Universities and public value

By Martin Vogel

test card
BBC Test Card image.

Higher education’s status as a not-for-profit public service operating in a globally competitive market is unusual. There are not many comparable institutions – and this can make HE’s travails, as it contemplates regulatory change, seem like a lonely struggle. But HE is not alone. An analogous institution is the BBC. There are affinities in terms of cultural role, independence and longevity. But the most striking is the exposure to competition while pursuing public purposes. This creates a tendency towards managerialism and instrumentalism that can be counter-productive. To keep this tendency in check, and retain public support, the BBC turned to the concept of public value. Universities are now exploring the same avenue, as they try to regain public connection, revealed by the Brexit vote to be threadbare. Continue reading “Universities and public value”

A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff

By Mark Wakefield

john-henry-newman
John Henry Newman defined an exciting purpose for universities.

We recently ran a workshop with a university as part of some work we are doing with it on its strategy. In one exercise, we asked those present to reflect on what it was that they found exciting about it. The results were illuminating and we were hopeful that it would enable the team to engage their colleagues more effectively in the merits of what they were proposing. However, I was surprised when one member of the team commented that the word “exciting” was an odd one to use in relation to a strategy. He’d never heard it so used before. To which my reply was “what’s the point of a strategy that isn’t exciting?” The term “strategy” is perhaps one of the most over-used and abused words in organisations both public and private. To some it’s a kind of virility symbol, to others it reeks of business school managerialism. At its most basic, a strategy is (or should be) a carefully considered, evidence-based plan for allocating an organisation’s resources in the most effective way possible to secure a desired end. Continue reading “A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff”

What has trauma to do with work?

By Martin Vogel

stress

Book review: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein

I read The Trauma of Everyday Life to inform my thinking for an event I am helping to organise on trauma in coaching. I hadn’t appreciated before I read the book just how much of a Buddhist take on the subject it would represent. It turns out Mark Epstein, a New York-based psychiatrist, is an established writer on Buddhism and its intersection with psychotherapy. He provides here a psychotherapeutic biography of the Buddha: how the Buddha’s own traumas informed his enlightenment and how this, in turn, shines a light on how best we can cope with difficulty in our lives. This is perhaps more interesting to me than a straight psychotherapeutic discussion. Though no Buddhist, I practice mindfulness. As a matter of philosophical disposition, I find the possibilities it holds out for caring for oneself more appealing than the path that working with an expert therapist offers.

Epstein adopts a broader and looser interpretation of trauma than one normally encounters in psychotherapeutic discussion. He distinguishes between the conventional view of trauma, as confronting a death or serious injury, and developmental trauma, when emotional pain cannot be held. Sometimes, these might converge – for example, Epstein refers to the Buddha’s own developmental emotional pain resulting from the death in his infancy of his mother. But Epstein also views the common difficulties of life through the lens of trauma and refers to the pre-traumatic stress with which we experience the inevitability of death.

Continue reading “What has trauma to do with work?”

After the General Election, the forthcoming politics of organisation

By Martin Vogel

strike
Politics of organisation: hopefully, not like this, this time round.

Earlier this year, I attended a talk at the RSA by Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Laloux was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped after reading his book. But what has stayed with me also was a throwaway comment by Matthew Taylor, chairman of the RSA and former advisor to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Reflecting on the paucity of organisational life, Matthew observed that we need a politics of organisation. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what we need and, at last, people are beginning to get it.

The politics of organisation was, of course, one of many absences in the General Election campaign. One of the successes of three decades of neo-liberalism is that what happens inside organisations has been ruled out of court for politicians. But at the same time, organisations – particularly private corporations – have become increasingly central to how our society is, well, organised. Most of us work in large organisations to earn our living and, with the hollowing out of the state, depend on them for the delivery of our public services. And what is left of life is increasingly mediated by the likes of banks that are too big to fail, food retailers whose chains extend from the convenience shop to the out-of-town megastore, and global internet businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. How we experience them as employees and consumers and how they impact on society in general are among the most significant influences on our lives.

Continue reading “After the General Election, the forthcoming politics of organisation”

Apple Watch: how the quantification of life assists managerialism

By Martin Vogel

Apple Watch blackSimon Western has ruined my eager anticipation of the Apple Watch (launching late next month, pre-orders from 10th April). In a profound and reflective piece, he discusses how the Watch (as opposed to the humble watch) represents the latest and most decisive step towards the creation of a neurotic age.

Key to this argument is the insight that technology is not simply an appendage to human life but changes what it is to be human. As Simon Western says, we are so affectively attached to the brands and products of the technology companies that they become a part of our emotional, physical and cognitive being. Apple is foremost in facilitating this attachment – with its celebrated competence in combining the disciplines of arts, humanities, science and technology in the service of the development of products to die for. But it is far from alone, as exemplified by the signal obssessions of our day: monitoring of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email; the pre-eminence of collecting selfies above experiencing life; or the quantifying of one’s lifestyle.

