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Where will The North find its authority?: In the soft power (Nordpolitik) of British institutions

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Authority is not what it once was. In 1950s Britain it was located within social hierarchies, collectivised industries and nation-based politics. Efforts to distribute that power via popular culture were successful. My four older sisters took to Sixties culture in various forms. Our Edwardian, war-time and now late parents looked on mainly in bemusement, remaining at a safe distance. Having obeyed social convention, duty and family they assumed these pillars were a sound basis to govern. The seeds of a New Modern Civilisation planted in the early 1800s bloomed colourfully in the 1960s. A warfare generation climbed out of austerity into full employment. The new National Health Service distributed the pill. And mothers gathered less in church halls to share the burden of child-rearing. The nation-state gradually took on its welfare role. Sub-urban developments drained mass inner-city housing projects and council estates.

Continuing to dive deep into this debate: Britain flattened its social ranks and shed its remaining communitarian culture in an expanded middle-class vision of ‘cosmopolitan living’. Socialism was  dealt Thatcher’s coup de grace: home ownership plus privatisation of collectivised industries. Authority then went into capital owning organisations who could meet the needs of the hyper-individual. And into the hands of the consumer, whose growing discretionary spend would shape government policy. Neo-liberalism celebrated the liberation of capital. Capital had gone mobile. The moral argument from neo-liberals was people would buy justice for themselves. A socialism by the back door. Capital had come out of bank vaults into Joe Public’s purse, and she will decide where it goes. Those on the margins would surely follow suit?

Authority drew its new power from distributed capital. Liquid capital in the form of Coca Colonisation brought down the Berlin Wall. Levi Jeans proving themselves seductive to Soviet citizens trapped in bread queues ended the nuclear arms race. With the end of the Cold War globalisation could accelarate the power of organisations unabated. This second Great Transformation was a new game with new rules. Brexit further revealed how the ‘nation state’ has lost its authority to direct its affairs. Authority was spread across global actors and Brexit is attempting to gather up the marbles.

Not good news for Old Labour Left. Their international socialism is not the rip tide against resurgent nationalism. Their efforts along with the reactionary Right were to give voice to those who have not found a place in a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ of Britain. Their appeal is to nation-based political power. Just as politics has lost much authority. Workers in the North of England face uncertainty as global capital will seek new sources of cheap labour in the open markets of India or Eastern Europe. It is maybe no comfort that wealthy European welfare states are facing the same dilemma. The increasingly global citizen is unable and unwilling to move as fast as global capital. The newly won authority of the cosmopolitan world citizen, freed from social convention by capital and home ownership, is facing a more precarious future than their socially constrained collectivised forebears.

But just as The North is enjoying new social freedoms through capital ownership its economic balance is about to be rocked. The EU was a bulwark against aspects of global power, enabling its wealthier welfare members to retain their bloc power against rampant globalisation. As The North of Britain now looks to nation-state-power to develop its strategies rather than EU power it is asking where it will sit in the new post-Brexit world.

Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?

The London-Brussels nexus did well for London. It sits atop the globe as one of the most dynamic cities for global business. When the EU thought Britain it frequently saw London. Its transport and finance infrastructure is impressive. Talented jobless young southern Europeans flooded London. In one sense they were departing Europe as much as coming to London. The Anglo-Spheric Britain and America share joint capitals in London and Washington DC. Both centres retained the desire to distribute risk to its citizens in a way that is at odds with the European Project. The EU has found itself in a No-Man’s Land ideologically. Its desire to lower nation-stateness of its citizens to create a bulwark against globalisation and American neo-liberalism has floundered by becoming a supra-nation-state. It has unwittingly proven that nation-states are persistent and enduring. More importantly institutions are not being swept aside by globalisation. Formed over centuries institutions are enduring. And it is where citizens turn in the face transnational corporate power.

This is the curious outworking of the cosmopolitan vision. It turns out it was not a vision after all. It was an amorphous notion with no real handrails. As party-political membership plummeted from the Sixties (membership was often a symbol of social ranking) membership of societies such as The National Trust have rocketed. These now treasured institutions are lightning rods for the hyper-individual as they collectivise around national priorities. And these institutions lobby nation-states to focus on their value-based priorities. As the green movement in Europe indicates, rowing back from the hyper-notion of a global cosmopolitan citizen, there is the rise of a newly conscious conserving citizen.

Despite fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq.’s re-heated 50s patrician shtick, there is a new admiration for British institutions. As Corbyn similarly re-heats class struggle there is an emergent movement in The North. Educated vocal leaders recognise the power of British institutions, from the church to enduring social structures. The archetypal Young Person walking into a cathedral and asking ‘so, where did this come from?’ might be overplayed but you get the image.

What global capital seems unable to overpower then are non-modern institutions. It is of course trying hard to measure institutions by commercial economics. But global capital’s hard power when measured against institutional soft power is interesting. If the resurgent nation-state is anything, it is a collection of institutions as first agents. Politicians are largely lawmakers. However, institutions operationalise new legislation. And what are British institutions? They are traditional social hierarchies. Despite modern liberal politicians’ efforts British institutions have resisted efforts to modernise. Largely as ‘modern institution’ is a contradiction in terms. To institutionalise is to withdraw from economic measurement in large part.

