How the pursuit of the new undermines learning
By John Higgins, December 2020
When I joined a Business School in 1997, I described the experience as being ‘like a kid in a sweetshop!’ After years of adhering to the rote methodologies of US Consulting firms, the Business School represented a seeming step into intellectual freedom. I was able to dip into whatever was flavour of the month, read and promote whatever came my way, however apparently contrarian – and however much it went against the standard rules of consulting and business practice.
All these new and brilliant frameworks and opinions would deliver what was needed for the organizational world. Performance was going to be transformed, accelerated and future-proofed – impossibly brilliant operating models would go through pre-known stages to deliver alignment, agility and value. It all had the redolent scent of all that was world class and sports metaphors were all the rage – the motto of the Olympics said it all: Higher! Faster! Stronger!
The pursuit of novelty
In the maelstrom of all this new insight it was hard to step back and look at the assumptions that underpinned this world view – speed and novelty was all. To step back was to be out of the game. At the time I lacked both the intellectual weight and confidence to look beneath the surface, to slow down and notice what persisted in this world of constant change – because I was part of the world which swallowed whole the still popular and highly questionable cliché: ‘change is the only constant’. Instead of digging deeper, I fell headlong into the ‘new is different’ game.
I see this pattern in the realm of social media – particularly the Twittersphere of many of the “influencers” and “thought leaders”, whatever might actually be meant by such nebulous terms – and I understand its attraction. The sense of making a contribution by sharing something which on the surface seems to be new, ensuring that management are up to speed with all the latest ‘thinking’ of the business school and consulting worlds has some appeal. It generates, perhaps, a sense of usefulness for those in roles that sit some way back from the actual work of the corporations that they seek to advise. The other part of the attraction for being an amplifier of this world view, is that it provides a sense of the new without rocking the boat – in terms of the headwaters of managerial thinking or the power structures it justifies.
From social media to ideas market
Let me provide you with a potpourri of anonymised, recent social media postings and why they sustain a world of seeming learning, which actually achieves the opposite:
- ‘Where’s your organization in terms of remote working maturity?… The five levels of remote work.’ What any form of stages model assumes is that there is a best way that exists apart from context. While apparently harmless, a little aspirational nudge, what it achieves is a belittlement of people’s actual practice and shifts people’s focus away from their complicated reality. It encourages them to assume that the application of a generic framework is more useful to them than working with what is. It speaks to a visionary tomorrow which exists apart from the subtleties of the here and now, where all that is subtle and uncodifiable can be ignored.
- ‘…Seeking ideas, inspiration… for large scale change.’ The telling term worthy of interrogation here is LARGE SCALE. Grandiosity and monumentality have been the curse of the of corporate change initiatives throughout organisational history. The small, the local and the incremental are not of note. Large scale thinking also invites people to engage with making social change as visible as possible, everything has to appear significant. The loud and the boisterous drown out the subtle and the modest. ‘Change’ has to have its ‘Champions’, because it is so big and important – and distinct from the ordinariness of the day-to-day.
- ‘Recent research shows that voice is more important for relationships than visuals.’ This reduces relationships to the most trivial, as if they depended on the mechanics of communication. Once again, the curators of the organizational discourse locate relationships within the bits and bytes of data exchange, ignoring the contextual reality of increasingly outsourced and networked work teams and units, where relationships are smashed up and procedurally over-written in a toxic mess of contractual, pre-defined and managed obligations. Sure, picking up the phone can be a better way of connecting with someone, assuming they know who you are and you understand the power dynamics in play.
- ‘Managing ourselves… set a daily “must win”… create your own commute…’… ‘Recommendations for six books on managing time effectively in stressful times’. John Donne might as well have saved his breath. This is the world of the autarkic individual, where every woman and man is an island, where each island follows the rules on what being a good, self-contained individual looks like. The hamster has to accept the inevitable structure and rhythms of the wheel, rather than noticing how the context itself is toxic and should be the prime focus of attention. And creating your own commute? The image of popping next door so I can spend an hour with my nose in a stranger’s armpit…
- ‘@Kotterinc’. Still recommended as a source of insight and wisdom. This mechanistic, militaristic, wise-helmsman advocate of programmatic disruption remains popular with all those who are invested in the ‘change management’ industry. It still appears as no more than a reworking of the ‘unfreeze, change, freeze’ model of change, built up from a throwaway line by Kurt Lewin. It lacks any insight into power and how it shapes organizational agendas, or how relationships exist as social networks which already have their own dynamics and potentiality. Change is framed as an external and alien property, which therefore supports the need for an external, alien body of change agents to be brought in. It runs counter to the more persuasive perspective that resonates with people’s lived experience of the workplace, where organising is about being in a permanent state of change and continuity (being and becoming) – and “organisation” the reified object is a stultifying imposition, draining the creativity and spontaneity of people coming together collectively.
