Ready, Unsteady, Gone?

It is the nature of the blogosphere for ideas to percolate, and for something that falls in that grey area between wisdom and the bon mot/aphorism end of the scale to pass from one blogger’s idea-stream to another. Commenting on a recent Harold Jarche blog (which I’ll come back to later), Bruno Gebarski indulged in a little meme-scattering:

I’d like to share with you a quote that I picked up a few days ago from Dan Pontefract: @dpontefract “our organizations are built on 19th century learning styles, coupled by 20th century leadership models fused with 21st century technology”

The issue at hand – and I admit I am paraphrasing freely – is not so much ‘the future of work’, about which much has already been speculated (see for example our review of Richard Donkin’s book of the same name). It’s more concerned with ‘if this is the likely future of organisation/worker relationship – as employer/employee doesn’t really fit that bill – what does that mean for the future of the relationships between individuals, organisations, consumers and society in general’.

All of this is, of course, to look through a glass darkly. That isn’t to say necessarily that the business/OD/development end of the blogosphere is a dark and depressed place, but it might be to recognise that things can look dark when viewed through murky conditions. Wiping your snorkel visor will never make dirty water clean – but not wiping it will hide from view the things that lurk in it beneath the surface.

One diver in the murky waters of statistical evidence is Rick, the author of the Flip Chart Fairytales blog, who made sure his visor was freshly wiped before interpreting the ‘below the surface’ aspects of the rise in self-employment and in part-time working. The former is as much (if not more) a symptom of a weak economy than of entrepreneurial spirit; in the latter case, headlines about part-time earners obscure the low median and the discrepancy of experience among those not working full-time.

As Rick points out:

Some occupations lend themselves to highly paid advisory work which can be done on a part-time basis. Lawyers, accountants, management consultants and doctors often pick up this kind of work. Contrast this with the data for senior managerial roles. It’s much harder to work part-time when you are in change of running something. There weren’t enough part-time male managers to provide a sample size for the ONS report. In all other occupation groups, part-time workers earn less per hour than their full time peers. Often, considerably less.”

While there is a hint of the lingering superiority of the ‘professions’ here, at least in earning power, it’s worth remembering that many of these highly-paid advisors would, not so long ago, have been highly-paid employees. We’ve touched on the changing status of the professions before, but automating the work of lawyers and accountants is now also eroding traditional sectors of the workforces. As one accountant, Cliff Peat, commented on one of our earlier blogs:

It brings to mind how our “mechanical substitutes” are now used by the banking industry where some would say that mature thought (and individual initiative based on it) may have been routinely sidelined. A “computer’s” tick box assessment of banking propositions without (mature) human intervention has almost certainly resulted in lost opportunities for banks and society.”

(And I know Cliff well enough to resist the temptation to quote Mandy Rice-Davies.)

Which brings me to the Harold Jarche blog – A Wicked Problem – you were teasingly trailered in the opening paragraph. Drawing on a Daniel Pink TEDTalk, Jarche’s point is not so much the future nature of work but its availability:

Work is getting automated and outsourced. There is an infinite amount of complex and creative work to be done, but we are just not organized very well to do it. That is the huge challenge we face. Working smarter is not an incremental thing, it’s how we are going to transform society so that most of us can be productive AND earn a living. The JOB is not the answer. Freelancing is not a blanket solution. We need to get really creative about how we work, because work gives meaning, not just compensation.”

At different levels in society, individuals, groups (although ‘movements’ might be a better word), locations and even governments – see not just our comments on Nudge and the Behavioural Insights Team, but also that vast amount that has been written about whatever The Big Society turns out to be – are experimenting with not just future ways of working but of being.

We’ve previously written about Detroit, where a previously industrial metropolis has been largely hollowed out by economic change, and where the city is now planning to raze thousands of vacant properties and buildings and repurpose land-use. The city has come to accept that these buildings will not return to ‘full employment’: Detroit’s changed economy will not support that level of population. And its changes in population density mean that its infrastructure must also be rethought. The old ways, it has been realised, are not coming back. Even CNN, listing downtown Detroit as one of the best places to retire (with a residential vacancy rate that high, property prices are predictably ‘affordable’ – even in 2007), recognises that the city ‘has a long way to go’. In looking over its demographic horizon, however, it has at least made a first move.

A town (not granted city status, to its lasting irritation) nearer this blog-writer’s chair provides another type of example of how the future used to look. Milton Keynes was, (quite) famously), built to a plan, and a plan created in the 1960s: low-rise, low-density and seen by visitors mostly as a grid of roads and roundabouts.Its originally intended monorail systems were excised from the plan by the economic downturn of the early 1970s.The Campaign for Better Transport’s Car Dependency Scorecard 2012, ranked 26 UK cities. A currently economically successful and still expanding new town, Milton Keynes ranked 23rd. (In 2010, it came last: since then Wigan has been added to the survey and Peterborough has slipped downward.) As the report notes:

Milton Keynes was originally planned as a car-based city designed around grid roads, so any policy will find this legacy hard to reverse rapidly. […] city plans still seem to be based on plentiful parking and some significant expanded road capacity is envisaged. These together will tend to undermine other measures and continue to lock in car dependency.”