Continue reading “Apple Watch: how the quantification of life assists managerialism”

Corporations as a force for good? Could do better.

By Martin Vogel

Supplying a force for good?
Supplying a force for good?

“Corporations as a force for good” was the optimistic title of a talk given by the London Business School academic, Lynda Gratton, at the Royal Society of Arts today. Her thesis was more a paean to than a critique of corporations. On the evidence she presented, I found her optimism a little premature. Corporations can be great conduits for the creativity and fulfilment of employees and the fulfilment of societal needs at massive scale. But they are vessels for trapping employees in alienating conditions, exploiting their consumers and society at large and they often ask too few questions about their supply chains. “Could do better” would be a more appropriate assessment of the current contribution of corporations.

Continue reading “Corporations as a force for good? Could do better.”

The hard path of the whistleblower: apropos An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

By Martin Vogel

Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS
Whistelblowers past and present: George Picquart, French Army, and Julie Bailey, Cure the NHS

Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy is not only a cracking read but a psychological study in the gathering courage of a whistleblower in an organisation gone to bad.

It tells the story of the Dreyfus affair – the wrongful conviction and incarceration for spying of a Jewish officer in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. It is told through the eyes of Georges Picquart, a spy chief who is both a party to the downfall of Dreyfus and a prime mover in the uncovering of Dreyfus’s framing by the military establishment.

Much of the power of the narrative derives from the fact that Picquart is a reluctant whistleblower. The youngest colonel in the army, he has a great career ahead of him. Moreover, he shares the casual anti-semitism of his age and has no great sympathy for Dreyfus. Nonetheless, when he discovers evidence that implicates a different officer, Esterhazy, in the spying for which Dreyfus was blamed, he cannot ignore the injustice and assumes his senior officers will think likewise.

Continue reading “The hard path of the whistleblower: apropos An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris”

The malaise of busyness and a 30-second antidote

By Martin Vogel

sunspot stopwatch

People are busy talking about being busy.

Take, for example, Oliver Burkeman, who has identified a new social malaise of busy-bragging. This seems to be a function of people’s need to derive status from how hard they are working.

I always try to bring scepticism to the idea of busyness as a status symbol. In my experience, when people complain of being too busy, they really don’t like it. But Lucy Kellaway has unearthed data that suggests we’re all busy overestimating how hard we work and it is precisely those who occupy high-status positions who are most prone to bigging up their busyness:

Continue reading “The malaise of busyness and a 30-second antidote”

Miscellany: narcissism, storytelling and more

By Martin Vogel

Narcissus
Narcissus by Caravaggio

An unrelated assortment of pieces could each have prompted a blog post. But since it’s been a busy week, I’ll note them in passing.


Corporate purpose and organisational form

John Kay, apropos the Co-op debacle, provides a timely back to basics primer on who should be held to account and how when things go wrong in organisations:

“The public company has become the dominant form of business organisation because it seems to offer clear answers to these questions. Shareholders put up the money and control the executives. True, the reality often falls short. Shareholders are often diffuse and disengaged. The cost of bad business decisions may fall instead on employees, creditors and taxpayers. But, on balance, the corporate form works tolerably well.”

But that’s not the end of the argument because John Kay makes the good point that there are many hybrid organisations – such as privatised utilities, hospitals and universities – that need to develop distinctive frameworks of control because they combine trading and social purposes.

Continue reading “Miscellany: narcissism, storytelling and more”

The limits of leadership

By Martin Vogel

Mandela: too exceptional to be a leadership role model?
Mandela: too exceptional to be a leadership role model?

It may seem perverse in the week that we have commemorated the impact on the world of one man, Nelson Mandela, but I feel the need to cast a sceptical look at our obsession with leadership.

We live in an age which has made a fetish of leaders. As you squeeze into a rush hour Tube train, consider that probably 50 per cent of the people packed around you consider themselves to be on some kind of leadership mission at work. The other half are most likely being harangued by their organisations to step up more forcefully to the leadership plate.

Like the self-help books that offer the promise that you can achieve whatever you dream, the idea of leadership holds out the possibility that there’s no problem in organisations that can’t be resolved by a visionary and driven individual. Yet we’re regaled routinely with stories of mediocrity, organisational failure and leadership shortcomings. Ours is a tired post-industrial culture, in which the complexity of organisations and the myopia of short-term perspectives conspire to frustrate the realisation of visionary outcomes. The veneration of Mandela is testimony to the fact that, as a leadership role model, he was exceptional.

Continue reading “The limits of leadership”