If plastic capitalism and junk culture have become synonymous with a homogeneous global culture then the reaction is felt in The North by those who choose to stay and build a future. If a cynical South has imbibed a nowhere society where there are no patterns of identity The North has retained its social frameworks. The North as a public sphere offers an important dialectic between its heritage and future. Something almost unheard of in The South. Where there are no dialectics of identity.

Where students pre-austerity imagined working three days a week, playing in the band on Thursday, five-a-side on Friday austerity Britain has refocused education on its economic role. Where a global citizen imagined their lives in the abstractness of a global cosmos the combined effects of obscene property prices and low-waged economy have induced a serious interest in nation-based politics and a search for power. There is anger in the air for those who see their parent’s sacrifices and property-owning prosperity as an aberration. A willingness to re-invent politics at grassroots level via a Northern Leadership that has found legitimacy and entitlement through a reflexive spirit is more than a hopeful wish, it is a growing reality. What I mean by reflexive is the ability to enter the debate armed with the same power of reason and self-awareness as the traditional British Brahmin. It is curious to hear Mockney accents of Tony Blair, George Osborne and David Cameron, even Prince Harry, as they try to mash together their Standard Southern Dialects and Received Pronunciations with regional South East dialects, not without a hint of African-American Vernacular. This search for authenticity by those without Northern Heritage is curious. The social history of The North offers its own authority. Having established a distinct cultural position it has successfully challenged the dominance of The South as a de facto national centre of gravity. The direction of travel is north politically and financially.

As the frenetic attachment to global economic measures falters, there is the return to traditional notions of domestic policy and nation state governance. Britain PLC will not be able to divert its attention from domestic politics through the vision of a European federalism paying back at some point. The fruit of funding Greek super-highways is now unlikely to be seen. As attention turns to the North-South economic and social contract, symbolised by the wobbly nature of High Speed rail projects and Northern Powerhouse (note the hyperbole), there will be a pressure to turn dolls house projects into a more serious debate. And probably only a Northern Spirit can successfully speak about the Future Shape of Britain and its institutions. It is our turn. This is the era of Nordpolitik and the underlying symbols of Northernness informing institutional power. The good news is that symbols themselves are not subject to the dramaturgy of the media. Symbols grow and fade without human intervention. They are the root of institutional power as institutions form round their immanence. Global capital will bend, as do markets, to the power of homo economicus’s preference for ‘a good life’.

Regional economies leading the global post-Brexit charge: breaking free from the benevolent state through networked leadership

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2019 at 11:41 am

English philosopher Gillian Rosemary Rose died tragically young. Her thesis is that contemporary lives are functioning in ‘the broken middle’ between the ideal and real. My thesis increasingly is senior leadership is working in this space. Between ecology and economy, law and ethics (life), church and state, theory and practice, charisma and thought and so on. Brexit has been largely a failed attempt to spin centrifugally towards unified ideal systems. The Utopian traditional pastoral on the Right or the Utopian modern socialised on the Left. We are stuck in the gap between modernity and tradition ever more firmly. And our western democratic process has thrown everyone back into ‘the broken middle’. Extended dialogue through parliamentary process has saved us from alienating one half of the nation. All hail parliamentary democracy!

What are the narratives of power behind these competing images. In fact what does Brexit mean for the regions? Well, we are stirring through the oil of European doctrines and the water of Anglo-Saxon pastoral feudalism. To be European means to imbibe european humanism, placing the individual at the centre of policy making. To be Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American means to explore a solidarity with a natured society (liberalism), one closer to organic structures, a natural order of being. It is these two holograms that are competing.

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Suddenly a space has opened: “All the debates… of the modern state and society… have been re-opened,” Gillian Rosemary Rose (1947-1995). Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I like both. Hence I like Rose’s appeal. And make the appeal myself for us as leaders to work in The Broken Middle. This is where the Regions are. Between centralising power and Domestica/ordinary life. The regions connect home and State. And this is a good thing. To re-visit the social contract in the regions cannot hurt. As rules-based supra-national bodies like the EU decay they create a space into which regional leadership has been waiting to step. But there are many other gaps in a Western post-war rules-based globalising world. And we are prone via Brexit fatigue and fear to question ‘what is the Good Society?’.

The great journey of western philosophy was to attempt a resolution between reason and experience and the noumenal (the world beyond our senses and logic). The good society would hold these competing narratives in tension. The church for example was re-balanced via the Reformation as one component of the nascent nation state. And lately modern secular society has privileged the rational technological urban life as the fruit of that re-balancing. But it is this assumption that Brexit has attacked. The provinces are wanting a voice in the social contract.

Contemporary theologians argue we are now in a post-secular society. That faith not only survived communism and revolutionary republicanism but continued to thrive. Yes, the French Revolution had propelled a ‘grown-up’ society into the unquestioned modern secular world, where knowledge reigned supreme, and we should ‘know how’ to lead and be, but modern economics is no match for ecology. Burning vast amounts of bio-matter to make decreasing amounts of metal is looking increasingly troublesome.

So the emergence of the post-secular reveals the limits of knowledge itself and more so the rational society. It is rational to help you to live to 105 as this is measurable, but the quality of your life is too ambiguous so we will not ask you your perspective. What you measure is what you get. Even the hyper-rationalist existentialist Sartre noted we cannot be ‘complete’ in this life. Which means we cannot find completeness through Knowledge of the Self in a modern individualised society. His rational introversion flushed out the self not in dialogue with the world around but as alone, removed and overly simplified. Not the vision the regions have of themselves.

