Tag Archives: management

“Caring Capitalism”?

There was a bit of an unintentional theme running through a couple of events and conversations I’ve been to over the past few weeks regarding the future of capitalism and corporations, and then last week Ed Miliband’s speech at this year’s Labour conference continued his emphasis last year on “predatory capitalism“.

Miliband was talking about aggressive capitalism which he saw as damaging the economy, and I doubt anyone could really disagree right now.

Last month I went to a talk on “caring capitalism” – perhaps the antidote to Miliband’s “predatory capitalism”. Focusing on social enterprise – as the speakers pointed out, a broad term with no real definition (though Wikipedia has a go) – as a means to create a more just society, a few different models were explored: though frankly none of them seemed particularly new.

For Helen Chambers and Mary Duffy, a social enterprise is one which exists specifically for social purposes, working within a commercial, for profit model – with a commnon principle “to do good”. Two specific organisations – Haven Products and Rag Tag ‘n’ Textile – were used as examples though the latter is a registered charity (and hence a not-for profit – although presumably just as many charities run retail, for profit operations, it does too). Both these organisations work largely for the benefit of their employees, providing opportunities to those who might otherwise not find employment.

Other objectives for social enterprises include working for the benefit of employees more generally, suppliers (such as fairtrade), the environment, and the wider community.

Whilst social enterprises might explicitly have such objectives, I can’t help thinking that most commercial corporations implicitly act in a similar fashion: a business which works against customers, suppliers or the community should not prosper, at least in the long term: if you work against customers, they will move (that’s what competition is about). Many commercial, profit-seeking organisations make large donations to charity – including banks such as the near-collapsed RBS. The rising interest in corporate social responsibility has focused investors, managers, employees and other “stakeholders” on organisations’ governance, ethics, ways of working and their internal and external relationships. (Much of this may be mere window dressing, though…)

Much of the talk was about social investment. It sounded like a wall of philanthropic finance was pouring into a small, undeveloped and fragmented sector: this could distort the economics and lead to imperfect allocation (one of the things markets are supposed to be good at – though the economic crisis has clearly dented that particular claim). But the amounts of money are still chickenfeed compared to the amounts spent by governments.

Nor is philanthropy anything new – Andrew Carnegie distributed his large wealth, endowing libraries, museums and universities; other “robber barons” such as Frick, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt did the same. Indeed, contrite financiers such as Michael Milken have tried to make amends through charitable donations and work, though the rich have long been using the gains – ill-gotten or not – to buy forgiveness.

Most social enterprises are small: perhaps it is easier of small organisations working outside the usual constraints of (non-social) investors “to be good”. Certainly large, international corporations seem to suffer from much of the criticism – perhaps because they are further from their suppliers, customers and communities: and of course one of the main advantages of large organisations – the ability to leverage economies of scale – means that someone, somewhere is paying more or getting less than smaller firms.

I still believe that outside a few industries – tobacco, arms and extractive industries, perhaps – all businesses benefit from “doing good”, if they want returning customers. Perhaps some organisation structures are better fitted for this than others – cooperatives, employee-owned firms or mutuals, perhaps. With businesses focused on customers, employees and suppliers, all organisations would be “social enterprises”: exploitation of one or oanother of these key groups would be to the detriment of the business.

Or what am I missing?

Culture, Transparency and Profitability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

My worst job interview…

@MarkShaw has just tweeted a question:

Over the years I have had a lot of job interviews.. Most were professional, some were very amateur… What’s the worst job interview you had?

I tried to tweet my answer, but there was no way I could get it into 140 characters, so I shall give it here… (Context, as they say, is all!)

I once has a second interview for a job: I think I had basically got the job, and the firm I was going to work with were trying to work out which team I would work with, but I didn’t really know that at the time. I was being considered for two teams: this interview was with the team leader – a pretty senior manager – of one of them. There were no HR or other people in the interview: it was just me and him.

The interview consisted of this guy firing a list of activities or tasks at me as closed questions: “Can you do this? … Can you do that?” It was practically impossible to answer: I worried that saying “No!” might lose me the job.

There was no discussion – no real attempt to dig to discover whether my skills were compatible with his teams’, or whether I had behavioural fit. He wanted yes or no answers.

The first interview had been broadly competency-based, with a psychometric test and a presentation thrown in for good measure. This second interview didn’t seem to fit in at all.

