Philip Whiteley's Blog

September 21, 2017

Engagement is a business issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:15 pm

Ryanair’s crisis of multiple flight cancellations is a failure of employee engagement, but cultural biases prevent the media or many business commentators from presenting it in this way. This was the topical message at a talk I gave this morning at the second Engage for Success Milton Keynes seminar.

‘The airline’s brand has been damaged, the share price has been hit, the business model could even be threatened, because senior managers were not treating the engagement of employees as a matter of business risk.’ Ryanair has been losing pilots to competitors, and the offer of a one-off cash bonus received a cool reception. Such an approach is typical of a mechanistic approach to management, geared excessively by a bottom-line calculation of cost, with people referred to as resources.

‘The idea that the economic impact of relationships in the workplace is negligible is probably the most stupid popular idea I’ve ever come across … People are not “resources”. A company doesn’t consist of resources, it consists of people. Resources are what we use.’

At the seminar, attended by around 40 senior professionals in internal communications and personnel-related disciplines, discussion ranged widely, covering matters such as the importance, and the difficulty, of measuring the economic impact of training and other people-related investments. Katy Downes of Network Rail reported on how her business has made progress in linking key indicators of employee engagement to business indicators.

In her address, Stevie Leake of Kerry Foods, described the company’s comprehensive approach to engagement, from strategic communications to deliberately ‘fun’ elements such as competitions and ‘thank-you’ cards. Engagement has risen, in line with improved performance, she reported.

Also at the seminar, Engage for Success representative Silke Brittain, managing director ClearVoice, and Adrian Spurrell of the Red Thread, led a participative session in which delegates engaged in group discussions to devise ways to protect or even enhance staff engagement and performance during Brexit, with a task of envisaging announcements that could be made in January 2020.

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September 19, 2017

It’s the culture, of course

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 4:32 pm

The gender pay gap is caused in large part by unconscious biases, and requires cultural change rather than technical fixes, Rita Trehan, adviser on diversity and workplace culture to leading companies, told a London briefing today.

While this is a fairly obvious conclusion, from a behavioural perspective, the lessons that follow are not easy to implement, because ‘culture’ is so multi-dimensional and complex.

UK companies with more than 250 staff will be required to report on pay differentials from next year, she pointed out. ‘But I’m not sure that numbers are the most important part, because you can cut numbers in different ways. The big question is: What’s the real issue that we have to address? It could be not enough women in certain career paths.’

Employers ought to realize that fairness and diversity affect the employer brand, as well as motivation and performance. The recent controversy at the BBC starkly illustrated this, she said. ‘For a company like the BBC, which does a lot from a diversity perspective, as a core attribute, the branding is an issue for them. It put them under the spotlight from a gender perspective and [more generally] a diversity perspective. The top ten minority individuals earn about the same as Chris Evans.’

While companies often pride themselves on paying for performance, detailed statistical analysis often reveals that pay reflects a less meritocratic pattern, such as tenure, which tends to favour men. Mercer HR’s Workforce Science Institute, for example, has revealed such tendencies over the past 20 years, and now helps many large employers with their diversity strategies.

The trend is moving away from seeing equality as a compliance matter dominated by legislation and quotas, and more towards a performance culture. Some groups of male CEOs are starting to promote the agenda, including the highly influential Michael Bloomberg, said Rita.

September 18, 2017

Exposing the ignorance of our politicians

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:49 am

My blog today is a review of Bob Garratt’s latest book Stop The Rot.

This book is a masterpiece. It ought to be – as they say – required reading for all senior leaders in business and politics. Bob forensically examines the short-termism, lack of accountability, corruption, greed, weak governance and incompetence that brought about the economic and social problems we are experiencing.

Reprising some themes from his earlier work, he points out that the directors are ultimately responsible for the success of the organization, balanced by duties of care and to avoid the temptations of corruption. These are customs frequently honoured in the breach, with many of the lapses a result of sheer ignorance. There is only one Board, in the UK system, only one class of director, they have defined duties, and unlimited personal liability. They also, he points out devastatingly, typically have no training. A depressingly common response to poor induction and lapses by Boards is to create yet more supervisory structures and regulations on top, resulting in a bureaucratic mess. And we wonder why we have banking and other corporate collapses, misallocations of capital and recurring economic crises.