The regions are saying to the urban liberal politico we cannot completely know ourselves from an isolated vantage point of city based society. UK cities are no longer the model society. This then being the end of the road for a Cartesian world of ‘I think therefore I am’. We are increasingly comfortable with Heidegger’s ‘I’m here, aren’t I!?’. I am here in the regions and it is where lived-life is far more real than in the brutalist landscape of the non-communitarian. Modern secular technological society remains two-dimensional.

The modern secular self was an attempt to reason and explain our existence. The rise and rise of Freud and Jung via rationalised descriptions paralleled the urban self missing their communal narratives, stories and myths. But psychology remains a pseudo-science. Psychologists study the objects generated by language. It remains an empirical lens, and cannot peer into the human consciousness beyond the objects language generates. And we are increasingly agreeing Subjects are not Objects. And Subjects are only Subjects when in communal living. The only mirror to form a coherent self image is not pop-psychology but Other Selves. Dialogical living. Of course the city is a great melting of Other Selves. Let us not get too purist here. But the city is being purged of its mixed citizenry. Not just gentrification but the creation of ‘prickly spaces’ as Bauman puts it. Spaces which are clearly designed for commerce not living.

So, the ‘broken middle’ is the gap between the limits of reason and empiricism (objects of knowledge) and the flourishing human being (the subject in the process of becoming). Becoming a leader, a father, a daughter etc. The subjective self refuses to be objectified as knowledge. The self only becomes when it leans into life and asserts its self as a self. Here I am! And to be a self means using knowledge but knowing its limits. Rose attempts to say that reason has been misused. As many writers who were proto-post-secularists would concur. The ancients (not the stoics!) to romantics warned against reducing human society to a system of knowledge devoid of human relationships. The social contract must find a way to recognise that The masses do not want to self-actualise through knowledge, but through living.

A knowledge society is giving way gradually to the emergence of a network of relationships as western minds search for meaning ‘in relationship’. The collapse of the ideal state, which was a combination of moral absolutes reflected in the state’s legal architecture, has been devastating for industrial economies. Up until the First World War leading european nations, and America, were building the New Jerusalem. America still is. But the devastation of Flanders ripped up the symbiotic relationship between the church and State. It was the church and its narratives of life and the self that operated as a barrier to the market. And the church, as the counter to economics, has struggled to resist State power.

German reformed theologian Karl Barth’s Barmen Convention in 1934 sought to reverse the Nazi’s overpowering of the German Christian Church. German theologians before WWI saw a biblical rightness in the unified ‘God ordained’ nation state going to war to protect its sacred existence. Barth’s dismay at the church getting immersed in propping up the State led to Barth being among a depressingly few Protestant German Christians who would stand against Hitler’s ‘ideal state’.  Germany’s Confessing Church is much celebrated amongst Trump’s American evangelical base but we see again a depressingly few leading Protestant figures in the Christianised gospel-soaked States wishing to lose their social standing. Questioning the direction of travel for a Make America Great Again re-heated nationalism that borrows its legitimacy from bible belt is not easy for a moralising society: ‘one nation under God’.

And it is worth deviating here into a reflection on the pastoral role of the Church in our social contract. The journey of the church reveals much as it was was meant to be counter to hyper-rationality. A place where reason and life were held in tension. This is an allegory for other aspects of the nation state.

The collapse of Christianity into a moral stated society has meant the church has lost its abrasiveness. It is difficult to be salt and light whilst being so respectable and polite and conformist to state agendas. The return to Pauline teaching by New Atheist thinkers is interesting here. The rationalists went for the church’s dogma. The excoriation of bland churchianity by Dawkins was much needed. Burn off my rusts said John Donne. And there is a lot of rust in moralising Christianity. Saul of Tarsus was not respectable or polite. Torturing the Christian sect at its outset required an educated conscience. But a warm Sunday Christianity generally avoided Paul, its founder. The evangelicals focused on the gospels (the Starter), the charismatics on the Acts (the Dessert), but avoided the epistles (the Mains). The epistles, letters, are where the church understood the source of its power: in unity. Marx sought power from the working classes. Paul sought power from all in the church, united with the apostles in shared mission, but not identity. Whatever shade or persuasion unity was not ‘sameness’ it was an alliedness with what had gone before. Where the law excluded grace included as it resolved the questions of justice.

Power and legitimacy come into tension. Christ’s sustained legitimacy was secured from his irrevocable non-violence. And subsequently Paul’s. Religion exercises violent authority frequently, lowering its legitimacy. Marxism likewise lowered its legitimacy through violent struggle. Sustainable power requires legitimate use. The power of Christ is raised by legitimate reflection within the church.

To deviate further, once an enthusiastic Christian arrives at Paul, the Paul who has spent ten years back home in South East Turkey, his ears still ringing from his breakdown on the Road to Damascus, it gets messy. Paul is not just a serious Pharisee, he is a serious scholar who has just re-read everything over again. And finds the gap between the law and grace vast. He writes a deeply philosophical treatise in his letter to the Galatian Christians. A book which evangelical/Charismatic teachers tend to avoid after theological college due to its Greekness. That is its rational outworking of the law and its intent. In effect the law is not what you think it is. It is not the objective. The end game. The law is not a criminal code.

