Thursday, 31 March 2016

Steel yourself

There are two big news stories in the UK today. One is the closure of the Port Talbot steelworks, following a decision by its Indian owners, Tata, and due mainly to the flood of cheaper Chinese steel into the UK and other markets. The other is the death of the veteran comedian Ronnie Corbett.
They could hardly be more different stories, but I think they are in a certain way linked. The closure of Port Talbot is expressive of the consequences of neo-liberal privatization and globalization. British Steel was privatised in 1988, one of a wave of privatizations under the second Thatcher government, and was subsequently merged with the Dutch group Corus, taken over by Tata in 2007. In recent months the influx of cheaper Chinese steel (a consequence of the slowdown in China) has rendered Port Talbot’s steel uncompetitive.
The fallout of that has exposed many ironies. Some insist that steel must continue to be produced in the UK because of its strategic importance to the defence industry. Here, as in Thatcherism, the tensions of free market and nationalist ideology are evident. Others, arguing for Brexit, complain that the EU has not prevented Chinese steel-dumping. The irony here is that those same people routinely argue against EU ‘meddling’ and yet are now bemoaning the lack of it. A further irony is that the lack of EU action derives from being blocked by the UK government, yet Brexiters say that they are in favour of decisions being made by the UK government, and that the UK has no influence on EU policy. A further irony – or, really, a re-run of the first - is that most Brexiters are free market liberals and yet in their desire to trash the EU they bemoan its lack of protectionism.
What, then, of the death of Ronnie Corbett (a resident of my home town, Croydon, by the way)? Well, the connection for me is that Corbett’s popularity was greatest in the heyday of 1970s broadcasting when he appeared in The Two Ronnies which routinely had audiences of 20 million people. That collective experience was all of a piece with the pre-neo-liberal world of nationalization and of the limited choice (of, in this case, TV channels) to which neo-liberals so vehemently object.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Jonathan Coe’s novels and in particular about his sense of nostalgia, quoting the passage in his 2015 novel Number 11:
“Roger was convinced … that life was better, simpler, easier, in the past … it wasn’t just a hankering for childhood. It was bigger than that. It was to do with what the country was like … in the sixties and seventies …. For Roger it was about welfarism, and having a safety net, and above all … not being weighed down by choice all the time … he loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted.” (Coe, 2015: 176)
In an earlier (2001) novel, The Rotters’ Club, the central character Benjamin Trotter reflects on watching The Morecombe and Wise Show, which, like The Two Ronnies, attracted mass audiences in the 1970s. I don’t have the book to hand, but the gist of the passage was about Benjamin’s awareness that all over the country millions of people were watching the same show, and that he was part of a collective experience as he sat watching it with his family. Indeed I can remember myself how discussing these kind of shows the day after was the common, shared experience in schools and, I imagine, workplaces in the 1970s.
So what I am suggesting is that there was a relationship between a variety of forms of commonality at that time, ranging from shared ownership of industry to shared cultural experience. Some of that was, surely, nostalgic even at the time: shows like Morecombe and Wise and The Two Ronnies were the lineal and in some cases literal descendants of the music hall and seaside pier traditions of Victorian Britain.
If the two stories are connected, then so are the responses. A significant segment of the Brexit vote (and especially the older demographic from which it derives much of its support) is nostalgic for the days of British economic dominance but also for those shared cultural experiences and, probably, even the peculiarly British tradition of the music hall. I actually share some aspects of that nostalgia but I also recognize that it is not enough. And in particular, I can see that its sentimentality makes easy fodder for a Brexit campaign led not by those who want to protect Britain from the forces of globalization and neo-liberalism but by those whose most fervent dream is for their greater and more untrammelled application. In that dream, any number of workers and strategically important industries will be sacrificed; and as for The Two Ronnies well those who want it can subscribe to a pay-to-view channel or buy the DVD, right?