Much of the focus is on Britain, but there are critiques of the executive-led corporate model of the US, strengths and weaknesses of continental Europe, and some interesting reforms in South Africa.

A fascinating contribution is his astonishing expose of how woolly the notion of ‘ownership’ of organizations is, in both the public and private sector. An anomaly of British law is that shareholders of listed companies are not directly owners of the firm. In the public sphere, he has never received a satisfactory answer to the question: ‘Who owns an NHS Trust?’

Quite correctly, he urges ownership matters to be clarified, and shareholder voting rights to be limited to genuine owners, not short-termist speculators using shares as ‘gambling chips’.

This is a quite brilliant book, but with disturbing implications. The colossal gulf between the sober, intelligent critique offered in these pages, combined with wise and practical policy proposals for better governance, responsible ownership and long-term economic management on the one hand; compared with the belligerent ignorance of our political leaders on the other, is alarming. As I say, it should be required reading; it will be a struggle to make it so but, well, you have to try.

  • Stop the Rot: Reframing Governance for Directors and Politicians, by Bob Garratt, is published by Greenleaf Publishing, available from Amazon and other stores.

August 31, 2017

Really, I shouldn’t … oh, all right then

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:59 pm

As authors, we’re not wired to promote ourselves. Typically, we’re observers, not leaders or salesmen. At school, we didn’t lead the gang, we didn’t even join it. We watched what it did. As published authors, we tend to shy away from self-promotion; or, we get caught between two extremes – pushing our books openly for a while, then retreating and hiding again.

But without some promotion, we don’t get noticed, and without notice, we struggle to get sales. I’ve learned to square the circle by changing my view of marketing and self-promotion. Instead of donning a sales hat and yelling ‘Buy my book’ (OK, I occasionally do a bit of that, if I’m honest ….), I’ve sought to make marketing part of the story telling. If I have an idea for a story, I think about whom it might appeal to, and why. Instead of being a me-me-me pushy approach to sales, it becomes a more modest one; a case of saying to a reader panel: ‘Do you like this idea for a story? No? Yes? Which parts? OK, thanks.’

Gaining insights from a reader panel on draft works, and thinking about the potential readership while I’m still writing, helps me improve the book, as well as identify constituencies who might like it. I’m still at the early stages of learning about this process, but I’ve gained a few insights in the past year, with the launch of my second book Marching on Together, for which I secured some valuable media coverage.

I was given the tremendous opportunity to discuss the theme at the recent Margate Book Festival in Kent, earlier this month, alongside PR guru Gemma Pettman, who presented some valuable practical tips on use of social media and engaging the press. We discuss the theme in this podcast.

‘If you’re buying something, whether it’s a widget or a book, that human side of things is really important,’ says Gemma on the podcast. ‘People buy from people.’

  • Marching on Together, which I discussed at the Margate Bookie, has been featured in the Yorkshire Evening Post and BBC Radio Leeds. It’s my second novel, and is available via this link (go on, buy it, you know you want to ….).

August 8, 2017

Margate, here I come!

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:43 pm

In just ten days’ time, I’m setting off for Margate, for the book festival. Two days later, I’ll be presenting a workshop on book marketing with PR genius Gemma Pettman. The region may be approximately 264 miles from Leeds, the home town of the six lead characters in Marching on Together, and just over the water from Bruges, where most of the scenes in the book take place, but the region has an unlikely place in my heart. As a homesick expat Yorkshire lad in Kent in the 1970s, the best place to visit was Minnis Bay, near Margate, for a weekend or a longer holiday. Thanet has stunning beaches, amazing wildlife and characterful towns with history, wine bars and pubs. So, if you’re not booked for the weekend of 18-20 August, come join us ….

More on the link above, or at the home page here: http://margatebookie.com/

July 14, 2017

Whose story are we qualified to tell?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:45 pm

Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider series of books, reported recently that he had been ‘warned off’ creating a black character. The criticism stems from the concept of cultural appropriation, which challenges the legitimacy of penning characters from a very different perspective of the author. The concept is North American, and the context is typically protest at a white affluent author portraying black, Hispanic or native American characters in a way that is inauthentic or stereotypical.

