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
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
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
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
“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
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.