Designed in the age of phoneboxes, landlines and answerphones, the town lives now in an era of mobile communication. Should the timeline of telephony be echoed in the future of transport, this structural ‘legacy’ might become an albatross. (That two ‘new towns’ find themselves at the bottom of this table must surely be some kind of comment on the impact of sustainability in urban planning.) The town may now be involved in smart-grid development and the roll-out of electric car charging points, but its inherent design – it’s sub-chassis if you wish – bears the imprint of the fossil-fuel rich thinking of its infancy.

One of the superficial paradoxes at play is that it is often older communities – I’m thinking, for example, of Totnes – that have more fully embraced the Transition Town movement ideas, looking to explore ways in which local economies and communities can survive a future transition to a post-industrial, post-peak oil future. (Or, if Nigel Lawson is reading, the possibility that it might occur.) Like Detroit, if on a much smaller scale, it is experimenting with urban agriculture: lacking such spare land – and therefore allotments – the town has a scheme whereby gardens can be ‘donated’ for community food growing.

It has also – like Detroit (and many other communities worldwide: see the New Economics Initiative’s online list) – experimented with using a local currency in parallel with national currency, aiming to reduce the ‘syphoning off’ of local spending to organisations beyond its boundaries. (Bristol recently joined this list.)

The question I don’t see Harold Jarche directly asking – for whatever reason – is how should organisations respond to the ‘wicked problem’. The community solutions are not transferable: the corporation’s nearest equivalent of the local currency might be the company-run – usually for profit – shop in the company town. While the likes of Port Sunlight, Bournville, New Earswick and Saltaire may have been motivated by a degree of compassion (albeit that a well-housed, healthy workforce is essentially a more productive one), they were erased from history by rising affluence and the declining need for – and appeal of – paternalistic approaches: they live on, but as niche residential areas run by foundations and trusts, art galleries or tourist attractions. Bournville dark chocolate is now made in France and exported to the UK, where its namesake local consumers are wealthier and whiter than their city neighbours, and have a health-inducing longer walk to a pub. And their replacements are not, that I’m aware, being constructed: they represent a past model of philanthropy.

The distinction Jarche does make is between ‘labor’ (his spelling) and ‘talent’: labour is that which can be defined in routines and automated, while talent is applied where task variation is a defining variable. If the machine would need to be reprogrammed each time, the human input is quicker and (probably cheaper). The difficulty is not just that AI may yet make nearly all of us redundant (apart from those charged with specifying, programming or purchasing the AI installations – at least at first); it lies in the impact. As labour is reduced or automated and talent becomes a part-time, self-employed endeavor, so productivity growth – centred now on service sector activities – falls. For a very murky view of how the world of work might look in 2020, take a look at XpertHR. Far from being a passing phase, it argues, the austerity era could be with us for considerably longer. To quote from an earlier XpertHR article:

“Population ageing will put upward pressure on public spending,” resulting in the need for further swingeing cuts to public spending. This is according to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) latest Fiscal Sustainability Report. The BBC reports that “the OBR says in 2017-18 public spending needs to be cut by another £17bn or the same amount raised in taxes to stop debt ballooning. The OBR says this change would bring total debt back to 40% of GDP by 2061. Without the move it says debt would reach 89% of annual income by 2061.”

(Perhaps the recently announced automatic pension enrolment scheme now makes more sense than it did when it wafted out of a radio at 7am one recent morning, although note that the part-time will have to consciously opt-in. The self-employed presumably simply budget to buy a new piggy bank.)

But let’s take a moment to let Harold Jarche remind us of the ‘wicked problem’:

Do you want a complex problem? Figure out how we are going to keep producing stuff and still give people ways to buy that stuff.”

In defending the case of reputable and decent solicitors in response to our earlier piece about the trajectory of the professions in society, one eminently decent solitictor commented:

As a solicitor I often cringe at the stories coming out of the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done but what they DON’T report are the thousands of good solicitors doing great jobs for satisfied clients every day of every year.

These solicitors add value to their clients’ companies, are often the “trusted professional” that the client turns to in difficult times.

If XpertHR and Harold Jarche’s darker prognoses have credence, adding value may acquire new signifance, and the idea of corporate social responsibility may need to change drastically. Like a government facing falling tax revenues, corporations that chip away at the earning power of the population also chip away at spending power: their collective action – conscious or not – may be ultimately to reduce their own market. Old phrases about soiling your own doorstep (albeit less sweetly phrased) spring to mind, and with no helpful fertilising by-product.

For the last few years, society has acted to save the economy – hence the anger at bailouts expressed, in very different ways, in Greece and Spain and by the Tea Party movement in the US. In an age of austerity lasting another 49 years, the question may become how the economy can act to save society. As we commented at the time, the Harvard students who set up the MBA Oath may – for all the continuing lack of professional status for managers – have been ahead of the game with their pledge to enhance “the value my enterprise can create for society over the long term”.

Kids, eh?


Leave a Reply