Obviously, taken to extremes, avoiding all ‘cultural appropriation’ would be impractical, and would end all works of imagination. It would also present problems for ghostwriters, and would mean that every ghost would have to have identical skin colour, religion, upbringing, etc as their client; otherwise, how on earth can they represent their worldview and tell their story?

Horowitz responded that if he were only to write from a point of view he had lived through himself, he couldn’t write a female character either, and everyone would have to be a 62-year-old white Jewish man from north London.

The issue is of keen interest to me, because as a ghost I have many clients who are non-British, and as a novelist I have generally created a fairly diverse cast. The idea of everyone in my novels being a middle-aged white heterosexual male sports fan would bore me, never mind the reader.

There is a ‘but’, however. As writers, we should take care to try to understand a different world view, and question and challenge our own prejudices, and create convincing characters that are neither negatively stereotypical nor saccharine. As a white Brit, I haven’t experienced oppression, but I have winced at the occasional US show or movie, such as Titanic, where all the British characters are cold and heartless, and all the Americans and Irish are plucky, artistic and warm-hearted. That experience has been lived a thousand times more, and a thousand times more deeply, by many people who are black, Asian, Hispanic or native American.

A complicating factor is the multi-faceted nature of culture. For example, if you look at me, see my surname and hear my accent, you may assume I’m a bog-standard WASP. But I was raised Roman Catholic, and have Irish ancestry. So while a protestor against ‘cultural appropriation’ may challenge my qualification to pen a female Hispanic character, when I wrote the short story Gringos Can’t Dance, in which the Chilean character Rosa meets the white Yorkshire lad Johnny, I was able to draw on my own experience when she described the day of her first Holy Communion (an important and elaborate ceremony in Catholicism), and I had to use imagination and experience to shape Johnny’s reactions.

One of the biggest risks as a ghostwriter is to slide into telling your story, rather than your client’s. I confess I have occasionally put an opinion into the text that was more mine than the client’s, subconsciously, obviously. I have always sought a relationship of trust and continual dialogue, and such lapses have not (I don’t believe) reached the printed page. A good ghostwriter doesn’t merely report the basic facts of the client’s story, he or she engages in deep conversation, to draw the stories out. Sometimes, you can spot things that the client has missed about himself or herself. It’s almost like therapy.

One of my first conscious thoughts was at about the age of three, when I realized I could only ever be myself. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by how other people see the world. I’ve lived in different parts of the world, learned a foreign language, had friends from many different backgrounds, penned books on cross-cultural teams. Sadly, my ignorance on other people’s perspectives will always outweigh my knowledge, but until you try, you cannot even understand your own culture. Only through empathy can people come together, can a writer a pen a novel and a ghost tell someone’s story.

 

June 16, 2017

Austerity doesn’t work – well, who knew?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:09 am

Nearly a decade ago, the Thatcherite, neo-liberal financing system came crashing down. It failed even on its own terms. It promised efficient allocation of capital, accurate pricing, encouragement of economic growth and creation of wealth. Instead, it resulted in credit booms and irresponsible speculation, compounded by political corruption.

It was a giddy time, the winter of 2008-09. The scale of corruption by Wall Street became apparent when the US government let Lehman Brothers crash (it didn’t have such close political connections as others), while bailing out its cronies, dumping the entire cost on to the taxpayer. If you committed such a white collar crime on a small scale, you would go to prison; when you do the same on a colossal scale, having captured the political system with lobbying, you get to retire with your riches.

In the UK, the Government also socialized the losses, through its bail-outs and bank nationalizations. The result was a soaring deficit and sharply increased Government debt. It hadn’t helped that Gordon Brown had ignored warnings about rising debt and credit bubbles, especially by Vince Cable, and instead stoked a boom to help Labour win the election in 2005. Here is the Cable and Brown Q&A, from 2003:

Vince Cable: “The growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level. What action will the Chancellor take on the problem of consumer debt?”