Monday, 28 March 2016

A story about leadership

The other day I came across the text of a short story which I submitted to a 2004 competition run by what was then the Times Higher Education Supplement on the theme of leadership in higher education. My submission didn’t win, but reading it again it made me chuckle, and despite some obvious anachronisms that I haven’t changed it still seems to me to say something about leadership in higher education, even twelve years on. So I thought it would be nice to let it see the light of day. Apologies for the small font size which for some reason I can't change ....
The Vision Thing

Something strange happened yesterday. Not that that is unusual, so perhaps it can’t be strange. And after all, as I’ve only been in the job for two weeks it’s to be expected that everything will be strange, so strangeness is normal. Stop. I have to remember that I am not an academic any more and these kinds of semantic musings are no longer my concern. Anyway, yesterday’s strange thing was an article in the local newspaper about me: ‘New Broom for Greshingham University’.

It’s not that I am unused to seeing my name in the newspapers, and more prestigious titles than the Greshingham Echo I may say. A few years ago, when I chaired the government watchdog on vegetable pesticides I was often in the national press. (‘Boffin’s Hot Potato’ was my favourite headline). No, what was strange was to see myself described as a ‘new broom’. For if there is one thing that I have learned since I started as Vice-Chancellor it is that I spend all my time fulfilling the commitments and carrying out the policies of my predecessor.

It’s fortunate that I inherited his PA, Judy, otherwise I really wouldn’t have a clue what to do. On the other hand, I have to confess that I am rather scared of Judy. This morning was a case in point. I arrived later than I had intended, having drunk more then I should at a dull dinner last night. Judy didn’t actually tell me off for my tardiness, but I had the sense that she would have liked to, and that once I have been longer in post she will have no hesitations about doing so. She pointed out that in ten minutes time I was due to chair a meeting of the university advisory board (a collection of self-important local business people, as it turned out) and then ran through the rest of my engagements before dropping the bombshell. Tomorrow I was to have the first of a series of open meetings with the staff at which I would discuss my vision and mission for the University.

“It’s been in the diary for months,” she countered, seeing my dismay. “Sir David always held these open meetings at the start of the year. He went on a leadership development course that said it was a good way to motivate the staff and ensure their buy-in to the strategic level objectives of the University.”

Sir David was my predecessor. See what I mean about the new broom fantasy?

“What do you suggest I do?” I asked, cravenly rather than defiantly, for I have already learned that I am completely dependent upon Judy.

“Why don’t you use last year’s vision and mission?” she offered, and left me morosely sipping a glass of Alka-Seltzer.

It’s fair to say that I paid less attention than I ought to the advisory board meeting. What I wanted was advice on preparing my vision and mission, but that wasn’t on the agenda. Despite my readiness to be guided by Judy, something in me revolted at the idea of simply re-hashing the existing ones. Perhaps it was the new broom phrase. It was time to stamp my mark on Greshingham and tomorrow’s meeting would be an ideal place to start.

I told Judy my intention at lunchtime. I had the suspicion that she was doubtful, but this may just be my paranoia. In any case, I stood firm. I might not have been on a leadership course, but I’m certainly a leader – a natural leader, perhaps, so I don’t need to go on a course – and, equally naturally, I do have a strong vision of what the University should achieve. All that was needed was time to put pen to paper.

As luck would have it I had a couple of hours free that afternoon. According to the diary, I was due to meet the Head of Chemistry which Judy told me had been a regular fixture every term for the last four years because it was in a ‘turnaround’ situation. That meant, apparently, that it had scored poorly in the last RAE, been found wanting in its teaching quality and was so laggardly in meeting its access targets that my predecessor had singled it out for his special oversight. However, in an oversight of a different kind, it had gone unnoticed that, having failed to turnaround, the School had in fact been closed down and so the termly meeting was now redundant.

“As are the members of the School of Chemistry,” I quipped.

“They’ve been re-deployed, Vice-Chancellor,” she said stonily.

I don’t think I will try making jokes with Judy any more.

