Reality intrudes, but with difficulty …

September 16, 2006

I’ve been finishing off Rockwell’s Neither Brain nor Ghost which offers an interesting third way to the traditional assumption that either (i) the mind and the brain are the same thing, or (ii) the mind/soul is separate for the brain. He argues for an understanding of human consciousness as a distributed aspect of the the whole body and its environment, with some interesting ideas on boundaries and the limitations of symbolic representation. Themes to which I will return over the next few days. One quote struck home today.

… reality continually impinges upon our comforts and requires us to establish new relationships that incorporate these impingements into our worlds.

In a very real sense the comforts of decision makers are difficult to perturb. Executives as they move up the hierarchy are increasingly protected from reality by those who surround them. I was around in IBM for many of the events described in Lou Gerstner’s excellent Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?. While the early parts of the book smack of an authentic and forced encounter of Big Blue with reality, the later pages, to this insider at least, appear to be closer to desired truth than to harsh reality. Most corporate regimes learn how to filter data so that the CEO is not too disturbed. It takes longer with the greats like Gerstner, especially as he was an outsider, but it happens to the best of them. The Byzantine Empire had its Eunuchs, the modern corporation has its head office staff, political leaders have their civil servants and senior civil servants their middle ranking officers. They all serve to insulate leadership from reality impinging on their comforts, mainly because it is not in their interests for new relationships to form and also because there is a habit of shooting messengers.

It takes a conscious effort, a different way of seeing the world to break out of this pattern and it has to be habitual. Good leaders encourage dissent. British Airways once employed a Court Jester who was allowed to attend any meeting and challenge any executive. It didn’t last long mind you, but it was a great idea. Diversity of social contact, reading and education are also useful but the history of the modern organisation says that it is hard.

There are some formal methods by which we can reduce the dangers of comfort and I want to talk here about one of those which has its origins in the Cultural Revolution, or more specifically its intrusion on the West. For that and a minor treatise on the benefits of public transport read on.

Shortly after leaving University when, as previously described I was working for the WSCF we created a deep immersion process for middle class students. It was a part of our China Centre and was in part influenced by the Cultural Revolution. We were then in that interesting period between Mao declaring the Cultural Revolution to be at an end in 1969 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. A lot of the horror of that period was becoming obvious, but while that was the case the impact of forcing intellectuals to go back to land was interesting. So the Whites (who I have lost touch with, so if by any remote chance after 30 years they are reading this please contact me) put together a great programme in which students came to the China Centre for a week, and were literally thrown onto the streets of London for the best part of 48 hours. They only had enough money to make a phone call in case of emergency (this was before mobile phones).

It was only a short immersion, but it had a profound effect on people, and it was imbedded into a week of learning and reflection. I am pretty sure that anyone who lived through it would not have forgotten the experience to this day. As we were engaged in social justice programs I spent time over the next few years in the Northern Territories on land rights issues, camps in Africa dealing with refugees and a memorable period in the slums of Rio. All of that shook up the various complacency of middle class life, although I was protected by the fact that I knew it was temporary.

To cut a long story short, the impact of those experiences resulting in the first knowledge management programmes I ran taking a practical bent. In that first year I went down sewers with water engineers, stacked grocery shelves in a supermarket and got badly drunk with stock brokers along with a host of other experiences. Living in their environment not as an observer, but as an apprentice-participant doing the dirty jobs. I still reckon that you can, with due humility, learn more through attempting to practice a job than you can through study. It also broke me of any attraction to the dualistic tacit-explicit model that, post-Nonaka bedevils knowledge management.

Since then we have built it into our narrative capture programmes, used it as a key element in company turn arounds and used it to front our distributed research programmes. The upcoming Culture Programme (of which more soon) involves an overnight train journey from Sydney, learning to find desert food while building a shelter in which you sleep for the second full night. All of this woven into an encounter with one of the oldest indigenous traditions surviving in the world today.

Of course this can be very artificial. I remember being told about an international agency that wanted to give its high officials similar experiences. They arranged the events in Africa, but spent weeks cleaning up the environment and ensuring plenty of bottled water and other essentials so that their high officials would not be too perturbed by the experience. I’ve seen executives go and work on the floor of a factory, or help out in a local store during the Christmas rush. In practice they cause more problems and resentment as everyone knows who they are and looks after them.

If you are going to do this sort of things then there are some basic rules:

1: you must be anonymous, you must be vulnerable
2: you must work not observe, as an apprentice not a master
3: if you undergo ritual hazing, welcome it with humour, it means you are accepted
4: you must respect confidentiality during and after the experience
5: you must accept what you see and not criticise even if you are offended

There are probably some more but I can’t think of them – and I welcome some more contributions.

There is one simple habit that I can recommend. When you visit a city, especially as a VIP don’t use the chauffeured limo or taxis, use public transport. You learn more about a place by traveling round on buses and tubes than you will by any study of culture guides. If you arrive at your offices as an ordinary supplicant from the street, not as a senior executive then you will learn more about your company’s culture than by a survey. I drive people scatty by wanting to use public transport, but not only does it give me time to read, it gives me time to observe and to learn. The element of uncertainty when you first learn your way round a strange city is exciting. The sense of confidence when you can find your way around without thinking about it: a minor triumph.

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