Friday, 17 October 2014

The Times (they aren't a-changing)

One of the arguments in the book that has caught the most attention is my claim that the rhetoric of unprecedented change, and its use to justify organizational change, is bogus and, moreover, that attempts at change management usually fail (pp. 90-100).
In this context, I had an interesting experience this week whilst stuck on a delayed train for two hours, during which I read The Times from cover to cover. In particular, I read two articles that seemed to sum up this issue (they are pay-walled, so I can’t give links as I usually do). The first was part of a special section on ‘The Agile Business’, and was entitled ‘Change is necessary to survive and grow’ (Charles Orton-Jones, The Agile Business Supplement p.3, The Times, October 14 2014). Here, all the clich├ęs I enumerate in the book were present: incessant improvement is vital in today’s world, an incoherent nod to Darwinism, some examples from the software industry, a lot of wordy rhetoric about the 'oblivion' awaiting those who don't heed the message. So far, so boring – although it does bear saying that since this kind of talk has been around for 35 years or more then the torpid, flaccid corporations it is supposedly aimed at will invariably have been the ones that embraced the same message before. So, truly, this is the revolution that never happens.
Be that as it may, the other article that caught my eye was ‘Watchmaker that defied the passing of time’ (Jenny Hirschkorn, The Times, October 14 2014, p.49) which told the story of luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe. In the 1970s and 1980s the received wisdom was that mechanical watchmakers had no future in the face of quartz watches; that European and US watch markets were finished and the future was China; that watchmakers must diversify from production because the future was retailing. Patek Philippe ignored all of this (the article calls these “counter-intuitive decisions”) and as a result is now prospering as the demand for mechanical watches increases, the China market collapses, and keeping out of retail has enhanced the exclusivity of the product. That the firm was family-owned may be significant; that it remains so surely is; that it is the last family-owned watchmaker in Geneva even more so.
It’s easy to see that had Patek Philippe followed the change mantra it would now no longer exist, except, perhaps, as a brand name shell, like so many British businesses that took the prescribed path. This is one of what I would argue are many cases where the criticisms of ‘critical management studies’ are actually highly relevant to the practical concerns of sustainable businesses. We will never know how many companies have gone to the wall by following the breathless mantra: change or die. But we can be sure that those who champion the mantra of unprecedented, constant change will continue to claim it as an unchanging verity.

Immigration matters

I have written several times on this blog about immigration, because it is so intimately linked to organizational life in many countries. In the UK, almost all workplaces now contain a wide mix of nationalities, especially from the rest of the EU. But of course immigration is deeply unpopular, and has fed the growth in support for UKIP in the UK, and many other anti-immigration parties across Europe.
This puts mainstream politicians in a very difficult situation in a democracy. Some voters are anti-immigration for reasons that are out and out racist, but not all anti-immigration sentiment is racist (although it does not follow, as some claim, that none of it is). Instead, it arises from concerns about jobs and wages, and about space and public services. Yet as regards EU migration, which is what animates current debate in the UK, the number of immigrants into the UK is about the same as that out of the UK – around 2 million people. So in the absence of free movement within the EU, the UK population would be about the same, meaning no difference in terms of space. And in terms of public services, it probably reduces usage because immigrants to the UK tend to be healthy, working-age people whilst many emigrants from the UK are elderly retirees.
So far as jobs and wages are concerned, the effect of immigration is limited. There is not a fixed pool of jobs in an economy (this is the ‘lump of labour fallacy’) and, empirically, the effect on wages is negligible, and such effect as there is mainly attributable to illegal employment practices. Moreover, the idea that immigrants claim benefits is a myth: immigrants overall pay more in than they take out of the benefits system. So too is the idea of ‘health tourism’ – that immigrants come to the UK in order to access free medical treatment. It’s notable that the fears and myths about immigration are always most strongly held in places where immigration is low. Thus the UKIP vote is much lower in, for example, London, than it is in rural parts of Yorkshire
But it is almost impossible for politicians to counter these various fallacies and myths, even when they know that that is what they are. At the same time, any well-informed politician will know that economies such as the UK’s need more, not less, immigration because of their ageing demographic.  The consequences of that demographic are accepted by people when it comes to policy on health or on pensions, yet not when it comes to immigration and employment. An anti-immigration policy would spell disaster for the UK and many other old industrial democracies.
So no responsible politician could advocate draconian limits to immigration; yet no sensible politician can ignore the extent of anti-immigration sentiment amongst voters. It is this disjuncture which feeds the populism of UKIP and similar parties. Populism may be popular, but it entails pandering to people by giving superficially appealing and easy solutions which are in fact detrimental to those same people.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On Twitter

