Universities and public value

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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.

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Higher education round-up

art and tech

Here’s a round-up of our series on higher education. People were asking us, “What’s it like to work with you?” So we wrote this series to provide an answer. In the posts below, we explore what we’ve learned from working in the sector and what our counter-consultancy approach has to offer universities and those who work in them:

Image courtesy University of Salford.

Reconnecting universities to their public purposes

obu

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.

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Trust is not a message, it’s an outcome: the lesson for leaders from a defector from PR

Trust
Trust is an outcome.

In Trust Me, PR is Dead, Robert Phillips has ostensibly written a book on the bankruptcy of public relations. It’s more interesting, though, as an insider’s guide to the bankruptcy of much corporate leadership – and, more importantly, a cogent call to arms for leadership that can inspire trust. I say “call to arms” since this is not a manual for leaders of the kind that sells at airport bookstands. It’s more a citizens’ manifesto – stirring us from neoliberal slumber so that we may realise our distributed leadership and haul conventional corporate leaders into the service of a fairer form of capitalism. It’s a foretaste of how leadership must surely evolve to meet the challenges of our more transparent, networked society and the expectations of the Millennial generation who will soon inherit the workforce.

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After the General Election, the forthcoming politics of organisation

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.

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A fresh perspective on contemporary capitalism

Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery.

Book review: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, by David Harvey.

When I mentioned to people that I was reading a compelling Marxist take on the crisis in capitalism, I was not greeted with the warm curiosity that normally follows the mention of an interesting new book. In fact, most people looked at me as if I had ventured beyond the pale. Stalinism has much to answer for: not least, the blight it has put on open-minded critique of the conditions that prevail in liberal democratic capitalism.

I find this puzzling. Like many, I was sheep-dipped in Marxist analysis at university. Though I flirted with radical left wing politics as a student, having grown up with Czech heritage, I was all too aware of the failures and tyranny of life under what was termed “actually existing Communism”. Long before the European revolutions of 1989, I made my peace with the market economy. But I have retained a lifelong appreciation of the value of critique.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism by David Harvey exemplifies the insight that Marxist critique can still generate. A geographer by background, Harvey appropriates Marxist thinking and makes it his own, bringing a freshness that cuts through the common sense that our marketised, financialised society is the natural order of things.

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Mindfulness plus narrative awareness equals critique

mindful revolution
Time for a mindful revolution?

This is the third and final part in my series on being and doing in coaching. In Part 1, I explained how I draw on mindfulness and narrative awareness in my work. In Part 2, I discussed the symbiotic link between being and doing, and the challenge to bring more of a sense of being to our doing.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the critique of organisations that we have developed here: the idea that organisations could be less toxic places to work and could play a more positive role in addressing society’s problems. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments again but instead look at how they come out of the approach to coaching that I have been describing in this series. If coaching is, as I maintain, a way of facilitating unfamiliarity, it follows that it is potentially disruptive of the received wisdom in organisations – the things that are so taken for granted that it’s otherwise almost impossible to question them. By putting a premium on connecting with our embodied wisdom, our gut instincts and nagging doubts, it creates space to acknowledge the ways in which the things organisations ask of us might make us uneasy.

Where does received wisdom come from? Narrative theory tells us that it is shaped by the dominant culture of the age. In our age, the common sense is defined by neoliberalism: the idea that the market is the natural way to do things and, if we live with the consequences of the market, this will be better for everyone in the long run. More than that – and more pertinent to this conversation – it’s a common sense characterised by hyper-rationality in which the insights that comes from emotion, values and embodied wisdom count for little.

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Being and doing are not mutually exclusive

Day's work
A day’s work is never done

This is the second in a series of posts based on a talk I gave on being versus doing in coaching. Part one of the series looked at the influences of narrative and mindfulness on how I work as a coach. This post explores the tension between being and doing.

Being versus doing is an increasingly important question for our culture. We live in an era when time is at a premium. Time is money and we’re all under pressure to give as much as we can in the time when we contract our labour to others.

This doesn’t always equate to greater efficiency. In the years since our rubbish collections were contracted out to private management, there has been a clear shift in focus from quality of service to minimising inputs (both time and people). The bin men’s job was never pleasant but now they have to do it as if competing in a macabre version of It’s a Knockout. The rubbish gets collected, but much is strewn all over the place and the bins are left lying in random places – so neighbourhoods are left, in some respects, in a worse mess than before the bin men arrive.

Because this pressure on time can lead to a poor quality of working life, we come to put much more emphasis on our getting the most from our personal lives. So even away from work we don’t escape the pressure to get things done. Films to catch, rooms to decorate, walks to be done in inspiring places – not to mention routine essentials like laundry, shopping and cooking. We really need times of stillness and quiet: opportunities to calm the agitation and connect with ourselves and how we’re feeling about what’s going on.

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The sea change

The Winter of Discontent.
The Winter of Discontent in 1979 precipitated the end of the social democratic consensus. Is the epoch of neoliberalism that it ushered in facing its own sea change?

We’ve been in business for just over three years now and in all that time we have consistently championed the idea of socially responsible business. When we started we were sure we were onto a winner. Our credentials in understanding and communicating the idea of social value opened doors. But we quickly realised that, much as people liked to talk, no one was much interested in spending money on this. As in the world of business, so in the world of politics. All the party leaders have talked about the need for a more socially responsible, less predatory capitalism but so far nothing has come of it. We are still, for instance, five years away from the Vickers report on banking regulation being fully implemented, and there are many who argue that it goes nowhere near far enough. Meanwhile, executive pay continues to rocket while the great majority see their incomes lagging inflation.

Tempted as I often am to throw up my hands up in despair, something happened just recently that encouraged me to think that change is on the way, though it will take time to be fully realised. When I’m not working for Vogel Wakefield, I have an unpaid role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the subject of money by way of launching a money season at the church. Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign on payday loans and in conjunction with the Centre for Theology and Community, our aim in the money season has been to support individuals in reflecting on the ethics of making and spending money, and to encourage the whole church to identify local needs that it can help address.

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The paradigm shift in action

buurtzorg
Buurtzorg, a higher level of consciousness in organisational form

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.

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