In short Paul realises the law is a temptation. To stand on the law and profess yourself judge is sin itself. Not so much breaking laws (all 613 of them) but casting judgement using the law to achieve power is sin. It sounds like a trap. And to some extent it is. Paul spends a bit longer revealing this but in essence the law is frail he says. It is only there to reveal our religious fundamentalism, our reduction of human beingness. To pronounce judgement on anyone using the law means! Wait for it. We are now immediately bound to live by every jot, tittle, iota, circumcision of legal code. We cannot pick and choose. To live by grace means to know you cannot live by the law, cannot stand in judgement. Unless you condemn yourself. Here is Paul’s message in a nutshell.

So, for Paul, the law is temptation. A society that co-opts Christian legalism into its nation stateness, and says it is being Christian is condemning itself to a shadow of what it could be. Here is America’s problem. Its Constitution is forever being seen by some as a legal constitution. Just as the Protestants are prone to use the New Testament as a legal text, and misread its intent. It is a revelation of the law as purely a stepping stone to lived-life. This then is not a deficit theology any longer. Thou shalt not is replaced by ‘try and stop me’.

What does this maze like wander into Christian theology have for UK regions and their renewal? Apart from the fact that the provinces have a social conservatism woven with Protestant narratives. It largely means the social contract needs re-balancing. Where the individual has looked at the state and seen it as a mirage of, say, a benevolent church like structure, she has sought a kind of absolution. The breaking up of a nearly theocratic Britain during the First World War has left extended confusion, or what Eliot termed The Waste Land. How could european Powers who were quasi-sacred God ordained structures reap such destruction on their congregations? The state had invited unquestioning conformity to a socially conservative agenda. And now the state had been unfaithful itself. Disillusionment with church extended to dismay with the state and its power.

This means then a separation of not just church and state however. As Brexit is as much about disentangling collapsed entities. It means restoring the separation between knowledge and life, action and talking, money and value and so on. The UK regions have largely accepted a collapsed middle as the power of money has increased. Centralised government remains a benevolent dictator measuring by economics. As one local leading businessman said recently: ‘Brexit is the kick in the backside Britain needs’. Meaning we need a space for dialogue on how we shape regional growth and separate out life into its constituent parts.

Back to Pauline theology. Bureaucracy in Britain has grown to become a replacement for more leaderful regional economies. The Regions are tempted to accept the status quo of Westminster policy making as regional legal structures often see themselves as powerless. When the regions receive the law they enact it with diligence. This of course is unfair as we are served by faithful regional servants but their hands are tied by a nervous centre. As Paul is on his fifth flogging by the authorities for trying to get his point across that the law is not an end in itself you could not blame him for feeling a tad irked at the slow take up of his mission. But he knew that blind obedience to statute was death itself.

The UK regions, in their fatigue, are finding new impetus through recognising their future is working between Westminster and their only power base, networked leadership. When regions move further into collaborative networks their power to shape policy grows considerably. Westminster is very sensitive to the ‘general will of the region’. The Nation State may think it has power to act, but in essence the general will of the people judges the good and the bad. A regional network is made up of a number of institutional actors who through the Blair years were pulled closer under central government. The government ministers who said they wished to modernise their departments really meant they sought to gain control through modern management. Osborne continued Blair’s modernising mission but as the Brexit process has shown you cannot ‘manage’ complexity. You have to structure central and regional government in such a way that you protect its ability to act autonomously and freely. Once you pull the control strings too tight you get a loss of leadership across the whole.

A grand process of re-balancing is taking place, and should continue to take place, which includes devolution. The law of modern management has reached its limit and the spectre of automatons is laying waste to their departments. Institutions are by definition not modern. They are ancient structures where The Law is interpreted. They lead by a form of grace not the law. Slavishness to legal prescript by overpowered regional structures has rendered central government overwhelmed. The tumult over Brexit is the space for UK regions to shoulder bravely the load via networking  their leadership locally and globally. We will have to make global connections just to live. But this is ultimately the space Britain works best in. Between the EU federalist vision, the American liberal project, and emerging markets. Of course the EU is a network, but one that got bogged down in its legal prescription. Highly rational, logical and bureaucratic but not a body that invites shared ownership across its membership. The people of the North West England would find it difficult to own the problems of the Czech health service. As much as we value it, the general will of the ordinary citizen is towards its region. There is the moral imperative.

Re-telling the business model narrative to capture new value: the CEO as revisionist narrator

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2019 at 1:01 pm

WWII is high up the media schedules with this summer’s 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Listening to British journalist Richard Dimbleby reporting during the early hours of 6th June 1944 as British 6th Airborne Division aircraft take the first paratroops into action is breathtaking sound and text. The story of that war remains up for re-telling. And how little at times we know about our own history. The 2017 film re-telling of Dunkirk for me caught the truth of a nation unprepared. It forcibly reminded Britain was hours from being knocked out of the war at its outset.