Gordon Brown: “The hon. Gentleman has been writing articles in the newspapers … that spread alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy. … What the Bank of England said yesterday about the prospects for growth …suggests that we have been right about the prospects for growth in the British economy, and the hon. Gentleman has been wrong.” [Hansard 13 November 2003]

In the three General Elections since austerity began, Labour have lost all, by comfortable margins. The core reason for Labour’s failure was a refusal to acknowledge the real reasons for the austerity and claim that there are easy solutions. Labour, and The Guardian, decided to blame austerity on ‘Tory cuts’, making it easy ever since for Conservatives to portray themselves as the sensible grown-ups, a task made easier still by the fact that there was some truth to the narrative that the boom and bust was partly Gordon Brown’s fault (see above). Oliver Letwin had made similar criticisms to Vince Cable in the same debate.

At the Labour conference in 2010, Harriet Harman and Neil Kinnock were positively chortling with glee at the opportunity that the austerity programme and the Liberal Democrats’ decision to join the coalition gave them to hoover up left-leaning Lib Dem voters. Ironically, this was opportunistic, short-termist behaviour – just like the speculators and bankers – seeking a quick profit for the Labour Party, rather than committing to rebalance the economy and generate sustainable growth.

Since then, Labour and The Guardian have blamed ‘Tory cuts’ for austerity, and used a crude Keynesian argument, implying that there’s some short cut out of the crisis through a succession of spending commitments. ‘Austerity,’ they gravely intone, ‘doesn’t work’.

Well, of course, austerity ‘doesn’t work’. Here is a list of other things that don’t work: Broken glass. Car crashes. Plastic waste in the oceans. This tautology, repeated by left-wing commentators for nearly a decade now, rests on a misunderstanding of what austerity is, and a refusal to analyse what caused it. This has culminated in Jeremy Corbyn’s naïve economic policies that could well worsen austerity, if borrowing rises too much and the credit rating is slashed. It’s not inevitable, but Labour’s leadership appear unaware of the risk.

My fear is that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has been missed. The left should have challenged dominant neoliberal narratives and the corruption it encouraged, and should make the case for a financial system that serves society, rather than the other way around. Instead, they just offer a long menu of spending commitments in an unreformed system.

Still, with young people being brought into political debates, there is the opportunity to develop a more enlightened manifesto next time around. I’m always the optimist. But the left rapidly has to quit its addiction to quick fixes, analyse what’s really happened and develop much better policies.

 

May 5, 2017

Is being a novelist a profession?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:45 am

A motivation in my turning to fiction after a quarter of a century as a journalist and non-fiction author was noting the comment by the great US author Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

At about the same time, I read her classic novel Beloved. It was a difficult read for me; indeed I imagine for anyone unfamiliar with the southern US dialect, though I have read widely about colonialism, segregation and slavery, which helped me understand the context. The accent was not the only challenge; the narrative switches in time, by many years, with the briefest clue as to when a change had been made. Beloved was a dense and difficult read. It was also poetic, haunting and beautiful. I was glad to have completed it, even though I would have needed a few days’ guidance by an academic to have appreciated all dimensions.

I have followed Toni Morrison’s advice, though not imitated her style (not that I could). The two novels I have had published are accessible, with a recognizable arc and, I’m told, genuinely funny in places.

That does not make me an inverted intellectual snob, however. I strongly defend the role of literature, like that of Morrison, or TS Eliot or James Joyce before, that explores new narrative forms, introduces complex subjects in oblique ways, and that may require interpretation. The world would be a duller place if all literature were accessible and to a format, and we would cease to be learning and growing.

I have long argued, however, that the distinction between literary and popular fiction is valid only at the extremes, when you are comparing Joyce to Jeffrey Archer. In between, there’s a huge grey area. There are many ‘literary’ tomes that are contrived and superficial, and many ‘popular’ authors whose characters touch unexpected depths, in poignant reflection or philosophical musing.

The snobbery towards comedy is particularly bizarre, and would not be recognized by earlier generations. No comedy will ever win the Oscars or the Booker these days, but consider the following historical classics that contain laugh-out loud humour: Don Quixote, Great Expectations, La Peste. Today, everyone has to be unrelentingly grim, especially if one aspires to a short-listing.