When I came to write down my vision I found, distressingly, that I don’t have one. I mean, I want us to do well, obviously. But this seems altogether too anaemic to warrant being called a vision. How about something more grandiose? To be a world-class university? That has a better ring, certainly. It’s difficult to take seriously, though. I haven’t met all my colleagues yet, but those I have seem to fall considerably short of world-class. Indeed, if we exclude the robotics team, it seems unlikely that the world would be perceptibly worse if Greshingham didn’t exist at all. Perhaps that is unfair to the Media Lab people, at least in their own estimation, although I freely concede that I am hazy about what goes on there. Attaching electrodes to journalists’ heads?

I realised that it was now half an hour since I had started, or rather failed to start. In desperation I turned to the pages of the THES to see how other universities position themselves. It seemed to depend on what kind of place they are. The newer universities stressed teaching (‘Luton – education that works’) whereas the older institutions put the accent on research (‘Southampton – at the cutting edge of innovation’). I certainly don’t want us to be thought of as an ex-poly, but then again we mustn’t come across as too ivory tower either. The best bet might be to emphasise teaching and research.

But were these things visions, anyhow? Would anyone imagine in their absence that the aim was education that didn’t work and research which didn’t bother with new discoveries? I thought of last week’s visit to the Philosophy Department and realised that some people might. Even so, I was sure that ‘Thames Valley – in the heart of Berkshire’ couldn’t be considered a vision so much as a statement of fact. Surely a vision had to be aspirational: ‘Thames Valley – in the heart of Wales’?

Perhaps I should start with the mission instead. But what was the difference between a vision and mission? I had to admit to myself that I had no idea. I could ask Judy, I supposed, but I wasn’t quite ready for that humiliation. Would the dictionary help? For each word there were various meanings, mostly irrelevant. Mission – ‘body sent by religious community to propagate its faith’, for example. On the other hand, was it so irrelevant? Perhaps this kind of outreach activity was exactly what was needed to deal with the access problem which was discussed at last week’s council meeting? Then again, was the university a religious community? Did it have a faith? And might it all smack of colonialism anyway (a bad thing)? As for vision – ‘thing or person seen a dream or trance’ didn’t really work. After all, I’d been sitting in a dream or trance for over an hour and hadn’t come up with anything.

On balance, the best definitions seemed to be ‘statesmanlike sagacity of planning’ for vision (I particularly liked the sound of that) and ‘task to be performed’ for mission. I felt I was getting somewhere at last. Still, it seemed like a thin line. If my vision was to be a world-class university, and despite my reservations this still appealed to me, then surely the mission was also to be a world-class university. The only difference so far as I could see (my vision, according to the first definition in the dictionary!) was that I had the vision and this then became other people’s mission. That seemed like a good idea, but would other people agree?

Irritatingly, just as I was making progress, the telephone rang. Judy told me that my daughter Simone was on the line and needed to talk to me urgently. Simone is a student, in her second year at one of the London colleges. I was worried that something was wrong but it soon emerged that all she wanted was to be picked up from the station that evening. Sometimes I think my family don’t realise how important I have become. I was about to tell her off for disturbing me at work with this triviality when it occurred to me that Simone is studying business management. Admittedly it was vaguely embarrassing to have to ask my own daughter about how to formulate the vision and mission of my university, but there’s no point in being too proud. And wasn’t this the sort of thing she would have learned about?

“Yeah, Dad,” she drawled contemptuously. “We did that in the first year.”

“So what should I say?” I asked, all pretence of superiority gone.

“Depends if you’re a lion, a wolf or a jackal,” she said. “Which are you?”

“Well, I’m not sure” I found myself giggling nervously. “What do you think?”

“Do you lead from the front, hunt on your own or stick with the pack?”

“I suppose a bit of all three,” I suggested.

“Hmm, a hybrid,” she said, disapprovingly. “Anyway, it doesn’t make any difference because whatever you are you have to look into your inner self and ask what you really want and then translate it into a story that can inspire people,” she said, before announcing that her train was entering a tunnel.

