Monday, 27 January 2014

Down, under

[I apologise to readers in non-cricket playing countries, or those who have no interest in cricket: this post will be largely incomprehensible to you. And apologies to all for the strangely large gaps between paragraphs, which for some reason I just cannot reduce].

So the England cricket team have been defeated in the Ashes. Well, not just defeated but humiliatingly eviscerated, despite having been the favourites to win at the start of the series. It was not just that they lost, it was that they scarcely even competed. I used to be a passionate follower of English cricket. Sitting literally at my father’s knee in the 1960s and 70s I learned the game from the BBC TV coverage, and subsequently played quite a bit, albeit not very well (and, more than any other sport I think, cricket is hard to appreciate fully if you haven’t played it). It’s difficult to recreate those days. We had a black and white television and so although my father must have known that cricket was played on green grass, in white flannels, with coloured caps (not, in those days, helmets), I had no such knowledge, and it was quite a revelation when our first colour television arrived in 1975. But even without colour pictures I was enthralled as we watched together; him explaining first the cruder, then the finer, points; to be supplemented by our playing sessions in the back garden.

And how I remember the first test match – the first cricket match for that matter – I ever saw in person, again with my father, in the long, hot summer of 1976 when the West Indies thrashed England. It was the series that began with Tony Greig, the white South African-born England captain, declaring that he would make the tourists ‘grovel’. That word, from someone of his background during the Apartheid era, spoken about a black team, had a horrible political resonance (although that is not to say that this was Greig’s intention). So too did the power of the West Indies side for its substantial Afro-Caribbean fan base in post-colonial Britain, as documented in the 2010 film Fire in Babylon. It was cricket, but it was politics in a big way.

The match we saw was the final test at The Oval, the day that in scorching sunlight Viv Richards scored most of his magisterial 291, but that was a culmination of a summer that had marked a kind of shift from old to new cricket. The old cricket was represented by the – literally old – English batsmen facing the West Indian pace attack. John Edrich, 39, and Brian Close, an unbelievable 45, being peppered by Michael ‘whispering death’ Holding’s bouncers in the Old Trafford test being the symbolic example. It was like seeing the changing of an age. At the end of the Oval test, West Indies took the series 3-0 but that scoreline flattered England who had been comprehensively destroyed by a far superior side. In another symbolic moment, Tony Greig went on hands and knees and ‘grovelled’ in front of the Oval crowd.

It’s hard now to remember how amateurish English cricket was in the 1970s. I suppose that one minor index is the way that each Sunday during the season the team would be announced for the next test. We – my father and I – would see it during the tea interval of the John Player League tournament on the BBC. Even that is archaic – sport sponsored by a tobacco firm; county cricket matches on the BBC for hours on end. But, anyway, the team was in no way predictable. There were in those days no central contracts; a likely lad would receive the summons on Sunday and play for England in the test match on the following Thursday (in those days, test matches always started on a Thursday, running for five days to the end of Tuesday because Sunday was a ‘rest day’). This was often a moment of excitement for me because my particular heroes – Graham Roope and Pat Pocock come to mind – were never regular picks, but from time to time got the call up. So it was fun, but although in those days there was less of a gap between county and international standards, it didn’t begin to meet the exigencies of what cricket had become.

Post-1976 things began to change, especially after the development of Kerry Packer’s rebel World Series Cricket in 1977 (in which Tony Greig was a pivotal figure), although I must admit that at the time I adhered to my father’s considerable disapproval of this rupture in the traditional order. At all events, through the 1980s and 1990s England had some real, albeit fluctuating, success, ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981 being a particularly memorable landmark. Even so, reading David Gower’s recent autobiography it is striking how haphazard and unprofessional the organization of the team was in that period. This continued to be the case at least until the creation of the English Cricket Board in 1997and the MacLaurin reforms which introduced, amongst other things, central contracts. The benefits were soon felt and the turning point was symbolised by England’s series victory over the by now much weaker West Indies side in 2000, secured at The Oval test, which I myself attended, 24 years after the 1976 rout and 31 years since England had recorded a series win over West Indies.

Since then, England have been a competitive and often very successful side, at times the best in the world. Perhaps the great high point was the extraordinary, heart-stopping, chest-heaving, Ashes series win in 2005 when I, along with, it seemed, the whole country was riveted (we will not dwell on the re-match in the Australian season). How sadly ironic that, with national success and interest at its height, this was the moment that the free-to-air TV rights were sold off, never to return. Since then, I have never watched a test match on television and ceased to follow it closely. There will be far fewer English children from now on who have the experience that I had, watching and learning with my father.