Politics had gambled and lost leaving young lives to pay. Christopher Nolan’s version was intellectually more honest than 60s’ Hollywood. So honest I had to see it a second time as the first viewing leaves you wrought. I argue that these better re-tellings are due in part to courageous British historian A. J. P. Taylor. Taylor dented the Nuremberg Thesis on WWII origins in his masterpiece The Origins of the Second World War. Long story short, Germany was no different from other Western Powers in their aspirations for power. WWII grew out of the Western power struggle rather than nefarious and cunning planning by Hitler. Dry reasoning maybe. Such as the inadequacy of the Versailles Treaty in neither crushing nor successfully re-building a settled society. Taylor offered these awkward nuances contrary to the popular narrative of a demoniacal Fuhrer. (I and my family happened across A. J. P. Taylor’s son, no less, and family whilst on a holiday campsite in France many years back and we joined together to form a pub quiz team one night. Not one history question! Not one!)

Taylor annoyed popularists by re-telling WWII in the necessary and ongoing work of revision. Narratives surrounding markets and industries require similar re-telling. Often opening up new revenue streams based on established capabilities.

But Taylor-Snr’s work arrested popular myth and invited a new search for critical meaning. It’s this ability to re-tell and concentrate narratives which appear critical to strategic leadership as we balance industrial and post-industrial strategies in the UK’s new economies. And this is particularly critical for the North West, which has diverse revenues. From tourism, via its rural expanses, to world leading major global manufacturing and chemical production. Not forgetting the biggest media hub outside of London. And especially not forgetting the micro-businesses who possess growing confidence. (And who are taking to education via new programmes of study aimed at their type of business.)

Companies in this region have built on core competencies in engineering, chemicals, textiles and shipping by diversifying into modern high technology industries. Due strongly to senior leadership being able to offer narratives about change. These have travelled well through organisations and sectors. Good narration creates intellectual handrails for investors and stakeholders to see how any new business will evolve. And how core competencies can stretch onto new markets in the next season.  Thereby a business model is a combination of appropriate goals and objectives, but, critically, articulated as a narrative that investors can believe in.

This is not to deny old sources of senior leader authority such as personal charisma, position-power, experience, qualifications, support by the masses, an acute assessment of reality, a richer ‘big picture’, and gifted language use. However, in shifting a business model both good numbers and articulation remain key tools for CEOs.

Furthermore, in the new economies, the CEO must be willing to position their change strategies into a much wider pool of meaning. Not unlike Taylor’s revisionist history the board can and should change its narrative when needed. Headline thinking must be followed by diligent attention to subtle shifts in trading landscapes. A poor business plan will miss critical signals. Markets are not bounded entities in the way traditional demographic analysis used to infer. Take the staggering losses of the American car industry. It’s possible to see now how poor interpretation hamstrung this industry’s evolution, potentially for decades. Grabbing a window of change is the board’s key role, and its CEO is there to enable early adoption of difficult narratives. This is no longer the realm of the ‘how to’ airport text but of working in the ‘difficult middle ground’ between competing company visions. The CEO works between her directors’ complex and often contradictory needs, and searches for common ground that facilitates competing elements of an organisation’s activity. Of course the CEO can overpower all, necessary sometimes in a crisis, but often deeply destructive of value when a mature business needs revision during key periods in its lifecyle.

Taylor’s role now in the WWII narrative is one of iconoclast. Criticised for relying on German emigrees for his thesis. However, his assault on the sacred ground of WWII origins opened the door to a more grown-up debate. We accept now that the Soviet Union was the only coalition capable of depleting Axis power. It puts the West into a more honest frame of mind. Plus a quandary. Stalin was our ally.

Lighter business models are innovative strategic leadership response to both the 4th Industrial Revolution and increasingly mobile consumer

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2019 at 12:38 pm

UK businesses responded to the 2008 global economic crash with admirable flexibility. Re-structured working arrangements avoided knee-jerk redundancies typical of market down-turns. I put this down to three things: a) better business-educated UK management, b) willingness to collaborate across the workforce and c) the shift to what I term ‘lighter business models’*. Management education and workforce collaboration are well rehearsed conversations. They are necessities not choices. But the notion of operating a lighter business model however is only now moving to the front of our consciousness.

And this does not necessarily mean capital-asset lightness. To consider business model reform in the current season means recognising lightness is situated in the uniqueness of your business and the first step to lighter business models is avoidance of prescriptive best-practice. It is a willingness to work at the level of the conceptual with sometimes fuzzy meanings that only later cohere into concrete action. This sort of discussion feels a little like being in the 2013 Sandra Bullock/George Clooney film Gravity. To survive you have to let go of the umbilical cord that straps to heavy language as well as structures.

The first thing to jettison is the language of solid certainty, with all its comforting scaffolding that held us tight. Saying “I know” looks increasingly precarious but can be replaced with “What do you think?”

What do we mean by ‘light’? Well, as Cliff Richard, Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley put it, Travelling Light is: “Got no bags and baggage to slow me down I’m traveling so fast my feet ain’t touching the ground”. Lightness has all sorts of implications and when coupled with the advent of 5G (China or non-China supplied!), Artificial Intelligence, big data sets, robotics and other manifestations of revolutionary turns in global business we need to consider their combined impact on the business model concept.  This affects everyone and some are more resistant to change than others. Airline, car and retail industries have all seen heavy business models resist transformations. Leading UK retail brand names have missed major social restructuring, with communities for some time increasingly ambivalent towards the high street. The car industry assumed its mass market data sets were reading consumer taste accurately. Major airlines got too close to regulatory bodies creating unwieldy structures that are now being prised open.