After the phone went dead, I tried to take her advice. I looked into my inner self. What was my real vision for the future? The only thing I could think of was getting a knighthood, like my predecessor. My mission? I suppose it boiled down to not making any truly awful mistakes in public. And they fitted together pretty well, because so long as I don’t completely screw up then I should finish with a knighthood. What was the other bit? Translate that into an inspirational story. It seemed good enough to me, but I couldn’t honestly think anyone else would be inspired by it. In fact, if I said this at tomorrow’s meeting then it might well count as making a truly awful mistake in public.

There was a knock on my door and Judy bustled in, reminding me that my next meeting was about to begin. There wasn’t any point in pretending any longer, but still I tried to save face.

“Judy,” I began, “I’ve decided that what we need is a period of continuity and stability. It’s called - um – the golden labrador approach to leadership. So I thought I’d stick for the time being with last year’s vision and mission. What were they again?”

“Greshingham aims to provide education that works and research at the cutting edge of innovation in the heart of the Midlands,” she intoned.

I’d been thinking along the right lines, obviously. Still I wasn’t willing to forget the new broom tag.

“Good,” I replied. “We’ll go with that, but add at the end ‘with world-class aspirations in selected areas’.”

I thought I had had the last word, but a moment later Judy returned and handed me a letter inviting me to attend a workshop entitled ‘Transforming Leaders in Higher Education’.

Was my life was about to change?

Friday, 25 March 2016

The fourth estate

There are many things I would like to write about today, from the latest Islamist atrocities in Brussels to the latest twists in the EU Referendum debate. But one dimension of these and, by definition, any news story is the reporting of news in general and the importance of journalistic freedom in particular.
I’m prompted to say this by the trial which began today, in secret, in Turkey of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. The case, which involves charges of espionage since the journalists reported on alleged Turkish state support for weapons shipments to Syria, has attracted widespread condemnation. It comes at a time of wider concerns about press freedom in Turkey, in part following the State takeover of Zaman, the country’s biggest newspaper, earlier this month.
Journalistic freedom is always a target for attack by authoritarian regimes, and there are numerous cases throughout history – Egypt’s action against three al-Jazeera journalists being a recent notorious example. That this is so reflects, precisely, why journalism is so important to a free society and why it is so important to defend it. The universally acclaimed recent film Spotlight, about the journalistic investigation of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, dramatizes this, as did now classic films like All the President’s Men or The Killing Fields.
The need for robust reporting and investigative journalism seems to me to be all the more important given the massive increase in information available because of the internet and social media – what Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks calls ‘the networked fourth estate’. In one way this seems to offer a powerful counter in its own right to political authoritarianism. In another way, it obscures because it enables anyone and everyone to put their message out – in blogs like this one, indeed – with no necessary regard for truth, verification or accuracy. Twitter storms both shape the news agenda and become news in their own right.
In this world, according to the Pew Research Center:
"Instead of gatekeepers, journalists now become referees. Acknowledging that our potential audience is flooded with unlimited information and no way of discerning what is of value, what is true, what is propaganda, we must construct our work to offer them the referee’s advice: this information has been checked and verified; this information has been found to be untrue; this is self-interested propaganda; this is being reported but we have yet to be able to verify the information."