New technologies always throw up new vocabularies. Recently, we have learned the term ‘twitter storm’ to denote a surge of typically acrimonious comment on the twitter social media site. We also now have ‘trolls’, and this is an interesting example of how the new language has become old enough to mutate. A few years back a troll was someone who posted deliberately provocative comments on internet forums in order to garner a reaction – the implication being that the poster did not really think these things. Increasingly, though, a troll is understood to be someone posting offensive, abusive or threatening remarks, with no suggestion that this is done purely for effect.
Of course trolls tweet and tweeters troll, and we have seen the effects this can have this week with the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland. She had been tweeting abusive messages to the family of Madeleine McCann, the child who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal seven years ago. The dead woman had been confronted by a journalist a few days before her death. This in turn led to the journalist becoming the subject of a vitriolic twitter campaign. And recently twitter trolls who made rape and death threats against feminist campaigners were jailed.
Meanwhile, in the fallout from the sacking of cricketer Kevin Pietersen – which I posted about a while back - continued when he published his autobiography this week. Much of the controversy concerns tweets that he sent, and a bogus twitter account set up by his then team mates in his name which reduced him to tears. His former team mates immediately took to twitter to give their reactions.
Twitter is not, of course, just the domain of trolls and celebrities. In September 2013 some 200 million users worldwide sent 400 million tweets per day. It has become a near-compulsory conduit for political and corporate leaders. Really quite important statements are released on twitter by, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron, as they are by Barack Obama. No self-respecting Chief Executive fails to tweet, nor any corporate PR department. And twitter can also provide a vehicle for whistle blowers, trade unions and activists.
We should not however conclude that this is just a neutral technology that may be used for any and every purpose. It is a very particular medium with very particular rules, most notably the 140 character rule. In this way it has a very particular effect: it is a vehicle for simplification. Much has been made of the issue of anonymity and the way this encourages ‘trolls’ to behave in ways that they might not otherwise do. But it makes all who use it behave in ways they would not otherwise do, by stripping out all nuance. The two are linked: for the trolls, ethical sensitivity is flattened out; for the ‘responsible tweeters’ complexity is flattened out.
This is not an elitist lament for ‘dumbing down’. Twitter and other social media are not egalitarian, despite the claims of starry-eyed internet libertarians. They give the illusion of a voice for everyone, but their very ubiquity means that no voice is heard. Sure, anyone can open a twitter account or a facebook page or set up a blog, but that does not mean that the old structures of power have disappeared. Would you be reading this blog if it were not for my book and its publisher? Would that book have been published if I did not hold a university position? There is no democratization in social media, but there is a very powerful illusion of it. Everyone has a voice, so no one can be heard.
So when several friends and colleagues have suggested that I should start to tweet, not least to publicize this blog, I haven’t been keen. When I ask to see how they use twitter I am always amazed that they see a value in it. To me it just seems meaningless. I can’t imagine gaining anything from ‘following’ them, even though they are people who I like or whose work interests me. So by the same token I can’t imagine that anything could be gained by me tweeting.
Perhaps you will think that I am just a Luddite. But that is a convenient term to imply a blanket rejection of new technology normally used by those uncritically accepting new technology. I prefer to think that the Emperor has no clothes and that twitter stands as testimony to a shallow populism dressed up as democratic participation and an egotism dressed up as open communication. It seems to me to have several very unpleasant effects and no redeeming qualities at all. It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication.
That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics. As Brenda Leyland said when confronted about her tweets: “I’m entitled to do that”. That is not to revile her. A few days later she was dead, caught in desperation between the infantilised, simplified world of 140 character tweets and the adult world where words, politics and ethics are more complex.