Of course the structure of global trade has been shifting quite subtly over the past thirty years. Deregulation of the banking sector made UK PLC a lighter business model in itself. With owners of Capital privileged above smoke stack Labour reliant industry. Labour is increasingly seen as part of the heavy architecture of our solid industrial past. Not that heaviness is going away. Re-nationalisation makes Institutionalised and thereby heavy structures more probable. But Institutions are substantially different here to a commercial organisation. Institutional heaviness and stolid mood are required as unmoving objects to allow a nation-state to function with a comforting machine-like thrum and burble. They’re necessary pillars. Commerce however is different. It can’t afford to Institute all its practices without excessive risk so rightly it pursues a low-baggage policy.

For a commercial entity to re-shape its business model is not just to manage the relationship between Capital and Labour, but to consider the whole of its activity. What is termed a ‘whole life economy’ of organisation. If we ask our Finance Director to bump up this year’s profits Labour remains the easy target. And it is an easy win to slash overheads. All savings go direct to the bottom line. But since we’re ‘business modelling’ as strategic leaders we must very quickly ask the FD the impact on the value of any overhead reduction. What is such a saving going to cost my business in real terms and over what period? The unreconstructed and often Alpha Male CEO might win kudos for slashing and burning seemingly unprofitable elements. But any activity is interdependent on others. It would be easy to identify a 20-mile stretch of rail line between the new London to Birmingham High Speed rail link as unprofitable. Removing it will indeed save costs… but!

The root of heated CEO-FD tennis matches is this. Do all those around the board table understand the business or businesses’ source of value? It is quite possible much of the MD or CEO’s time is spent internally communicating sources of company value. She wrote the business plan so knows how value is made and shaped; and understands the relationship between different revenue streams and why a weak or heavy business activity might still be a key component in the overall mix. However, CEOs do lose sight of value. The hubris that drives leaders is often their Achilles’ Heel when admitting a business model is flawed.

But if we’re considering the whole activity through the lens of the Capital-Labour relationship we want to include quite a range of senior staff. This mitigates the CEO’s drive on occasions. Asking what we offload over the side of the ship, or take on board in the coming years, should become a healthy and stimulating debate. Importantly, and crucially, this discussion is driven by the increasingly fluid end users’ (consumer) nomadism. Like the film Gravity our end user is travelling light like never before and floats away with a greater confidence. They are hunting for new relevance as Information Masters (hyper informed citizens, hungry for exercise of their new worldly knowledge). The expanded middle-class across the world are wont to assert their forms of freedom, which include using their increased product knowledge to justify lighter relationships with the world in general.

The end of the Joshua Environment (Modernity as a purposeful destination) at around the time of the end of the Cold War marked an interesting moment in global structures. And evokes a discussion about boundaries. Cities being the operative metaphor. And thereafter nation states, and then supranational structures like the EU. But let’s not go to BREXIT just now. Cities are increasingly the most popular (or inevitable) place to ‘do life’ in the 21st century. They were the place where our Modern Western existences were conceived. And for Modern read Globalised. The Capital-Labour nexus is understood through a modern globalising of life. That is, we left behind Tradition as a natured communal existence. To restore tradition into city life is to arrest what from the 1800s was a radical New Civilisation. For existence took a rapid turn from the heavy rhythmic objects of the Altar/Throne/Nature to subjectivity, relativity and The Self. The consumer became a self, set apart from her community. Armed with a mobile device, scanning 350,000 tweets per minute, she represents now a hyper form of already hyper-individualism.

This radical New Civilisation is driven by the ‘citizen of the polis’, a free-wheeling character at large, the flâneur, with leisure time to observe and graze onwards. This person then met a key moment in the period of late-capitalism. Be it through Thatcher’s home ownership, share-owning, loadsamoney debt society of 1980’s Britain (a deliberate distribution of risk), or the nouveau riche inheritors of a property windfall since the early 90s, due to UK land rents rocketing, owners of personal capital are presented with a modern (relentlessly new) society that won’t ultimately cohere to the original and heavy New Town and Metroland planner’s dream of sub-urban bliss. The increasingly precarious consumer rather now experiences their version of Modernity quite differently from the previous generation. The socially mobile post-war consumer made not just one leap into the middle but several. This advancement has slowed and they have turned inwards towards the structure of lived-life and its relationship with commerce. Escape and movement is not found in acquisition of ‘the heavy’. Meaning is being sought but beyond material experience with a shift towards networks of relationships: An Age of Sharing.

Late-modernity/late-capitalism is offering a highly fluid landscape for our end user, such that politics is offering new boundaries in the form of popularist claims to restore the old handrails of nationalism, and often hiding in the respectable clothes of tradition. Conservative parties across Europe are divided between liberalising tendencies and reactionary forces, leaving some voters looking for single cause parties as an alternative. Or just to cool down their confusion.

Also, the nation state is up for debate. Is it a place of common ownership and shared ideals anymore? Of course this works horribly against what businesses always prefer and that is certainty. With the hope that business models will be coherent and stable over time. And, containing a steady outworking of the Board’s vision, mission, strategy, goals and objectives. But it’s this linear planning that is now being eroded by the volatility of the end user. Many of whom have accepted a Risk Society is going to spread. So they react accordingly.

