Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number of fronts: although it is offered on the basis of encouraging behaviour which politicians deem to beneficial to the public as a whole, it nonetheless implies that GPs would not refer patients without such a financial reward. It enacts a theory of motivation at odds with the medical profession’s own values: the overwhelming majority of doctors would not consider it either necessary or desirable to be offered money to refer someone for tests who needs them. Additionally, in Crouch’s terms it has the potential for corrupting expert knowledge as well as creating perverse incentives. Crouch is not implying that professionals need no scrutiny or don’t need managing, but he does argue that financial targets, and numerical targets more generally, are a crude measure of what is really important in specific situations when the work is complex. It is a very crude, mistrustful intervention to bring about a greater focus on potential Alzheimer’s sufferers. Continue reading

Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference

I promised to write up my presentation from the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference, which was entitled Exploring our Experience of Every Day Politics in Organizations. My task was to pull out a few themes which struck me, and to respond to the keynotes of Svend Brinkmann and Patricia Shaw. This post tries to identity common threads, lacunae and opportunities for thinking arising out of what our guests said and links these to reflections on what it might mean to reflect systematically on the politics of everyday life in organisations. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2015

Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations.
How do we experience power and politics in contemporary organisations? How do we negotiate conflict and compromise? There are always possibilities in the hurly burly of everyday life for us to act differently despite the fact that we are caught up in longer term social trends which constrain our ability to think and act. So what are our degrees of freedom?
This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will explore these themes and more. The conference will be highly participative, and will be based on some presentations followed by discussion in groups, drawing on participants’ experience.
Our key note speakers are Prof Svend Brinkmann of Aalborg University and Prof Patricia Shaw formerly of the Complexity and Management Group at UH and now at Schumacher College.
The registration site for the conference is now open and an early-bird discount applies to all participants who book before April 30th. The booking page can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/k7t2rd4  The fee for the conference includes accommodation and food from Friday evening through to Sunday lunchtime.
Anyone wishing to put forward suggestions for discussion groups please contact me: c.mowles@herts.ac.uk
Looking forward to seeing you there.

Changing organisational culture: a moral and disciplinary project

This post is another contribution to thinking about organizational culture in preparation for the Complexity and Management Conference due to be held 7-9th June this year, 2014, which will be dedicated to this theme.

The Christmas period provided a very good example of the dominant thinking about organisational culture change, which I wrote about earlier in a previous post on this blog here. The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins was the guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, and he used the opportunity to draw attention to ethics, leadership and organisational transformation. You can find some of the clips from the programme here.

The banking world in general and Barclays in particular have been rocked by a number of scandals, including mis-selling of financial products and the manipulation of the inter-bank lending rate, LIBOR. Jenkins sees his task as rebuilding the bank and restoring public trust by ‘transforming the culture’ of the bank away from short-termism and a narrow definition of maximising shareholder value which he feels has predominated over the last 30 years, towards an understanding the banks serve society at large.th

To achieve this Jenkins has started a review of all the bank’s activities and has set alongside it an organisational change programme called Transform. The Transform programme sets out what Jenkins describes as five core values: respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship. All of these are to be ‘embedded’ in the organisations and measured episodically with numerical scores to give a reading of the bank’s progress towards operating differently. To give a token of his seriousness, Jenkins argues that he and his colleagues have developed a set of ‘explicit behaviours’ which staff have to exhibit in order to demonstrate the values. They will be recruited, promoted and developed according to these standards. According to Jenkins this change in culture will take up to ten years. Continue reading

The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence  of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises  morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v]  Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups.  In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.

This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations,  the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus. Continue reading

Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

Over the past two decades, management consultants and academics at business schools have increasingly stressed what they view as the rapidly increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty in the environment that all organisations have to respond to and many have labelled these conditions ‘ hyper-competition’ or ‘high velocity competition’. To deal with these conditions, consultants and academics have called for organisations to become ‘agile organisations’. The ‘agile organisation’ is also described as ‘the entrepreneurial organisation’ and ‘the resilient organisation’ and the hallmarks of this kind of organisation are its high speed of response to change and its focus on the customer which calls for customized  rather than standardised offerings. The notion of the agile organisation therefore originates in the discipline of strategic management with its concern for competitive advantage; in manufacturing production systems such as Total Quality Management, Just in Time, Lean and six sigma with their concern for high quality, customized batch manufacturing; and also in Agile Software development and its concern for teams and partnerships with customers. In short, the concept of agile processes was initially primarily concerned with product manufacturing and software development and from these areas it has come to be simply applied to all other organisations including both private and public sector service providers, without much reflection on whether this is appropriate or not. So when did these developments occur and how widespread are they?

 A quick search of Google Scholar reveals that over the decade ending in 1993 there were 56 journal papers which referred to the agile organisation at some point and over the same period some 14 referred to hyper-competition while no papers referred to the resilient organisation but over 20,000 used the term ‘complexity’.  Over the rest of that decade the number referring to agile organisations rose to 442 and the number referring to hyper-competition rose to 416 while 43 referred to the resilient organisation and there were some 19,000 references to complexity. Over the first decade of this century, there were nearly 5,000 referrals to the agile organisation, about 3,500 to hyper-competition, 385 to the resilient organisation and some 40,000 to complexity. Interest in agile and resilient organisations facing hyper-competition, uncertainty and complexity is, therefore, very recent and even now not all that widespread. Despite recognizing complexity and uncertainty, however, the prescription is overwhelmingly for managers to design organisations that can successfully deal with the supposedly ‘new’ conditions. There is very little radical reflection on what the recognition of uncertainty and complexity, which has always characterized the conditions which members of organisations have to act into, means for the possibility of designing organisation in the first place. There is very little inquiry into how members of organisations have always dealt with uncertainty and complexity. This is, perhaps, not a surprising observation when one takes account of the strength of management and leadership thought collectives and the thought styles that they perpetuate. This post reviews notions of organisational agility and resilience as responses to rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty. Continue reading