Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.


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.


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.

Putting the ‘feeling’ back into organisations

Last week I was in church to celebrate a friend’s 25th wedding anniversary.  I have not been quite so moved for a long time, which got me asking myself why?  Several reasons struck me; firstly there was the public declaration of love.  But there was far more to it than that.  The couple were regular worshippers at the church before their marriage and continue to attend to this day. They had also had central roles in the church’s charitable work with the homeless in London as well as keenly working on the restoration of this important church, so it can continue its important work.

All of this was evident in the service where there was a beautiful sense of community and purpose (ie that everyone was engaged in something important whatever their position was in that community).  One particualy touching moment was a performance by StreetWise Opera (  & @StreetwiseOpera), a charity that uses music to help homeless people tackle some of the problems in their lives.  This was not just a celebration of my friend’s wedding; it had become far more than that – a connection with a wider community and how that community helps itself and where it draws its energy from – both in terms of its past and the interconnected network of the present.

A simple act of celebration can enable a joint noticing of what is important in our lives and how we are connected with each other.   There are always dangers in making direct comparisons; say between people gathering for a church service and working in an organisation, but I think for those of us who work in organisations we have something to learn!

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.