Simon Caulkin tells us why its time to Reboot Britain

July 5th, 2009

At Reboot Britain tomorrow I make the observation that George Soros worried deeply that unfettered capitalism was creating a Cosed Society in which only one thing counted – material success. He argued for an Open Society; a new type of operating system that was not built upon market fundamentalism, dogma and avarice. I would argue this is what we might call a Human Operating System. This social operating system looks beyond materialism to something greater – to liberate us from closed systems so that we can all re-engage with the world to feel and be accountable to each other and experience and enjoy the richness of life.

Sadly, in reading Simon Caulkin’s last post for Observer management, one realises how far management and business is from the ideal of an Open society, Caulkin writes,

Across both public and private sectors what readers experienced as “management” was pervasively problematic. It just wasn’t what it said on the tin. Wherever they looked, readers found a glaring discrepancy between “official” and “unofficial” versions, between talk and walk.

The talk was empowerment, shared destiny, pulling together: the walk was increasing work intensity, tight performance management, risk offloaded on to the individual. The talk was flat organisations: the reality, centralisation and a yawning divide between other ranks, required to minimise their demands for the greater good, and a remote officer class whose rewards had to soar to motivate them to do their job. Employees were the most valuable asset – until costs had to be cut. Repeated mis-selling and other scandals demonstrated it certainly wasn’t the customer who was king.

Somewhere along the line the edifice of management had been turned upside down – it was shareholders who had become monarch, their courtiers lavishly rewarded managers whose MBA courses had taught them to manage deals and numbers, not things or people. Management had suffered a reverse takeover. Finance annexed reality, cost ousted value, the means became the end.

Speaking at Rebboot Britain tomorrow – in my speech I make the point that, contrary to popular opinion – business is in fact a social science. and that I believe John Thackara when he argues that the promise of this Open Society cannot come about until education/business /politics etc.,adjusts to human need not the other way around by connecting people with common interests, unlocking creative talent among groups that have a passionate interest or an desire to exchange information globally, and as a consequence new content and solutions will emerge.

And, as my friend Euan Semple argues that there are no such things as conscripts – there are only volunteers, Euan says young people are coming into traditional organizations having spent the entirety of their young lives: collaborating, networking and getting stuff done in very different ways. They are confronted with an alien world of: linearity, silos, hierarchies and the ego of title. The friction is palpable because the old organizational models cannot cope with or take full advantage of this new potential. What is being unleashed is a profound transformation in the way of doing things, of getting stuff done.

Sadly that does not help all the day-to-day actors who are not in a comedy but in a real life drama called; The Office.

Caulkin goes on

This is the story that this column has reflected. Shamefully, it reached its explosive climax on the watch of a Labour government that, betraying its entire history, not only encouraged ethics-free market-led management principles in the private sector but imposed them wholesale on the public sector. The credit crunch is man(agement)-made – management, not market, failure. So is the Soviet-style targets and inspection regime, locked in place by lucrative IT contracts with private suppliers, that has made the public sector systemically less capable than it was 12 years ago, despite the billions spent. The emails of rage and despair from public-sector workers at what has been done to their profession have to be read to be believed. And still ministers don’t get it. The elevation of the grisly Alan Sugar to “enterprise tsar” and the timorous, frozen-in-the-headlights approach to City reform in one sense are as risible as MPs’ expenses – but they are also a terrifying denial of reality.

John Seddon, argues that this dynamic is currently endemic in Britain’s public sector leading to valueless activity, meaningless measurement, and ever poorer service, at ever greater cost. You and I as taxpayers are paying heavily for this stupidity. I suspect Simon Caulkin would agree.

The solution, Seddon advocates is a Systems Thinking approach where we think about the whole system in which we seek 3 outcomes:
[1] individuals come first,
[2] waste is reduced
[3] responsibility replaces blame.

It’s an approach that is proven, successful and relatively cheap – and one that governments around the world, and their advisers, need to adopt urgently. It is the difference between effectiveness vs. efficiency. Yet and yet, sometimes being right, is not the right thing to be,

Of course, institutional stupidity and failure to take responsibility are characteristic of all top-down organisations – in fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. Hence the reductio ad absurdum, also charted here, of gleaming hi-tech organisations too witless to stop themselves auto-destructing. What is there about the credit crunch and the environmental one hard on its heels that is not to understand? The management model that has run us for the past 30 years, like the discredited economic theories (rational expectations, efficient markets) to which it cringes, is bust, dead, finished – a mortal danger to us and the planet.

Let us hope this is the last hurrah for the Straight Line thinkers.

Carlota Perez in her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital – says that there comes a point in time when;  old institutions are found wanting, and the old frameworks of society insufficient to respond to the needs and demands of society.
At this moment we seek a new language, a new common sense that allows us to remake the world afresh. We are ‘in’ this moment right now;  the toxic tail-end of an industrial, linear, mass-consumer, mass-media, locked down society strips us of what makes us who we are – we have become units of production and consumption, battery farmed, and raised in a world where we feel little personal accountability to each other. We have deconstructed humanity almost to the point of destruction – skeptical !? Ask any practicing psychologist.

We are today, as social philosopher Richard Sennett argues; seeking too recover something of the spirit of the Enlightenment on terms appropriate to our time.  Indeed, Stephen Heppell considers the 21st century to herald the ‘learning age’. In the 20th century, he argues, we built big things (railways, universities) but the focus for the 21st century is ‘helping people to help each other’. In his view, “The old stuff won’t do any more”. And the sooner management wakes up to that fact, the better.

So – we together must explore the true possibilities of the Open Society; its language, its common sense, its systems and philosophy to inspire us to remake our world a-new.

Farewell Simon Caulkin we shall miss you


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