Philip Whiteley's Blog

June 22, 2011

That’s not how it is

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:15 am

We have a reasonably free press in the west, and some journalists have notched some impressive exposes in recent years where it comes to political scandals. When it comes to malfeasance by corporations and governments, typically there are some hacks on the case (though by definition we will never know about the ones we miss).

On the reality of working life in organisations, however, there is a worrying gap between what we write about and how life really is. I first became aware of this in 1993, visiting the Communist Cuban government’s pharmaceutical research agencies. The teams there reminded me of those at the US pharma giant Pfizer, whom I had met some years earlier on a sixth-form visit. In the world of big politics, of course, Communists and US multinationals reside at opposite ends of some imaginary spectrum.

It’s the same with debates on the nature of the mixed economy and public service reform.Journalists tamely accept the terms of reference offered by the sectarian spokespeople of right and left, and seem incurious about organisational reality. For Conservatives, it is an act of faith that you cannot have good service or high levels of efficiency without competition; public sector ‘reform’ consists of introducing this competitive element (with the exception of the armed forces: it is never questioned that there should only be one army). For Labour, it is inconceivable that you can display a conscience or do anything socially worthwhile if you are distracted by the profit motive.

Democracy is held to be the means by which we decide which of the two visions is the more correct. But what if they are both wrong? What if the single biggest determinant of good service is not the organisational structure or degree of competition, but the calibre of leaders, managers and specialist professionals? This is the daily reality of the people I interview.

There can be industrial scale waste in the private sector, for example in mergers & acquisitions activity; and there can be highly unethical practice in the public sector, including corporate manslaughter in NHS hospitals. There can also be excellence in both. It depends on the people, stupid.

One journalist used to report for The Observer on organisational reality, receiving dozens of emails a week about the horrors of the latest nightmare reorganisation or other loony management nonsense. But Simon Caulkin’s column was closed by the Guardian Media Group at about the same time that it was wasting £100m on a gratuitous redesign, paying its executives too much and generally going out of their way to destroy a once intelligent liberal paper while lining their expanding pockets.

For the elite, including elite journalists, organisations consist of structures, degrees of competition, and simplistic fables based on the notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ that bear little relation to actual working life. There is a gulf between their world and ours, and it isn’t only in terms of income.

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