Category Archives: collectivity

The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

The triadic relationship between persons, tools and a new collectivity

There was a recent article in the Observer about how French policemen, who have taking to writing novels and poetry, drawing cartoons, and rapping in an attempt to voice their grievances.

‘This is a totally new phenomenon,’ said Frederic Ploquin, a crime correspondent and police expert. ‘Before, the only people writing books were retired senior commissioners and your average plod was just a worker or peasant. Now a new generation of police with university degrees and culture are finding ways to express themselves while still serving in the force.’

(I’d be keen to know what ‘your average plod’ was in French.)

But it doesn’t suit everyone:

‘If the cops start rapping, what’s left for us?’ said Ahmed Messaoui, a teenage aspirant hip-hop star in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. ‘If he doesn’t like being a policeman, he should leave. Otherwise he should stick to arresting people and let us do the music.’

The article was brought to mind this morning by an interview on the Today programme on radio 4 about a new exhibition just opened by the National Army Museum. Thought to be the first ‘heritage display’ of an ongoing conflict

“The interactive exhibition depicts the troops’ experiences from the start of their tour of the region in April 2006.
Personal items, including worn-thin combat shirts, “contact” calendars, mugs made from mortar bomb packaging and pieces of shrapnel kept as mementos of war wounds, form part of the display.”

Objects and small items, containing personal stories of all kinds. Not just physical objects but media objects such as assaults recorded on mobile phones and posted to YouTube. Which takes me right back to yesterday’s draft blog, never completed, which was all about objects as it happens. If I can manage it, I’ll come back round at the end to what seems to be going on with these new kinds of voices and oral histories.

Yesterday was full of gifts, and if I were feeling cleverer I’d no doubt spin off into a nice philosophical detour about gift economies. Another time.

The first gift was an email from a client, who sent me a link to this New Scientist blog on Sherry Turkle’s new book ‘Evocative Objects’. Sherry Turkle has coined, or borrowed, the phrase ‘objects-to–think-with’ and talks of the way objects can evoke and contain memories and ideas. This is not a new idea, but I’m sure it’s well handled by her – she’s a good and thoughtful writer. Plus it’s interesting to see how many posts the blog has sparked off, which gives you a clue as to how intuitively people understand and appreciate that

‘just asking yourself what they mean to you can unlock a rich stock of memories, associations and insights into your thought processes that you may not be able to get at any other way’

We’ve used objects right since the very very beginning of sparknow’s work, in fact in the pre-history of sparknow. Partly in that evoking-and-containing way – and for developing this I owe a great deal to Steph Colton, the anthropologically inclined storytelling who no longer works with me. We’ve used them, for example, at lessons learned workshops at the end of knowledge pilots, as a way of accessing some real insight and emotion. People bring objects (a conker, a postcard of a swimming pool, a packet of chewing gum) and use these to say how they feel about the pilot. The conker ‘at first I thought it was just a game, like the children’s game, then as time went on I realised that actually it was also the start of something, a seed and the conker says both’. The swimming pool. ‘I felt as though I was diving off at the deep end.’ We take polaroid pictures and make a kind of postcard display immediately to create a kind of evocative lessons learned environment through having the exhibit both of pictures and of the objects themselves. And digital pictures which allow us to make a kind of object story book which can act, for them, as an aide-memoire later and in some unobtrusive way provide a closing ritual or touchstone as a memory for the whole experience.

Or this, for fun, which led to a 5 year engagement with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation:

“A few years back Sparknow attended the Knowledge Management Europe conference in Den Haag. In among a sea of laminations, screensavers and glossy brochures about technology, we ran a couple of workshops on story1. Transforming a previously neutral space – a ceiling-free pen in an aircraft hanger-style conference centre – we strung up washing lines, pegging to them objects and assets developed through our story work. To open our session one of our associates – a traditional storyteller – performed a story we had commissioned from her a couple of years previously about our first knowledge management project. Performing in this space she filled the whole exhibition hall with sound and music. People came to find us from all over the conference.”

Our client, Manuel, found us because of the singing and the objects and gave us great backing to work in all kinds of ways with story as a knowledge instrument in SDC over the next few years. I’ve attached probably the best object story which came from that time. (It’s at the end of the pdf if you want to speed things up).

Tales from a Bedouin Tent

The other gift from yesterday was from Clive.