This is accompanied by the rise and rise of the creative writing course, including Masters and even a PhD. There is an increasing tendency to view novel-writing as a career like medicine or accountancy, for which one studies a body of knowledge and learns the craft. Literary agents now recruit graduates of such courses, like corporate personnel departments hiring from the business schools.

This makes me uneasy, and not only out of self-interest, given that I am almost entirely self-taught as a novelist. I don’t think literature is directly comparable to a formal profession; it is more akin to being an entrepreneur – many of whom dropped out of school or university. Now, there is much craft to be learned in novel-writing, and much to be gained from formal study, but few creative writing graduates are as poetic or gifted as Toni Morrison, and downplaying the value of the lived experience may be having a stultifying effect.

In recent years, I have read many historical novels, written by authors probably cleverer and certainly more learned than me, but who have spent too long on creative writing courses. The books lacked passion, did not seem to be informed by the lived experience, and the meticulous research was too obviously on display – in one example, some details of the export industry of the 1890s was smuggled unconvincingly into direct speech.

This type of reading experience led me to conclude that the book I wished to read wasn’t being written, so I’d better bloody well do it myself. This would be a book that is contemporary, realistic, with convincing characters, feeling out of place because the narratives they told themselves weren’t working any more, giving rise to major life decisions, well judged or otherwise.

And I wanted my books to be funny. To me, humour and depth are close twins. Another guiding principle is to draw upon extreme emotions that I and people close to me have felt. It’s hard to convey the depths of ecstasy and despair on the basis of library research. Without emotion, how can you engage the reader? Another important theme for me is the importance of, and the inescapability of, personal beliefs.

I am immensely proud to have received a rather better critical reaction than I dared hope for, including a cover quote for my second novel, Marching on Together, from Louis de Bernieres. I continue to receive rejections from agents and literary festivals, but I can now honestly say that the literary credentials of at least one individual who rated my work far outweigh those of the folk who do not. Perhaps I can be generous to myself and conclude that my books are merely unfashionable, rather than lacking in literary merit. And, no, I won’t be signing up to any creative writing classes. I would rather listen to my readers.

April 27, 2017

New beginnings, and life’s journey

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:06 am

A lovely review of Marching on Together is published in Church & Town, the parish magazine of St Andrews, Ampthill, written by Rosie Hughes. I reproduce it below:

Review of Marching on Together

By Rosie Hughes – Having been lucky enough to read an early, pre-publication draft of this book, I was really looking forward to reading the finished article.  I was not disappointed and actually enjoyed the book all the more through having an appreciation of its journey.

A mixed group of six Leeds United supporters set off on a trip to Bruges at the time of the centenary of the Great War.  It is apparent early on that the trip represents very different things to each of them.   Although ostensibly a lads’ drinking weekend, there is the search for great-granddad’s grave on the Western Front, a crucial business meeting with a European contact,  new romantic relationships to be formed and a thirty year old crime to be absolved.

The characters are sensitively drawn and whilst they are Marching on Together, they are on their own private journeys.  There is an underlying theme of family and belonging both in the literal and figurative sense, with the loneliness of one character in particular, Yvonne, being palpable.

The importance of music in the characters’ lives features prominently, but football is the interest than unites the group.  Their love of Leeds United and pride in all things Yorkshire is clearly evident, but you don’t need to be a football fan or from the aforementioned county to appreciate this novel.

The book is very funny in parts, with the characters displaying both dry wit and self-deprecating humour.  There are also key moments of sadness and reflection.

The conclusion represents moving on, new beginnings and life’s continual journey.

A gentle book, to be savoured and contemplated.

From Church & Town. There is more information about St Andrews Church on this link: http://www.standrewsampthill.org/

You can buy Marching on Together at Amazon, just click on this link.

