes you’re looking for.

But… the downside. By selecting employees on the basis of competences, you get a monoculture: a cohort of staff who think and act in the same way. For a lot of roles and most of the time, that may be fine. It probably simplifies your management processes. It makes life easier for you – you can may even be able to think of staff in particular roles as clones of one another. (I said easier, not best practice!) But if you select people to be all the same, you’ll get just that: a monoculture.

Biological monocultures are responsible for the paucity of the environment within plantations of coniferous trees; monocultures in agriculture have been responsible for famine and have seen crops destroyed by disease.

In organisations, monocultures – the mini-me clones you’ve selected – will think in the same way and behave in the same way. And when conditions change, they won’t necessarily be very good at coping with it. Because of course, the ability to manage change probably wasn’t one of the competences you’ve been selecting for.

I think this can be particularly damaging in management roles, and in roles which need creative thinking. You don’t want managers who all think and behave the same way. Indeed, thinking of managers I have worked with, those who are most able to think differently and work in different ways are probably the most effective. People who take a job and make it their own, adding their own take and their own spin – those who mould a role to themselves – are most successful. You’re selecting on similarity to the role’s competence model, but what it takes to succeed is the individuality that the manager can bring. Monoculture is the one thing you don’t want!

Organisations that survive or thrive through the intellectual capital their employees bring – all the new knowledge industries – don’t want their people thinking the same way. They want lots of ideas; they want difference.

Difference isn’t easy to select for. You can’t select for it outside the context of the team or organisation. If you want conformity, legions of staff thinking and acting in the same way, that’s fine. But if you want people who think differently, to create new things and cope with change – well, maybe competences aren’t the best way to find them.

Big Organisation Processes and Collaboration…

Like many people, I keep a list of subjects I want to blog about. For a long time – several months – I have had a item on the list which I hadn’t been able think into a post. I look at the list, ruminate on that particular topic, and skip it because I couldn’t think how to tackle it. It took a conversation with Maggie, James and Al at Tuttle on Friday to crystalise some of my thoughts. (It’s probably fair to say that there is still more thinking to be done – this is just a beginning…)

We were talking about collaboration (a frequent topic for Tuttle, it must be said: after all, we were at the Centre for Creative Collaboration!), and specifically collaboration in corporate environments. And more specifically still, why it is so hard for corporate organisations to collaborate.

A lot of the problem stems from the structures and processes that large organisations put in place to manage and control their business. In a hierarchy – as most large organisations seem to be – each person in the hierarchy needs to justify their position: this determines their reward. Where I have worked, a lot of this is worked out at the annual (or maybe even quarterly) review.

And annual reviews are always about individual contribution.

Even when “teamwork” is one of the competences being assessed (and there is a whole other post about competences lurking in my list, too…), what is measured in annual reviews is the individual contribution: “what have you done for the team or project…?”

Employees aren’t rewarded for teamwork or collaboration. They are rewarded for their individual contribution. They are rewarded for claiming their role in a project’s success – and let’s face it, they are rewarded for claiming others’ contributions, too.

Collaboration and teamwork need a different way of working and thinking; ways which aren’t usually rewarded within corporate structures. This may be why so many start-ups seem to be more collaborative than well-established organisations – without the rigid structures and processes and large numbers of people to get things done, they have to be. In small organisations, people have to be flexible and adaptable, take on different roles and collaborate if they want to achieve their (and the organisation’s) goals.

Maybe this is just a truism; but large org

Maybe this is just a truism; but large organisations just aren’t designed for collaboration.

Change and the Public Sector

For the past few months, I have had niggling thoughts about the cuts to the public sector. There has been a lot said and written about the cuts (I particularly liked Francesca Elston’s open letter(s) to our beloved leader and FlipChart Fairy Tales’ take on the difficulty of reforming the public sector). There have recently been many contradictory reports of the extent and impact of the cuts in specific areas and services. The basic mantra seems to be “you can’t make such large cuts and not affect ‘front line’ services”. (Once more, FlipChart Fairy Tales has a good post about this.)

I want to take a different perspective. It seems likely that the cuts will go through whether I want them to or not. What worries me is quite how they’ll be implemented.

I am not sure I have made that strong enough. It really, really worries me.

I have had various conversations about this – like I say, it has been niggling. I am not sure if I have my thoughts neatly lined up yet – perhaps writing this is all part of that process…

What I find most worrying is that the people making decisions about the cuts really aren’t equipped to do so. I have a lot of respect for people working in the public sector; but one thing they are not good at is change. And to really make cuts of the sort planned work, change is going to be essential.

From what I have been reading, central and local government have responded to the Treasury’s call for cuts in the region of 25% by looking at what they can cut easily in the short term – the low hanging fruit, as it were. In recent weeks, the talk has been about drastic reductions in library services and cuts to support of local volunteering.

Essentially, government at all levels is saying “this is what we do… let’s do it but 25% less”.

This might work at some levels, saving 5 or 10%, say, by putting services through the salami-slicer and taking a bit of the end (hoping that no one will notice, of course); but it can’t work for 25%.

Instead, to achieve such drastic reductions requires a new perspective: new ways of working, radically different business processes: because the old business processes won’t be able to cope in the face of the cuts. You can’t take 25% out of the current systems and hope that they will continue to function.

That takes consideration and vision. Things that, for all the good that the public sector does, it is not renowned for.

Bureaucracies work best in stable situations: rules work, processes are followed. The cuts required by the Treasury instead need rapid change, across the board. The people in the public sector aren’t really the people to deliver that – their work experiences haven’t prepared them for change, and, at best, they will need a lot of help.

Doug Shaw has written about the results of a recent survey of public sector employees. They are understandably poor results – with so much uncertainty, it would be surprising if they were otherwise. But this doesn’t bode well for implementing change.

I’ll watch what happens with interest – and concern.