What is the organizational significance of this walk down cricketing memory lane? Apart from simple self-indulgence it is that much that I have recounted in this very brief history pertains to the organization of cricket in general and the England team in particular. And the withering defeat that England have just suffered is largely being discussed in organizational terms. That is, it is not that the players have suddenly ceased to be technically competent but that issues such as leadership, or the complacency bred by success affecting motivation, or even the protection offered by central contracts are being held responsible. As one influential commentator has noted, the problem is 'over-professionalism'. 

I certainly do not think that a return to the ‘amateurish’ days before central contracts will serve us well. But it does seem to me that in recent years English cricket has been gripped by a kind of soulless managerialism. When players, captain or manager are interviewed, they will couch their comments in stilted, bloodless terms: putting the ball in the right areas, executing our game plan, winning the percentages and so on. What seems to be missing is a sense that these are not ends in themselves, but means towards playing good or even great cricket. God forbid that we should adopt the debased argot of reality TV shows, with ubiquitous statements of how ‘passionate’ we are. But the difference between Australia and England in the latest Ashes does seem to show how the Australians were fired by something more than the mechanics of team management. I have no idea how to create or harness such a feeling and perhaps that is the point: the most important things in cricket may be precisely those things that cannot be controlled or managed. If so, there is also a wider lesson for, as all cricket fans know, cricket is not just a game but a microcosm of life itself.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

History matters

No sooner had I posted some thoughts about the First World War than Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, popped up with his own. In an article in the right-wing British newspaper the Daily Mail (see my recent post to understand where this paper is coming from) he denounced “Left-wing academics” for “belittling true British heroes”. Instead, he offered his own interpretation of it as “a just war” because “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified”. Of course this kind of simplistic analysis wouldn’t even pass muster in a high school project, and unfortunately for Gove his opposite number, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt happens to be a professional historian by background, and issued a sharp rejoinder. Even more unfortunately, Gove chose to position his arguments against one of the most popular British comedy shows - Blackadder Goes Forth, set in, and satirizing, WW1 - and has also been attacked today by one of its most popular actors.

The way that we remember history is not, in any case, likely to be much affected by the pronouncements of politicians – collective memory simply doesn’t work that way. But the fact that politicians might seek to fight over historical interpretation tells us how important those interpretations are. There’s a line in George Orwell’s novel 1984 to the effect that ‘he who controls the past controls the future’ and it is this that is at stake. Gove’s jingoistic rant is not primarily about the past, it’s about trying to advance a present day agenda. Most directly, it’s a coded way of talking about Germany and the EU; more diffusely about trying to resurrect the pieties of nationalism. In other words, history matters – not just, or even primarily, because of the past but because, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur elegantly put it ‘cultures recreate themselves by telling stories about their own past’.
In a very minor way that was brought home to me the other day when I was watching a documentary about the BBC music show ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1979. I was watching it because this was the music of my teenage years, but embedded throughout the programme was a narrative about how trade unions were a destructive, reprehensible force. In a general way, the music of the year was set against images of strikes and the election of Thatcher; in a specific way the BBC was depicted as engaging in restrictive, fuddy-duddy practices because of union controls. Of course this wasn’t a programme ‘about’ political history, it was a programme about pop music ‘in the past’. But embedded in it was, precisely, a political history.

Management and organization studies has a very similar relationship with history. On the one hand, it is the most ahistoric of disciplines. There is very little in the way of detailed scholarship on the history of management and organizations or on managerial and organizational thought (it’s true that there is a research sub-genre of business history, but it is not very connected to either the mainstream of the discipline, nor very present in the teaching curriculum). Students tend to be very impatient of case studies that are not of the moment. In this they have wiling accomplices in their teachers, who, as Paul Adler argues in his introduction to an indispensable Handbook have disconnected themselves from classic thought in the field. That is even reflected in the referencing patterns of journal articles. On the other hand, almost everything written about management and organizations is replete with history, albeit of the crudest and most unexamined sort. It is full of what I refer to in the book as “cartoon concepts” (p.104), especially as regards bureaucracy (old, discredited) and post-bureaucracy (new, shiny), but also in terms of its na├»ve story of an unfolding enlightenment from scientific management (old, nasty) to human relations (new, nice).

This kind of implicit, unexamined history serves – like Gove’s newspaper article – to pursue a particular agenda, primarily that current organizational developments are both inevitable and right. On the other hand, the neglect of history serves to pursue another agenda, primarily that organizations are completely decontextualized and unrelated to the world around them. Almost everything about the historiography of management and organization studies is unsatisfactory either in commission or omission. It remains the great unexplored territory of the subject. At least when someone like Gove pontificates about history it can be seen and understood that this matters for what we do now and in the future. In organization studies that has still to be seen and understood.