The interviewer came across as a single-minded sociopath who couldn’t hold a proper conversation. Not as someone I would want to work with. It was a lousy advert for the organisation.

Fortunately, I had another interview with the other team leader and one of his team. This was completely different: an exploration of how we could work together, what he could expect from me and what I could expect from him. The difference pheonomenal: I came out of it really wanting to be part of this team.

I was offered the post in the second team. I wouldn’t have worked with the first team if they had offered twice – three times – the money: it would clearly never have worked.

Change Management: an oxymoron?

When people ask what I do – which has happened a lot in the past couple of weeks as I chatted to people at ConnectingHR and LikeMinds – I invariably say that I work in change management.

But I always feel a bit of a fraud when I do this, for two reasons.

First, I am not sure that one really can manage change.

Second, I worry that by calling myself a change manager, I’m allowing someone else – someone who should be out there, dealing with business issues like change – off the hook. By setting up “change management” as a specific role – a profession, even – it lets people who should really be getting involved say, “he’s the change manager, so it isn’t my problem”.

So, first thing first: can one really manage change? Change is, of course, a constant: it affects every organisation – every person – out there. People change, day by day; and organisations change, too. In a competitive environment, things are changing the whole time. People, products, markets – all change.

Change management is about helping organisations cope with change in a measured, controlled way. The problem for me is that this gives organisations the illusion of control. But change isn’t like that. An organisation might set out to change, having an ultimate goal; but like a boat sailing, making allowances for the wind and the uncertainties of the tides, where they end up might be completely different.

The thing is, they have to try – otherwise, buffeted by wind, dragged by unknown currents, they would be lost.

Any organisation thinking that, once they’ve embarked on a change programme, they’ll get precisely to their destination will come horribly unstuck. You can’t actually control change like that: that’s not the way it works. Whatever kind of control freak your organisation hires, they can’t control change – they have to work with it. “Change management” doesn’t really describe what goes on.

Most change programmes are centrally devised, but implemented in a distributed fashion. I have worked on change programmes in both the private and public sectors; the people actually making the change happen – those directly affected by the change, were far-removed from the central teams planning the change. However strong a lead the centre gives, what is actually implemented will probably be very different to what was envisaged.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, if you want change to happen, you have to engage with those delivering it: involving those affected by the change is essential – but what they actually do might be quite different from what the centre designs: an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

So: change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not, whether you plan it or not – and it makes sense to have an idea – a plan – of where you want the organisation to go, because otherwise you really won’t have any control about where it goes.

But be realistic: you have to try to manage change, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can control it.

The second thing, then: change is going to happen; and it should be everyone’s responsibility, and particularly everyone in management. Lots of organisations now organise work into projects. By definition, they want something to be different after a project: otherwise you wouldn’t set up a project. Projects are all about change. You do a project because you want change.

But lots of organisations use particular people to manage change. They get people like me to help them set the vision, produce a plan, set up a change programme and manage – implement – the change. These change managers may be internal or, like me, external; we know how to work with change. But internal or external, once we’ve done our work, we’ll move onto other projects; and those who don’t – the managers and staff left owning the “business-as-usual” state after the change programme has got to wherever it ended up – will be given a get-out clause. They’ll be able to pick up whatever they want and say, “the change programme didn’t work”.

They can do this because they’ll be able to look at the change programme – the planned, controlled and implemented change – and say that it didn’t get to where they thought it would – it didn’t achieve what they expected. And because they are not responsible – because they hired me or used someone else to do it – they can pin the blame on us and not actually be held to account.

These two points are connected of course. This might seem esoteric; but it is important. Its explain why most government change implementations often fail – not just in the UK, but in the USA too. And, I’d guess, everywhere else.

ConnectingHR – a most unconference unconference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Nagging Thought: how is the public sector going to change?

Throughout the talk I went to on Tuesday, yesterday’s discussion at the School of Everything Unplugged, where Doug Cowan talked through some work he had done in public sector organisations, and a conversation with Liam Barrington-Smith about his recent experience of the civil service, I have had a severe nagging thought which keeps resurfacing. It won’t go away.