Academics are also important in this process. I think it was C. Wright Mills who described sociology as ‘slow journalism’ but whoever it was I agree – as regards sociology and social science in general, including organization studies. Indeed this is why (returning to the general point) authoritarian regimes also persecute academics as they do journalists, but my point is more particularly that in the internet-enabled cacophony academics can also be ‘referees’. Indeed they are often used by the media in just that way, and it seems to me a more important social utility than the rather mechanical notion of ‘research impact’ currently in vogue. What I find striking and impressive is the way that every time a new news story breaks, there is an academic on hand with expertise in what just hours before might have been dismissed as esoteric self-indulgence or 'academic' in the pejorative sense.
Of course there are plenty of academics and journalists who use their positions in ways that neither live up to the heroic traditions of investigative crusade nor to the mundane traditions of careful facticity. And the notions of disinterested truth that underpin both are clearly somewhat threadbare; one hardly needs to read the laboured prose of postmodern philosophers to realise this. Even so many journalists and academics do, I think, seek to uphold their best traditions whilst being sensitive to their limitations.
On the other hand, just at the moment that good journalism is most needed it is being undermined by the economics of new technology and the voracious demands of 24-hour rolling news. It is very cheap to use what is at best citizen journalism and at worst twitter-fuelled populism to fill cavernous news space, and much journalism is now no more than a recycling of the PR material of firms and governments. By contrast, it is expensive to maintain a journalistic staff unless there is lot of cultural capital and state subsidy (e.g. the BBC) or a lot of cultural capital and a brand that can be ‘monetized’ (e.g. the Financial Times). Academics, too, face pressures, especially where universities are heavily dependent on private funding or just when they become so overwhelmed by other demands that their public information role gets marginalized.
Even so, our main concern should surely be the very direct, coercive ways in which authoritarian states seek to silence comment, and here I return to Turkey – a country, let’s not forget, that is a member of NATO and an aspirant member of the EU. Here, it is not just journalists who are being arrested and, in fact, killed. Just ten days ago, three mathematics academics were arrested for calling for an end to security operations against the Kurds (and a fourth, British computer scientist Chris Stephenson was arrested and then deported for protesting in their support) and stand accused of terrorism.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Shades of grey

No, our topic today is not BDSM (and can I say in passing how peculiar it has been to, almost, share a name with Christian Grey, the protagonist of 50 Shades of Grey?). Instead, I am going to reflect on Allan Massie’s extraordinary novel quartet comprising Death in Bordeaux (2010), Dark Summer in Bordeaux (2012), Cold Winter in Bordeaux (2014) and End Games in Bordeaux (2015).
These novels, which feature Superintendent Lannes are only in the most superficial sense roman policiers. Rather, they are an account of life in wartime France, concerned with the dilemmas of collaboration, resistance and the various shades of grey between. More than this, they show the moral ambiguities of these very categories, told in particular through Lannes’ sons, one of whom joins the Free French forces whilst another joins the Vichy regime. Both do so for honourable reasons.
History is a strange arbiter of morality. In some ways, it enables us to look back and see moral choices as rather easy: for example between resisting and collaborating, even though, as Massie’s novels show, the choices at the time were more agonizing. Other times, what may have at the time been experienced as easy choices (the rightness of joining up in 1914, say) now seem much less clear cut.
Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is quite beautifully written in showing how perspectival moral choices can be, not just in terms of his sons’ choices but those in the world of prostitutes, both male and female, and other demi-monde characters as they negotiate and exist within a complex moral universe. But it is not a work of moral relativism. Within the appreciation of the dilemmas of choice there are clear parameters so that Advocate Labouche is consistently depicted as irredeemably evil, but not so much because of his collaboration as for his bullying and sexual depravity.
Taken together the ‘Bordeaux’ quartet is a fascinating exploration of a theme which continues to be hugely controversial in France to the present day, although not quite reaching the heights of his masterpiece on that same theme, A Question of Loyalties (1989).
It strikes me that the recognition of moral ambiguities is something common to the best writing in the genres of crime and espionage, both of which I read voraciously. In fact, it is what makes such writing more than simply ‘genre novels’. John Le Carré’s ‘Smiley’ (or ‘Karla’) trilogy is the classic and perhaps still unsurpassed example, but excellent contemporary contributions include Edward Wilson’s ‘Catesby’ series and Joseph Kanon’s recent Leaving Berlin (2015).
The latter works derive some of their emotional charge from the fact that they concern secrecy and secret organizations. As mentioned in my last post this is something that currently interests me, and one aspect of this is that novels like Wilson’s and Le Carré’s in particular show how secret organizations are very recognizably similar to any other organization. For example, the same power plays, divisional rivalries or petty rules are in evidence. Conversely, ‘ordinary’ organizations are replete with secrets of all sorts even if they are not ostensibly or overtly concerned with secrecy. In fact, in both cases, whatever secrets are normally at stake may become, just that, normal and hardly registered.
This normalization of secrecy also speaks to the theme of moral ambiguity. For example, when wrongdoing is covered up and subsequently comes to light we may wonder how those involved could have colluded with it – recent examples might include the LIBOR rate fixing scandal or even more controversially the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal at the BBC where ‘cultural factors’ inhibited the reporting of his heinous activities to managers. Perhaps one answer lies in the normalization of secrecy within particular organizational contexts.
That most certainly isn’t to let people who do wrong off the hook it’s just, as in Massie’s novels, to understand that people sometimes do bad things for good reasons (and, for that matter, good things for bad reasons) or for reasons that seem good at the time, or just without really thinking about the reasons. So whilst Savile, like Labouche in Massie’s novels and in similar ways, was unequivocally immoral, those around him who colluded in concealing his activities were operating in a moral grey zone, where good and evil are much more difficult to judge.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