- ‘Set ground rules for meetings… including no hierarchy or HIPPOs’. At best this is magical thinking – where power and differences in status are disappeared with the whisk of a wand. It reveals a complete lack of understanding of how humans behave towards each other and know themselves in groups. It is what happens when management literature is written by people who only know about the world through an MBA – and have not paid attention to the ideological underpinnings of that world view. The more rigorous interpretation of this ‘no hierarchy’ rule is that it is an ideological sleight of hand, that allows senior people to hide their role in creating the rules of the game – allowing rules to appear either as a natural or self-selected phenomenon.
- ‘Learning from a Year 2 teacher about clarity in role definitions.’ Where to begin with this one? Firstly, it invites people in positions of authority to see the people they have authority over as children; it is an inherently and literally infantilising metaphor for leadership. Secondly it reinforces an impoverished understanding of communication, where instructions and definitions can exist in an objectively precise manner. The slippery nature of language, the co-created nature of meaning, the role of power in mediating how instructions are sent and received (except to infantilise) are all disappeared by a happy-clappy world where understanding can be reduced to a matter of linguistic precision. The benefit of stretching this point is also that it reminds us of the “correspondence model” in critical educational thought, as articulated by Bowles and Gintis back in 1976. This model works in two ways: firstly, that the ‘social relations of education…replicate the hierarchical division of labour’, which ideologically introduces the student into the ways of the workplace through their practical experience of the nature of schooling; and, secondly, the system discharges its students into the various levels of economy on the basis of their progression through educational stages.
- ‘Why having systems for gratitude matter.’ Everything can be reduced to a process, something that can be systematised. I am reminded of the John Cooper Clarke poem where he rhetorically asks of a character without human qualities: “Speaking as an outsider, what do you think of the human race?” When gratitude is grafted on to a power defined, work relationship, it is a demonstration of power – and can be generative and degenerative. The more it is felt to be rooted in personal connection and mutual understanding, the more generative it can be. The more it is grounded in a formal procedure, validated by HR good practice, the more it reminds people of how they are instruments of production within a depersonalised and alienating workplace.
The nonsense of newness
Of course, this ceaseless pursuit of novelty is not simply discernible amongst those whose main economic contribution is to merely amplify the ideas of others – the word “ideas” is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting in this observation, considering that social media tends to promote the circulation of more thoughts than ideas, and more ideas than properly crafted opinions. The fascination with some notion of progress that encompasses the notion of getting better and improving lies at the heart of our socio-economic system, thanks to enlightenment thinking and the capitalist mode of production. This is the ideological underpinning of our fascination with newness because, once our needs are met, then our consumption can only be encouraged by notions of obsolescence, innovation and improvement.
For example, in the very same twitter sphere where people go to cheerlead for supposedly new thinking, the following announcement appeared on 13 October 2020 at just after 7pm from Apple, the global gadget manufacturer: ‘Introducing iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro. With the A14 Bionic chip and 5G, it’s the most powerful iPhone yet.’ Here, then, is the launch of the “very latest” handset, which will have people queuing around the blocks of Apple stores around the world in order to get one sooner than anyone else. Moreover, of course, the most powerful phone yet has to come in two different versions, just to double down on the newness and desirability of the product.
Momentarily in that medium, a debate raged about whether the sinister techno-merchant might be engaged in something that carried with it the reek of “greenwashing” by maintaining that – as part of their commitment to the environment – the new item would be sold without earphones or a charger. How this was seen to be environmentally positive remains moot, certainly; presumably the logic was that consumers would simply continue to use their existing accessories. In fact, an initial glance makes it look merely like a company fragmenting a coherent product in order to monetise its various component parts.
More fundamentally, of course, Apple’s business model fetishizes “stylistic obsolescence” and the endless replacement of one phone for another, oftentimes with very limited practical changes driving this. (Those with short memories of the capitalist market will fail to recall that this is the company that flipped its cabling from one connection style to another – the accursed lightning rod – without really providing any technical justification for rendering so much kit instantly obsolete.) The dedication to stylistic obsolescence is immediately apparent when one asks oneself the questions: when did you last hear of someone replacing their mobile phone because their old one had stopped working? Replacing the phone is not a matter of utility any longer; it’s a simple question of lifestyle.
So, our influencers – who find ideas sticking to them as they canter through life, in the way that a burr might attach itself to the material of one’s coat on a country walk, and then presenting those ideas supposedly afresh to a different audience – are merely mimicking the absurdity that we see in respect to commodities in a society where – as Guy Debord intimates in his exquisite theorisation of the “Society of the Spectacle” – we are simultaneously producer and consumer of the ever expanding volume of things that capitalism is compelled endlessly (and hence compels us) to create.
It seems harsh to say it – but it cannot continue to remain unspoken: Our influencers are mere merchants in the brute commercialisation of the panoply of models, techniques, approaches, and frameworks that arise out of the shallows of management thinking, each valued not for its efficacy but simply its newness.
Instead of endlessly chasing what gets thrown up at us all as “novel” and also pursuing that self-same novelty via nominally new models, approaches or techniques, our thought leaders – and we ourselves – would be better off being less future oriented and significantly more reflexive in terms of our experience in the present.