The organisations facing the biggest change in the short term seem to me to be in the public sector. Facing likely cuts of 25% or so, the public sector will have to do things differently. They can’t just do less of the same: they will have to be innovative to change radically. But as Liam’s post suggests, the public sector doesn’t necessarily have much insight. It can be rigidly hierarchical. As anyone experiencing local public services knows, they are often not very nimble. In short, how is the public sector going to change to cope with the shock of 25% income cuts? They are clearly not among Ringland’s PSROs. But change they must.

“Beyond Crisis”: organisations in a changing world

There were two lectures on management and innovation that I wanted to go to on Tuesday (as well as one on who was to blame for the financial crisis) – one at the LSE, the other at Gresham College; I plumped for the talk at Gresham, if only because I thought it might be easier to get in!

Gill Ringland was talking on Beyond Crisis, and walking through the model she and her colleagues at SAMI Consulting have developed for managing in an environment that is full of change. The status quo – the world in which most organisations developed – is subject to several trends; six were seen to be game-changing by Ringland:

  • the economic crisis, especially the crippling bank bailouts in USA and Europe; USA used to be the world economic powerhouse (largely using borrowed money – hence the crisis), a role increasingly taken up by India and China
  • demographic changes, with continuing population growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America balanced with falling populations in Europe and North America and a world population stabilising at c. 9 billion in 2025, coupled with the aging populations of Europe, North America, China (large as a result of its “one child policy ” of the last thirty years) and Japan
  • concomitant with this, an increasingly well-educated world population, with 90% of those 9 billion people educated successfully to secondary level (this compares to only 80% of UK school students completing secondary education to a satisfactory level)
  • a changing palette of moral values among the increasing population, with those in faster growing, “more traditional” cultures less concerned wellbeing (or minimising harm) and fairness and more concerned purity, authority and affiliation; this shows itself as a decreasing belief in the rule of law – in “traditional” cultures, there is an increasing preponderance to punish those who enforce the law, whilst in rich nations there is a preponderance to punish those who break it. [It is not clear to me how this stacks up with an increasing belief in authority.]
  • continuing environmental pressures, where Ringland painted a more bleak picture than I had heard before (although she reckoned that our ingenuity would pull through in the end!)
  • continuing technological change

This, RIngland believes, will result in a dramatically different business environment, one in which business adapted to working in the previous environment will suffer: management styles attuned to the historical “great moderation” will fail and those able to adapt flexibly will flourish.

The model that SAMI have come up with to describe those adaptable, flexible organisations goes by the acronym of PSRO – “purposefully self-renewing organisations”. Pictured as two cones, one representing the rigid hierarchy of an organisation and it’s employees, processes, customers and partners – focused on organisational efficiency – balanced on another of ad hoc strategic activities focused on renewal and the present and future operating environment. The connection between these two cones in asset allocation, set against a background of values to create narrative, “machinery” (communication, processes and governance rather than physical machinery) to create options, and insight – taken together, what might be considered the organisation’s culture.

The difficulty is getting through that bottleneck of asset allocation. New ideas in organisations – innovation – come from employees, customers and business partners: all part of the traditional hierarchy. It is hard for ideas to work through the hierarchy into the area of renewal, lower cone, not least because employees, customers and business partners are busy concentrating with business as usual activities. So resources don’t get effectively allocated to any innovative ideas they might have.

What makes the difference, according to Ringland, is leadership. Quoting a McKinsey survey, successful business performance depends on employees being clear in their purpose, the organisation having a sense of direction and an environment of openness, trust and challenge: all characteristics which can be set by business leaders, within the organisation’s culture. If you get the culture right – largely down to communication and being open to change and transformation (Senge’s “learning organisation” – innovative ideas can pass through the bottleneck.

SAMI use a pretty standard change model – a cycle involving leadership to provide direction and the sense of narrative, environmental scanning and scenario planning, and the creation of innovation and options – which can be used to plan interventions to help move organisations to being PSROs.

None of this felt new, but it was interesting to be reminded of these ideas – a good refresher. The key seemed to be organisational culture. The focus on leadership – the top down creation of culture – didn’t necessarily feel right. Flexible, adaptable organisations seem to be the key – a message we have been hearing a while, I think. Modern, flat organisations (good for open communications and the ease of flow of ideas) are supposedly more nimble and innovative. “Virtual” organisations could be most nimble of all.

(You can read a transcript of Ringland’s talk here, and I expected copies of her slides will appear on the Gresham College website at some point.)