All about me

Rather shamelessly, my post today is to promote two books of mine that are about to come out. The first is a collection edited with Isabelle Huault, Véronique Perret and Laurent Taskin entitled Critical Management Studies. Global Voices, Local Accents. Published by Routledge on March 18 (but already available electronically) the idea is a simple one. Critical Management Studies (CMS) is largely dominated by Anglophone writings from Anglo-Scandinavian authors, but it has to some extent been picked up globally. So how does CMS play out in different locales and different linguistic communities?
Part of the issue here is one of travel and translation of ideas; another part is about how CMS perhaps ironically recreates the patterns of domination within ‘mainstream’ management studies. We wanted to capture this in a way that recognized some sense of a ‘centre’ and ‘margins’ but also to problematize that distinction by showing how, for example, CMS may be more fragile in, say, the UK than might be thought and also might be quite radically inflected in, say, Brazil. So there is more going on than a hegemonic centre ‘making’ CMS and a passive margin ‘taking’ CMS (although some of that may be going on, as well).
In a way it’s just a first attempt at a global ‘survey’ of CMS – a first attempt because there are large parts of the world that are not covered, either because there is not much CMS going on, or because we couldn’t find an author to write about it. The countries or regions that are covered are: Australia/New Zealand, Benelux, Canada, China, France, Germanic, Israel, Italy, Japan, Scandinavia, South America, Turkey, UK, USA.
The other book is entirely different. Written with Jana Costas and published by Stanford University Press on 30 March it is called Secrecy at Work. The Hidden Architecture of Organizational Life. It’s not in any but the broadest sense a CMS book. Rather it aspires to be a contribution to organizational sociology and theory on a big scale. We argue that secrecy should be added to the standard repertoire of the study of organizations because it is part of the standard repertoire of organizational life. We try to capture the whole gamut of ways that this is so, from trade secrets and restricted access laboratories through to whispered gossip in workplace corridors.
And more than that we try to show how such things create literal and metaphorical architectures of in groups and out groups. Secrecy is an incredibly powerful thing, creating a sense of exclusivity and specialness, but also sometimes a burden amongst those who possess secrets. Meanwhile imaginations, both beneficent and malign, abound amongst those on the outside about what goes on behind closed doors.
So this is, in intent at least, an ambitious book but of course it remains to be seen what others will make of it. Early omens are good. Yiannis Gabriel of Bath University has said that it “sheds brilliant light on an area of organizational life that has … been systematically excluded from organizational theory”. Amanda Sinclair at Melbourne University calls it a “brilliant analysis” whilst Steven Lukes of New York University found it to be “a pioneering, highly readable study; full of insights”. However it ends up being received it’s a book I’m proud of.
Since this post is irretrievably egotistical I will just mention that the manuscript of the fourth edition of ‘A very short etc.’ that is the basis of this blog has now gone to the publisher and should be out at the end of this year or the beginning of next.