The flip side of provocation (of bridges and walls)

ScanccyyySometimes a word catches me and unravels. And that is what happened with ‘provocation’. A little of the detail. I met with Julian Stodd and colleagues from Sea Salt Learning the other day. Julian handed me a copy of =Q@L[equal], a magazine with the tagline ‘provocative writing for a more equal world’ – see picture. Julian writes:

=Q@L[eqaul] is a collection of ideas: a provocation and call to arms. It’ a space to reflect, to challenge.

To me there are two sides of the coin, one good the other bad:

  1. The bridge: We say or write something that jars, perhaps it is at the edge or beyond accepted wisdom. This leads to a shift in thought, there might be a striking moment as the person reconciles an experience they have had with that new perspective. Even the provocateur can be moved as they see their idea taken up in new ways; together both parties see the world differently, even slightly. And from this transformation and novelty emerges.
  2. The wall: The other side is problematic. Here we provoke others and in doing so we build walls (quite literally if we are to believe what we hear from the US Presidential Elections). Words of provocation are said and opinions become entrenched, it prevents ideas developing, it fails to build bridges of understanding. We cannot see or imagine the world differently beyond our own self interest.

The wall creates ‘otherness’, a separation between people from which identity grows often at the expense the marginalised that have little power or voice. This is a powerful dynamic that once started can be hard to stop.

The bridge on the other hand is fragile. It requires nurturing and an attention to the dynamics between people. We need to test and understand our own movement of thought and those around us as our ideas emerge. We need to accept that there will be misunderstanding and friction, but this is an opportunity for further conversation and deeper understanding. In other words, to strengthen the bridge.

It seems to me that people are becoming all too keen on building walls without looking to history to see the consequences. By the time we realise it might be too late to stop. Building bridges is hard, we need to be challenging of ourselves and other around us.

Details of =Q@L[equal] can he found here.


Exploring conscious business practice – Reflections

Last month Pete Burden and I were the guest editors of AMED’s Winter2013WSjournal eOrganisations and People on the subject of conscious business.  The editorial can be read here.

In this post I would like to reflect on a conversation I had with a good friend of mine.  If you read the editorial Pete and I are making the case that we should look beyond frameworks and schema to provide us with conscious, sustainable and more thoughtful business, business that is mindful of its impact today and years to come.  Many of these CSR and Corporate Responsibility frameworks have delivered many benefits over the years, but to rely on them is a contradiction.  In other words, to do so risks diminishing rather than enhancing consciousness by focusing on future abstract goals and polices at the expense of present day-to-day interactions and reconciling often troubling and contradictory pressures.   The point is that labelling a term ‘conscious business’ is a double edge sword: on the one hand it focuses a light on the issue and gives it a legitimacy; but on the other, it fixes the subject in some idealised state where it is difficult to talk about the challenges in the context of daily lives.

Returning to the conversation I had with my friend, I was struck by her feedback ‘… and what is conscious business?’.  It strikes me that how ever hard we try to divert attention from clear abstract definitions towards the hurly-burly, where definition emerges from action, we are drawn back to the siren calls of clarity.

This dilemma reminds me of the work of Raymond Williams; although better known for being a Marxist Sociologist, it is his reflexive thought that I’m drawn to (Williams, 1977).  He points to the tendency of description and analysis habitually being expressed in the past tense and the difficultly this causes in seeing the on-going human activity as anything but a fixed object.  He says: ‘the strongest barrier to the recognition of human … activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products’ (Ibid, p128).  He then points to the tendency of engaging with these static forms as a means of currency in communication, particularly when he notes: ‘Analysis is then centred on relations between these produced … formations and experiences … so that now only explicit forms exist, and the living presence is always, by definition, receding’.

Williams explains the implications for reducing the fluidness of experience into static forms, they miss the: ‘… complexities, the experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion’ (Williams, 1977, p. 129).  If Williams points to what is lost in forming and working with abstractions in the present, he also illustrates the implications this has on the possibilities that are yet to come when he states:  ‘And from the abstractions formed in their turn by this act of debarring – the “human imagination”, the “human psyche”, the “unconscious” – new and displaced forms of social analysis and categorization, …are more or less rapidly developed”(Ibid, p13).