I whipped down to Cass to have an emergency potboiler session and pick his brains about this 7,000 words I’m supposed to be cooking up on knowledge workers (again, if only I knew what a knowledge worker is). Anyway, after updating me on his marvellous Mystery Business MBA elective, on which I’ll write another time, I asked the normal question about whether I should do a PhD. No, but he put me onto the most glorious one done by a woman called Daria Loi, who presented the entire thing, objects, in a suitcase. She had to make 5 copies, so 5 suitcases:

‘lavoretti per bimbi – Playful Triggers as keys to foster collaborative practices and workspaces where people learn, wonder and play

The thesis explored ways to foster organizational spaces where collaborative activities can be undertaken using design tools and methods. I argued that for co-design activities to emerge participants have to be linked by ‘meaningful relationships’, hence emphasising that, before embarking on co-design processes, participatory design activities require participants to feel comfortable with each other, to be able to collaborate and to communicate shared languages.

Within this context I developed a series of tools called Playful Triggers and proposed them as effective tools to elicit relationships among their users so that they can learn together how to work together before undertaking co-design activities.

Due to the participatory methods and tools proposed in the research, I explored the opportunities for a thesis to become a place for participatory practices to emerge and to be an artefact where readers can physically, emotionally, and conceptually experience ideas rather than just read about them.

The thesis was consequently articulated adopting an anomalous format that: enables readers in constructing extra layers of meaning; includes them in asynchronous dialogues with author and future readers; lets readers appreciate the tools described in the thesis by touching and playing with them besides reading about them; and expands the thesis content beyond what words can define using textual and non-textual means.

A cardboard suitcase is the main container of the PhD research – a complex system incorporating textual and non-textual content that complement and amplify each other using metaphors as converging points.’

Now this line of thinking about containers and contents, objects, play and tools, must lead past Ivan Illich and his tools for conviviality (1973):

‘To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.” 3M (039)

After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen “convivial” as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools.’

A society in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers. Exactly so. I think that takes us rather nicely back to where we started. To our politically interrelated French rapping and poet policemen, to our serving army officers. Whose managers and chief superintendents and commanding officers are no doubt quite nervous at the loss of grip on the channels of communication. We now see the underbelly – work as it really is, our institutions and their authority as they really are. It puts me in mind of John Berger’s glorious post on Open Democracy a while back.

‘The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.’

There’s something else here about the implications for authority and leadership in a world where the voices of those lower down in the system can no longer be shut up because the new ‘tools for conviviality’, the loss of relationship of trust between the front line and the top (which means the deterrent to sharing your own story is no longer there), and the growing conviction that individuals can have their say, make organisational systems so leaky and vulnerable. Of course, in vulnerability lies the greatest strength of all. But most leaders aren’t ready to go to that place. Yet.

But before I finish I want to hang onto the idea of the container, the suitcase as it were. A suitcase, not a black box or a strong box. nothing which needs a combination. A suitcase which is easy to open, full of objects which evoke and contain memories and ideas. I need to get a bit messy and theoretical here and point out that I’m constantly trying to yoke together my two great intellectual loves when it comes to objects.

The first is the avant-garde. The notion that art, artistic performance and objects are to unsettle the status quo. But after the first wave of futurism, dada, surrealism, situationism, whatever, the wave inevitably crashes on the shore of bourgeois acceptance, the shock settles, and a new movement of disturbance starts. The the artistic ‘object’ is embedded, like a piece of grit in an oyster, in a place where it can rub things up the wrong way and get something happening.

The second is exchange-traded instruments. Here the container (the notional suitcase if you like) must be described in such a way that it contains objects (bonds, equities) which are similar enough to each other to create some kind of coherent experience which can be wrapped in a legal description which will allow the bundle to stick together and invite traders of all kinds to come and exchange transactions with each other.

I always bear this in mind when we design a piece of work. We always look for the ‘objects’ (reified, boundary objects, depending on whose terminology) which might be negotiated by individuals into becoming a collective definition of that particular community. I get confused at this point because I really that I’ve taken Jane Jacobs Guardian and Trader Systems of Survival and laid them over each other in my thinking in a way which I can’t quite pull off – and thrown in a little avant-garde disruption for good measure.

I think Ana Antonio Gill might be able to help me here. Her project ‘the value of memories’ points up very nicely the gulf between the sentimental and the financial value of a posession.

Whatever is going on here (whether community is one end of a spectrum and market at the other, both destructive at their extreme tendencies, or whether one can be laid over another in ways which hold onto their distinctively good qualities) , my instinct tells me that while I fumble to describe what it is I see when I lay out the programme for a piece of work in my mind, I’m heading in the right direction, even if I must for a short period be bundled into the woodshed and left there undisturbed while I think it through.