Burning Up: working in a “hot team”

I am a huge believer in the power of teams, although it seems to be a power that is easily dissipated within corporate structures. My belief in teams comes from my own experience – all too rare – of being a part of a team that is genuinely more than the sum of its parts; but most teams I have been part of haven’t matched up to that. I have been talking about collaboration and creativity a fair bit recently, and my experience in one team keeps cropping up in my thoughts.

The Harvard Business Review talks about hot groups

a lively, high-achieving, dedicated group, usually small, whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task

– others talk about “hot teams”.

The HBR definition certainly fits with the way the team felt: we were excited, doing something that was new, and we felt very productive.

The team was formed on the back of a change programme I worked on in the mid-1990s: once the change had been implemented, the implementation team was told to review how the new organisational structure was actually working on the ground. This was a quite different task to implementation, and one that was new to all five members of the team. It was also pretty new to the organisation.

So we made it up as we went along. The change programme had changed management structures and a large number of people; there were new roles, new competences and new behaviours. We started off by checking what had been implemented – looking at the local management structures, and auditing the implementation. This is what the senior managers wanted: it is fair to say that it wasn’t a high trust organisation, and it was generally managed with a bureaucratic, command-and-control culture. We were familiar with audit, it’s what was expected, so that’s what we did.

It fell completely flat. We produced the data that the organisation’s management wanted – at least, what they thought they wanted – but we very quickly realised that we were adding nothing to the organisation: nothing was changing on the back of our work, and we weren’t helping anyone – indeed, we were seen as a hindrance and obstacle by the people – the local managers – that we were reviewing. We could see what wasn’t working, but nothing that we did helped those managers to sort it out. We needed to change what we were doing – or at least do something extra to help the local guys as well as our bosses.

There was a lot of soul searching. We kicked ideas around, sought guidance from our line – who more or less told us to get on with it – and talked with our networks. We read a bit, kicked the ideas around some more, came up with our modus operandi.

This involved in depth conversations with the local managers and the people they were meant to be managing, followed by detailed analysis and extensive feedback, whilst at the same time collecting the information the organisation felt it needed, too – that, after all, was our raison d’être, and provided our licence to operate.

This was a very exciting period. We were used having the answers; now we not only didn’t have the answers for our internal clients, we weren’t even certain we had the answers for ourselves. We were all having to work in a different fashion from our normal practice: in a consultative way, listening rather than telling, exploring, and helping others see what was working and what wasn’t.

It felt like a very different way working. We effectively became a self-managed team by practice rather than design. Working in this way in the organisation felt counter-cultural. We gave ourselves the space to make mistakes – and we accepted that others in the organisation were free to make mistakes, too: no one had a monopoly on answers. We also had space to think, and when we were working with managers in the field, we gave them the space to think, too.

Not knowing the answers meant that we were learning the whole time. We refined our work and the way we did continuously. We aimed to model the change we were trying to promote. As a small team we were reliant on each other for the success as our projects, on which one of the team would act as lead. Such deep collaboration, coupled with the empowerment we felt – having been left to invent what we were doing, and how we did it – felt very powerful.

Within the context of the organisation and the change programme we were following, it also felt very transformative. We received very positive feedback from those involved in the reviews – both the managers and the managed. No one had bothered before to ask them the kinds of questions we were asking them – about how they did their jobs, and why they were doing things that way. We developed some powerful tools for working with and feeding back to groups.

It was certainly transformative for the team and, particularly, for myself. It changed the way I thought about work, and had great effect on my subsequent work choices. Even after our project finished – despite our success over four years, the work wasn’t seen as being essential and we were disbanded during a corporate reorganisation (despite being reviewed by a couple of other organisations who were very positive in their praise) – the team remained close, and ten years after that, we still meet up regularly (less so now I live in a different city!).

It is hard to say what made the experience so valuable to me. We were doing something new, which stretch us; we were self-organising, responsible for designing the work and in control of it. We were radically different and felt counter-cultural, which brought us close together, so were emotionally engaged in the team and the work we did. And we felt we were making a tangible difference to the organisation and those at all levels with whom we came into contact.

All in all, these seem to encapsulate Dan Pink’s three high level needs for motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose. The interesting thing is that the team got there by accident, collaborating to create a very rich working experience.