I find this a useful way of thinking about the interaction between frameworks and lived experience and my friend’s quest for some certainty.  I am not drawing an absolutist choice between one thing and another (frameworks versus ‘lived experience’) but the paradoxical interaction between the two and how important it is to be aware (or even conscious) of the vital interaction between them.

Reference:  Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Pedagogy of the Oppressed – a lesson of policymakers, politicians and strategists alike

I have just come across this great little book – Pedagogy of the Oppressed by PO the OPaulo Freire. It is one of those books that I feel instantly connected with but at the same time rather daft that it has taken me all these years to find it. Freire was a South American educationalist who was heavily influenced by Marx. He wrote this book in the late 1960s, translated into English a few years later. His point is that education must lead to some positive social change, in other words it is more than just filling people’s heads with knowledge – it has to achieve something.

To do this he explains that education must be about us in the context in which we find ourselves and the problems we face on a day to day basis. It is always unfinished, requires dialogue between educators and those being educated (in fact he is sceptical of this distinction) and there are no fixed answers. To be effective we need to be aware of what is around us and to react into these changing situations. This combination of dealing with real life practical issues, being more aware of how we are with people and the situations we find ourselves and this overriding drive for social good are to me vital cornerstones of becoming more conscious and to effect positive ethical change.

However, there is a dilemma for those who set policy and strategy. For there to be effective change those who set policy and strategy need to recognise that there power is limited. It is not about ‘doing to people’ it is about providing them with the freedom, resources and support for them to tackle their own problems. This very much chimed with my research on policymaking and how this comes to affect frontline healthcare practice. However, it seems all too common (at least here in the UK) those politicians will seek to make clear promises for which ‘quantified outcomes’ are set. Politicians, strategists and policy makers have a lot to learn from this little book. And in doing so they might find some uncomfortable truths.

Opportunities in reforming Critical Management Studies

I’m putting together an undergraduate course on critical management studies.  Critical management studies is a varied bag of ideas that cast a challenging light on the orthodoxies of traditional management.  Critical management scholars draw inspiration from a wide group of people from Karl Marx, to Max Weber, to Michael Foucault, to the recent Postmodernists and so on.  In other words, anyone who has a sharp stick to jab into the side of those who go with the management fad of the moment without thought or reflection.

The question for me is: how can this be useful?  Yes, to those with an interest in academia it is a rich source of material to challenge our thinking, but in the practitioner communities those questions often seem unheard or lack relevance.  And it is the practitioner communities that most of the students will be heading.

Raising ideas of Marx, Foucault or post modernism tends not to win friends outside of a few university corridors, particularly when seeking to build a career in management.  So what is the point?

Critical management studies helps improve critical thinking, those skills of argument, logic, rhetoric, deep subject knowledge and understanding of self.  The writers I have mentioned provide a useful insight into the modern world of work by drawing on universal aspects of being human: of acting responsibility, of sustainability, being ethical, respecting the rights of those without a voice, the use and abuse of power. It develops ability to challenging the status quo and to ask the question: Why?  Not in a shrill way that antagonizes, but in a way that enables conversation that carries people and persuades them.  This is what critical management studies have to offer.

However, the language of critical management scholars needs to change; it is less about cleaver linguistic tricks and obscure lines of argument; it is about being relevant to those who want to make a difference and to encourage a self-critical reflexive challenge to what we all do at work.  I was at a conference a year or so ago when a highly respected critical management scholar said of his work: ‘I’m interested in what they are doing, what they think they are doing, and what the hell do they think they are doing’.  To me it is less about ‘they’ and more about ‘we’ as we all seek to understand and improve our world of work.  This is what critical management studies has to offer.

How should we mark the 50th anniversary of Shareholder Value?

I’m finally moved to write this blog following some great conversations last night at Conscious-Business (see my Blogroll) in Brighton.

2012 sees the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom.  The book covers a number of topics from floating exchange rates, social welfare to the deregulation of the medical profession.   Amongst the subjects covered is Stockholder Theory (or Shareholder Value to many).  In the following quote Friedman makes the point that a CEO has only one social responsibility and that is to maximise returns for the company’s owners:

The view has been gaining widespread acceptance that corporate officials and labour leaders have a ‘social responsibility’ that goes beyond servicing the interest of stockholders or members.  This view shows a fundamental misconception of the character and nature of free economy.  In such an economy, there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say engages in open and free competition, without deception and fraud (p133).

