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Donkin on Work - Innovation

October 2006 – Liberating creativity

The Confederation of British Industry is not the first organisation to recognise the importance of good employment practices in the UK but its inaugural Human Capital awards in London last week sent a welcome signal to employers that the country’s most influential employer body is taking the management and development of people seriously.

In the same way that the former Industrial Society changed its name to the Work Foundation, the new awards are a significant institutional acknowledgement that the management, performance and creativity of people is going to be responsible for the UK’s future prosperity.

More than 40 years ago, Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, spoke of the “White heat” of technological revolution. But he still envisaged a nation dominated by manufacturing. Today words such as “manufacturing” and “industry” are becoming as redundant as the people who sweated their whole lives in plants and factories, only to see them emptied, often flattened in times of recession or economic downturn.

Not all manufacturing has disappeared. Some of it, like BMW’s Oxford plant, home of the redesigned Mini, continues to thrive. But very little has survived by clinging to old organisational models. The UK manufacturing arm of BMW, that won the managing change award at last week’s CBI event, relies heavily on the input of self-managed teams.

At BMW, however, they talk of “self-steered” teams in the manufacturing areas. It is as if the word “management” has become loaded with impressions of supervision and authority.

Companies everywhere are experimenting with new language for the workplace as they try to transform themselves in to more adaptive and responsive organisations. The need to do so is highlighted in a report published this week by the Orange Future Enterprise coalition – The way to Work, Space, Place and Technology in 2016,* - that draws on Henley Centre HeadlightVision’s use of scenarios for its exploration of working trends.

The study, I should add, is unrelated to Henley Centre research I quoted in last week’s column. Its mention here is entirely the result of the phenomenon observed by anyone who has to queue for a London Bus.

This is the second report from the coalition - a collection of individuals who have declared a mutual interest in the way communications and knowledge-sharing technology is relating to work and organisations.

The first focused partly on the love-hate relationship between working people and devices such as the Blackberry that, while allowing quick and easy communications, can induce a slavish devotion akin to addiction. “It has been known for me to confiscate people’s devices when they go on holiday,” said one manager quoted in the report.

It’s encouraging to find a company such as Orange, that has a vested interest in the widespread use of mobile communications, sponsoring discussions and research that are willing to explore the distorting influence of technology. Business must confront the curse as well as the benefits of technology.

Alan Stanley, executive director of the Global Future Forum, yet another future-facing group, spelled out the implication of fast technological change for business. “Has business run out of the ability to exploit technology?” he asked. A forum survey suggested that change and innovation was so rapid that many companies were unable to move quickly enough to exploit it.

Such observations need to be qualified. You can’t build a Mini without large-scale capital investment in plant and machinery. Neither can you shrink from fear of built-in obsolescence when you make products that connect with people in an emotional sense, as the Mini does. Manufacturing that is built around great design - as all manufacturing should be – often requires an act of faith, an inner conviction and, yes, still, in a world dominated by homogeneity and conformance, a sense of enterprise.

The problem is that in the second-generation internet world an open-source-based enterprise such as YouTube can emerge, still to turn a profit after a lifetime of just 20-months, and command a $1.65bn price tag. While the bosses of its purchaser, Google, itself a comparative infant in business, are rubbing their collective hands, what is to stop the development of other video-sharing platforms, just as Google is building a more commercial model around its acquisition?

As The Way to Work recognises, the philosophy of open-sourcing draws its inspiration from a different base than that established by Adam Smith. Equally, the people working within this world are very often motivated by something other than money, such as the power of influence or the ability to engage the collective respect and admiration of their peers.

The report quotes Cory Doctorov’s novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, that describes a moneyless utopia where the basics – food shelter and information – are available to everyone. Other desirables are earned by accumulating the esteem and respect of others.

In this world an individual’s reputation, known as “Whuffie”, is the only currency. “When your Whuffie is high you are a god….when it is zero, you are nobody,” says the report. With Whuffie you get to go places and mix with other members of the Whuffie-elite.

“Work is not mandatory in this world but it is a way of building up one’s Whuffie,” says the report. While not disagreeing, I worry that much of the thinking behind such remarks remains seated in the framework of institutions that continue to underpin commercial reality for most of us.

To explain what I mean I need to introduce you to Matt Harding. Those of you who know of him already will be familiar with his website: WherethehellisMatt.com,** the repository of a travel video with a difference. Matt - it seems ridiculous to call him Mr Harding – collects countries in his own simple way.

He stands in front of some usually familiar back drop, such as Machu Picchu in Peru, then does a little dance. The clips of these dances have been edited together and set to music, not just any music, but an engaging arrangement behind the vocals that were used on a song called Sweet Lullaby recorded by Deep Forest.

So what, you might ask? Well if the hits on his web site, the interest in his video at YouTube.com, and the way his idea has inspired a string of imitations among young people, if all this could be measured in terms of sales, Matt Harding would be a millionaire several times over. As it is he has accumulated a vast stock of Whuffie and enough sponsorship by Stride gum, a chewing gum brand owned by Cadbury-Schweppes, to travel the world, doing his little dance wherever he goes.

“Guy wanders the world, and dances. Strangely uplifting,” is the kind of comment you find on websites. People like Matt are doing their thing on limited resources. Part of his time abroad is spent finding fast, free, wireless internet connections, sometimes accessing those on trains in stations, then dealing with e-mails before the train leaves the platform.

This is the freedom that technology can provide. But other technologies are being used in companies to monitor work, tracking global positioning satellite (GPS) signals on the devices of mobile workers and searching the content of emails among others.

While some today may be dancing to a different tune, the heavy stamp of control remains within many workplaces. Let’s not be deceiving ourselves. Liberating creativity will not happen overnight. But in their own distinctive ways the CBI and Matt Harding are doing their bit.

*www.orangecoalition.com

**www.wherethehellismatt.com

   
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