So, planning processes that saw capital-P Planning (heavy hard system led development) as arresting market chaos are themselves requiring revision. Some of the dominant management theories of the 20th century were largely inserting linear models into messy changing markets. With mixed results. The ability for the CEO or MD to stimulate such a complex discussion places increased pressure on their own intellectual capacity. The classic pragmatism of the UK boardroom won’t go away but it does need to increase its capability to look at the subtle nuances of unbounded consumer lives. Creating lighter business models that recognise Labour will need to be able to flex to new skills might mean considerable workforce re-alignment and/or investment.

But it’s the right discussion to have. The boundaryless end user is unlikely to do anything other than exercise their right to convert their precarious lives into unfaithfulness to heavy business. If business is spreading Modernity (constant novelty, fleeting experience) then it might be business will pay the price ultimately for end user ambivalence to their brand offering. Business then has to respond by recognising what forms of leadership are required in the coming economies.

Leaders educated and socialised to create heavy businesses as places of certainty and stability that offer repeated patterns of business life are under scrutiny. Willingness to debate business model reform comes increasingly from an orientation towards a discursive and digressive boardroom. The tendency to acculturate middle-management into adopting heavy business cultures is less likely to invite their flexibility as they climb the promotion ladder. They will be adept at regurgitating heavy cultures at the price of the speed of change. Letting middle-management find their voice in the boardroom is vital to considering lightness.

Traditional company structures persist of course but often these recognisable frames can be places of considerable business model innovation. An old shell can rather brilliantly and paradoxically contain new conversations about how value will be generated from the changing end user. These are probably very unsatisfying and confusing boardroom discussions, but vital. Allowing the academic or abstract to compete with the pragmatic or utilitarian modes of business debate is an appropriate response to the volatile ecology of 21st century markets. This means taking an in-depth look at the alignment between Human Resource strategies and future horizons. It might also mean considerable facilitation by outside agents to enable a board whose picture of value is difficult to shift.

But this struggle to see how a structured and ordered Modern global trading environment has shifted towards a fluid network society could pay considerable returns. If lighter business models mean faster responses to end user movement this reduces restructuring costs. The heavy process of re-skilling Labour is potentially replaced by subtle movements that may not even be noticed as a light business model prefers leadership to be much more deeply embedded through all layers of the organisation.

*A business model is seen here as the sum of all decisions.

Long-term value: Improving your board’s strategy processes in 2019

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2019 at 2:40 pm

UK senior leaders with a genuine concern for long-term sustainable value will not be surprised to find boardroom discussion being dominated by strategy considerations in the next few weeks. Not just because access to European markets is uncertain but because globalisation offers interesting opportunities.

Boardrooms are often referent to their organisation’s concept of ‘the strategic’. Founding principles cast long shadows over senior practice and even the most mature company finds it difficult to adjust deeply persistent perspectives about value creation. Companies that collapse or lose touch with market changes can often trace the start of strategic drift to the board’s ability to give voice to early signs of consumers’ unfaithfulness. Directors wishing to signal more fundamental movements in markets will often be alert to their senior board’s ability to receive unpalatable news.

Creating a board culture that is not fragile is a matter of skilful leadership. Mature Chairpersons and CEOs will shape a strategy climate that enables early engagement with any faint signs of change. Of particular challenge is receiving signals that hint at possible changes to the structural make-up of the organisation. Again, senior figures are quite often adept at extrapolating the implications of external factors. If a closed communication culture persists it will limit important conversations and their ability to reach the board with sufficient speed for timely action.In practical terms this means boards should assess the ‘strategy processes’ that foster a high functioning board activity. Boards are often focused on ‘strategy creation’ from within the normal agenda of regular board meetings. With the challenge that strategy dialogue can be eclipsed by the operational demands of the trading cycle. Current events put pressure on the board’s capacity to explore creatively the more subtle elements of strategic conversation.

Whether boards separate ‘strategy creation’ from ‘the business agenda’ becomes a consideration. This is dependent on the needs of the organisation but increasingly creating an open space with a different texture for strategy conversation offers the potential for spotting and protecting long-term value. This may also include pulling in a wider pool of leaders from across the organisation, including middle-management. Middle managers are acutely aware of the organisation’s change pressures but can be either enabled or restricted by their chain of command and quality of departmental/divisional communications. Giving middle-management the opportunity to ‘speak up’ within a more broad-ranging strategy process offers early insights on both internal and external factors. The assumption that regular data gathering within the organisation will provide the board with an accurate picture should be regularly tested.

The Chair has an important if not critical role to enable the CEO to create dynamic strategy processes. If the CEO becomes too intimately involved with some elements of the cycle it may restrict the quality of engagement by the wider team. Allowing line management and support staff to influence the process has value given the interdependence of organisational functions. The possibility, say, for IT strategy to more closely align to the coming demands of future trading can only be of critical concern.