In the early 1980s Jack Welch of GE made shareholder value his number one priority.  Within the wider economic context of free markets Welch’s statements and actions were the catalyst that brought about a radical change in corporate culture that we still see today.

Critics of shareholder value make the point that it is silent to the accountabilities we owe to future generations and the planet (in the use of resources, environmental damage and climate change) and our current responsibilities (our neighbourhoods, child labour, employment and so on).  However, in looking at that above quote Friedman makes an important condition that is often not spoken of.  In order for shareholder value to ‘work’ organisations must:  1) comply with the laws of the land; and 2) there must be free and fair competition, in other words a level playing field.  Over the years we have seen the rules of the game broken; most spectacularly and visibly by Enron and WorldCom.  It also assumes that large organisations won’t assertively lobby governments to skew policy and legal frameworks to the detriment of open and free competition.

Perhaps from one individual organisation to another a focus on shareholder value might not matter in the great scheme of things.  However, there are accumulative effects from one sector to another, one country or region to another and the wider global economy.   These effects are felt in wider corporate culture, government policy and thereby the wider connection of how individuals and organisations are socially accountable to each other.

I’m not offering any solutions but I think the 50th anniversary of Friedman’s contribution to shareholder value offers an important opportunity to rethink what really matters.

The Social Development of Writing – the Unexpected Impact of Rosa Parks

A good friend of mine, Douglas, and I are writing a book called The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge. In essence we are writing about the importance of reflexivity in developing one’s own leadership practice and in doing so how this has something to say in the field of knowledge.

We are deeply in the process at the moment. For me thinking never stops. I am seeing connections between the different sections and chapters that I had not envisaged. As these new connections emerge I am aware that they are both forming and are being formed by our original ideas in quite a transformative ways.

I am also making connections with other aspects of my working life. For example, I have been asked to give a brief talk on complexity and social movements (eg the Black Power movement in 1960s America). Without this loose connection the life of Rosa Park, the individual who refused to give up her seat for a white person on a bus in Alabama which resulted in enormous social change and challenge to traditional power relations, would not have featured.

Yet I suspect this will be a key strand to our book. A strand that illustrates the venting of pent up tension that had built up over the decades and generations in a predictable (ie the events were likely to happen at some point) and yet unpredictable ways. And, is still playing out today in many different avenues of people’s lives. Was my interest in Rosa Parks in relation to our book coincidental or an act of ‘un-thought’ planning?

As I reflect on this now it seems to me to be an example of the social process of writing and how it ‘never leaves’ when in that deep and active phase. And this is a point that we are making in the book, leadership and knowledge are all activities that we are all engaged in as we ‘rub along’ together in organisational life; these are not subjects to be explored from a distance; but instead as part of an active process that we need to notice. Connections that instantly seem important to us need attention and are worth the effort to be explored. Sometimes their importance to us may dim, or they may come to shine; this is the subject of further work. In that light they might come to be of great importance to us as individuals, within the stories of an organisation say, or, in the case of Rosa Parks, to a generation and beyond.

Whether the brave acts of Rosa Parks will feature in our book when we send it to the publisher I don’t know; but at the moment my instinct is – yes; an instinct that I will continue to pay attention to and notice.

Oh, Modern Times

I have been asked to give a lecture on complexity in a couple of weeks.  To do this I need to describe what complexity is, but also, what it isn’t.  The film Modern Times, the 1936 movie written, produced and directed by Charlie Chaplin, is a brilliant example of the pitfalls of Scientific Management and the immorality of capitalism if it becomes disjointed from the society and environment it is part of.

Have a look at this clip from Modern Times on You Tube.  Nearly 80 years on Chaplin is still more than relevant.  Just notice for instance:

  • The control from the boss to the workers on the shop floor, increasing or decreasing productivity with levers and pulleys.
  • The emphases of mechanisation and subduing human freedom and imagination, even during lunch.
  • The constant surveillance on all staff at all times.
  • But, in all of this how the system is ‘built to fail’; the rigidity of the processes and equipment fails to adapt to just one well-meaning but slightly eccentric individual.

Ultimately to me, this is a hopeful film.  In highlighting the misery, the comedy and immorality he also points the way to a different way of doing business.  A way that is more attuned to society, the environment and the imagination, ability and flexibility of its people.   And it is here that an understanding of complexity can help.