 

April 11, 2017

Why AI will always be dumb

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:18 pm

Robots will replace workers. Yawn. I’ve been reading variants of this storyline since around 1978. Since then, robots have increased in range and sophistication, yet employment levels have still kept going up. Also, during that time, and especially in the last 10-15 years, automated intelligence systems have been making bigger and bigger mistakes, leading directly to the collapse of entire businesses, yet always, in our technophile, misanthropic business culture, escaping all blame, so that technophile, misanthropic futurists can project an even bigger future for artificial intelligence, ignoring the lessons of the recent past, determined to repeat mistakes over and over again, on a bigger and bigger scale. Every time that AI messes up, the wreckage has to be cleared up by humans, which partly explains why employment rates keep on rising.

These ‘futurists’ need stopping. They are dangerous.

How did it come to this? Their misjudgements rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of what intelligence is. Our technophile, misanthropic culture equates intelligence with computation, chronicling with pride, for example, at how the best computers will always beat a grandmaster at chess. This game is perfect for AI: known parameters, known rules, the ability to compute millions of permutations per second.

What a computer cannot do, however, is know how to react if the game is interrupted by a terrorist incident, or to know that a couple searching for their lost toddler is a more important priority than whether or not to move your queen to knight 4. This inability to respond to unexpected events, to know how to react to unknown unknowns, is one of AI’s most serious weaknesses. But there are others: inability to empathize, to value the practical wisdom of an experienced employee, or understand such concepts as family love, hatred or political extremism.

So what were these corporate mistakes, how did they come about, and why where they so damaging? Let’s look at three examples, in chronological order. Familiarize yourself with the thinking errors that caused them, because the pattern is set to be repeated.

MFI in 2003-04

The British furniture retailer had a highly effective decentralized order and delivery system, in which experienced local store managers knew the stock and took care of customer service. This was replaced by a centralized automated system. It started making errors, but the designers had not built in contingency to intervene and correct them (this is a recurring thinking error in design of automated customer service systems; the pretence that machines are infallible). Customer service plummeted, so did reputation and business dried up. The company went into liquidation.

Investment banks 1990s-2008

As part of the lobbying to be allowed to police themselves, investment banks fooled regulators, and themselves, into believing that automated risk management systems were more advanced and sophisticated than experienced human oversight. In order to justify using automated risk management systems, that rest on the Value at Risk model that assumes risk can be quantified, they pretended that market risk was a closed game with known parameters, like chess. They were therefore completely ill-equipped to cope with the asymmetric, unpredictable dynamics of property asset bubbles exploding. Lehman Brothers went bust, and many others had to be rescued by ‘unsophisticated’ politicians and central bankers.

Google 2017

Google, which owns YouTube, was starting to enjoy bumper revenues from online advertising, relatively cheap to administer compared to rival news media organizations that generate their own material. Far cheaper and more advanced to let users produce content, and let algorithms place the ads. In 2017, however, reputable advertisers started to realize that their products were being promoted alongside hate videos by politically extremist organizations. Worse, their money was directly lining the pockets of these toxic groups, directed by YouTube algorithms that generate income based on numbers of views. The advertisers began withdrawing millions of dollars and pounds and redirected them to ‘old-fashioned’ media outlets.

It could be argued that these examples feature poor implementation of AI, and do not necessarily place a question mark over its wider validity. Well yes, but making that point kind of makes my point too: the technophile, misanthropic culture that has plagued the business world for decades, and that has led to such poor implementation, is also steering research priorities and decisions on applications. This means that such mistakes are very likely to recur. Google, for example, still refuses to put human judgement in charge of vetting of politically extreme videos on YouTube. It would rather see its business model damaged, perhaps irreparably, than cease to worship at the altar of AI, which has become akin to a religion.

Of course, it may be the case, some centuries from now, that there will be machines capable of spontaneity, improvisation, sensitivity, empathy and good judgement. But why wait that long, given that we already have entities superbly geared to such areas of expertise? They’re called humans. To refuse to deploy people for what they are best at is profoundly unintelligent. It’s like preferring bottled cow’s milk to mother’s milk for a new-born baby, despite the multiple health benefits of the latter, simply on the grounds that it’s newer.

The bigger problem is that only a small minority of organizations are effective at deploying human intelligence. What you find is that such enlightened entities tend also to be smarter in their use of technology. AI will always be dumb in some areas; humans in others. The best partnerships harness the strengths of both.

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