Creating and enabling the above requires patience and determination by Chair and CEO. Their relationship emerges as increasingly important as global markets shift in 2019. It is possible to foster effective Chair/CEO relations that then filter down into the strategy environment. The increasing need to be both sensitive and resilient to change signals grows as markets behave with greater discontinuity. The emphasis is thrown back onto ‘strategic leadership’ and its ability to nurture a senior board who share a sincere concern for the long-term in the face often of significant short-term pressures. But these pressures are also a catalyst to set-up good strategy processes (architecture) that gives real capacity to a busy senior team who need reassurance that their insights will feed into future direction.

If you are a senior director interested in talking further about strategy process then call me on 07544 581601

The changing nature of organisational purpose under globalisation

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2018 at 2:46 pm

I thought it worthwhile capturing the sensations leaders and managers are experiencing when considering purpose and direction. And express this outside of our normal functional language-set, drawing from the late and I believe great Zygmunt Bauman, the Leeds-based sociologist. Does this seem plausible to say that the modern purposeful nature of global management in late-modernity has retreated from “the idea of a ‘total’ order to be erected floor by floor in a protracted consistent, purpose-guided effort of labour” (Zygmunt Bauman)? The aesthetic sense of ‘moving towards’ that made men and women moral and serious about the work-space has transmogrified into an uneasy awareness of co-workers being “involuntary nomads” or journeymen, where fellow “brothers and sisters in humanity” are not taking part in the “bliss of [the] future”. What was an intuitive shared stride into a future that would come-of-age through combined effort has now moved from an Epic-Struggle to a “tinkering… stripped of its eschatological trappings and cut off from its metaphysical roots, work has lost the centrality which it was assigned in the galaxy of values dominant in the solid modernity and heavy capitalism” and it’s lost its “ethical foundation”. If brotherhood of humanity linked arms in solid modernity now the higher ranks might be found tinkering and ‘the many’ find they are “nomad[s]” invited to share the journey alongside the former Epic-Leader (the once sacred of solid modernity), causing bemusement and dysfunctions (sacrilege of disorder). Where modernity itself tied the hands of the charismatic heroic manager now liquid-modernity ties the hands of the technocratic leader whose authenticity was once assured through long-service or technical credibility but finds they inspire ambivalence amidst the ambiguity of change processes. The Epic or Great Technocrat might appear then as the nomad-leader moving through where workplaces are caravanserai, stopping points for a shifting community of travellers, until the next stopping point. In summary the modern-nomad is a “pilgrim through life” gathering unities and maintaining recognisable patterns within matching backdrops, whereas postmodern-nomads “wander between unconnected places”.

Global Manager as the-nomad-leader

Caravanserai: the early ‘motels’ of the desert are for grazing, before wandering further.

A message to Chairpersons/CEOs from history: the UK’s new global role post-BREXIT

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Micro-analysis on the BREXIT deal is obscuring the long-view of the UK’s eventual place in the new world-order. This podcast invites a very confident view from history. Past withdrawals from European power invited interesting equilibrium-seeking leadership. Via media, or the middle-way, became something of the English genius. The ability to please our European markets and hunt down high-seas markets will be played out again. Shaking free from EU oversight offers its own form of energy. Use this podcast to engage senior leaders in a wider conversation. Click here

 

Blue seas ahead: pointing ships into storms remains the only route for boardroom dialogue

The CEO and their language as leaders: developing new ways of speaking realistically into a changing world

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2018 at 6:24 am

Leadership in contemporary organisations is dominated by the language of function. Largely as organisations have evolved to privilege the functional behaviours of its members. Unsurprising given the globalising of modern society. And modern societies often prefer speech rooted in events and people over and above the apparent abstractness of ideas or imagining. That we are cultured in speaking primarily about the physical world is hardly surprising. ‘How are you?’ being a frequent and revealing opening remark for us, over ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What are you thinking?’. Social media reveals the focus on what people are doing, or haven’t done. Chief Executives’ language can often then tend to be orientated towards this form of speechness. Trapping them in a world of apparent ‘constant action’. Their journey through the very functional ranks of middle-management can create pressure to be the centre of successful doing. This podcast discusses our challenge as CEOs and Board members to consider our language as leaders in the coming complexities of future trading: Click here (early reference to the writer Mikhail Bakhtin and his ideas)

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Pic: how well do boardroom spaces enable leaders to vary their speech?

Authenticity and change in the coming commercial flux (Podcast)

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2018 at 12:50 pm

Authenticity remains an appealing notion in that it suggests the presence of the good and true. It implies a centredness around a core self image. Leadership has tended at times to offer these characteristics as attractive to followers. Alignment to an authentic figure is reassuring in a modern non-traditional landscape. But for modern people, those who look to ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ as high points of existence, authenticity struggles. Modernity remains predicated on loosening strong unities around the self. It allows multiple selves dependent on self-construction. Thus modernity and even more so late-modernity (widespread globalisation ala Fourth Industrial Revolution) is at odds with many notions around authenticity. This podcast talks through implications for authenticity and change in the coming globalised trading landscape. Globalisation in this conversation infers the spread of modern flux. Click here

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Naked Education: odd and ordinary learning

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2018 at 11:32 am

There is the argument that ordinary people enjoy life. They enjoy ordinary things. But odd people find ordinary life painful. How much ordinariness is being inflicted by education and business on contemporary life is an important concern. To Know seems rooted in oddness. Especially Socratic knowledge. And does ordinariness in learning affect ‘good knowledge’? Especially if ‘good knowledge’ has lost its humanity.