Robert Conquest’s claim that “every organisation behaves as if it is run by secret agents of its opponents” seems outlandish at first glance. But if you allow yourself to reject the fake news, bullshit (non)sense-making that most organisations try to impose on us, it’s hard not to keep stumbling into the truth of Conquest’s law.
Oxfam’s sex exploitation scandal (£) is a case study in how easily leaders can trash the reputation of their organisation when, through wilful blindness, they convince themselves that they are acting to protect it.
In a series of articles, The Times has revealed how Oxfam betrayed its purpose to help the vulnerable in Haiti, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was a time when the country was devastated, and political authority had all but broken down. Senior aid workers in Haiti were able to seize the opportunity to organise the sexual exploitation of young women – including underage girls – whose desperation in the disaster presumably secured their compliance. There were said to be orgies and the exploitation of underage girls.
This is the final post in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore how interdisciplinarity and external collaboration can revitalise the public value of universities.
Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships provide a foundation for universities to renew their public value. This is because they grow out of the genuine and distinct strengths of a particular institution and point to how it can make a unique contribution to addressing society’s challenges. But this contribution can be realised only if there is clarity about the institution’s public purposes: the generic ones it shares with other higher education establishments and the distinct one that arise out of its own particular circumstances.
This is the third in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore the complex nature of university cultures and how we use conversation and reflection to mobilise distributed leadership.
Interdisciplinarity can address a university’s need for funds and a distinctive marketing proposition but also the individual academic’s need for compelling research opportunities. If each university has unique research strengths, these can be synthesised into interdisciplinary ventures which pursue approaches to research excellence that can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. This creates compelling reasons for funds, students and academics to gravitate to particular institutions. It counters a view of higher education as a largely undifferentiated, instrumental business with one which construes it as comprising diverse institutions each with intrinsic value and distinctive contributions to make to the world’s knowledge.
Over recent years, we have developed a focus on supporting academics and managers in universities who are trying to foster greater interdisciplinary working and greater engagement with external partners. This series of blog posts reviews our learning in this area and explores how our counter-consultancy approach is especially suited to resolving challenges that higher education institutions encounter in pursuing interdisciplinary objectives.
Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships are distinct but closely related areas for universities. While disciplines represent communities of practice that transcend the boundaries of any one university, the idea of disciplines also serves as an institutional heuristic that facilitates internal ways of organising. But in their pursuit of research outcomes that deliver tangible value to society, universities are finding that questions that range across disciplinary distinctions are increasingly salient. This is largely driven by the complexity and pace of change of the modern world. Governments and other funders of research are searching for solutions to big global challenges that are best approached through joined-up interdisciplinary enquiries. Funding is increasingly focussed around themes such as demographic change and wellbeing, food security or climate change. External partners too, caught up in this complexity, are bringing research questions that range across disciplinary distinctions.
The book deconstructs the managerialist consensus that construes organisations as being somehow apart from society, and amenable to direction in whatever way managers consider to be “efficient”. Efficiency, in this worldview, turns out to be the right of senior managers/shareholders to optimise the running of the organisation in their own interest. It does not lack an ethical claim. Taylorism, for example, freed factory workers from the tyranny of the gang leader and offered a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. But it led to a perverted extreme by which, to quote one of Grey’s contemporary examples, it can seem rational and legitimate to require machine operators to urinate on the spot in their clothes on the grounds that allowing lavatory breaks is too costly.
Book review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
In the years since the financial crisis, we’ve honed a conviction here at Vogel Wakefield that the way most businesses and organisations are run is bust. Public distrust has been engendered not just by the financial crash but scandals in sectors as diverse as the health service, the media, supermarkets, the police and Parliament. Such is the depth of distrust that we envisage society eventually breaking decisively with the economic settlement of the past three decades. What the shape of the new consensus will be, who can tell? But the future surely entails profound changes for the way organisations are run. The public wants businesses to exercise greater stewardship of community assets and to operate in a more socially-oriented way.
If this vision sounds nebulous and, frankly, utopian, the exciting thing about Frederic Laloux’s book, Reinventing Organizations, is the detailed portrayal it presents of successful companies that are making real today the model of tomorrow. His view of the forces of change is broader than ours. Where we envisage this as a paradigm shift in contemporary capitalism, akin to that from social democracy to neo-liberalism thirty years ago, Laloux sees a fundamental shift in human development, the kind of shift that occurs as human consciousness develops. In this, he draws on the work of Piaget, Robert Kegan and, especially, Ken Wilber.
“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.
Last week, I ended a 30-year customer relationship with the Co-operative Bank. The move was precipitated initially by financial caution as a gaping hole was revealed in the bank’s balance sheet but cemented by dismay at the catalogue of mismanagement revealed in recent weeks.
While I feel a litte sad as a customer, I’m also discomforted professionally as the collapse of the Co-op Bank raises questions about my advocacy of values-driven leadership. I believe the problems of the self-styled “ethical bank” stem not from an excessively values-driven approach but from a disconnection from its values. But – and here’s the sting – the complacency generated by its intent as an ethical business may have played a role in the bank’s undoing.
Only about a decade ago, corporate values were all the rage. We lived in a world in which business was largely viewed as a force for good and corporations identified their success with the general wellbeing. Now, as we labour to fund the bailouts of the banks, we have a more nuanced view of business and the statements of values seem hollow.
But values remain potent. The public cares about them: not the values of PR spin but the actual lived values of organisations. Most of the corporate scandals of recent years became scandals precisely because they generated perceptions of values betrayed.