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Famine

January 31, 2008

Famine follows war. Of course it does. The normal infrastructure of production breaks down or is destroyed. Famine is the third horseman of the apocalypse, and he carries a pair of scales. The scales are not to symbolize equity but inflation… the price of staple foods rockets – worth its weight in gold, you might say.

If anything, the scales represent gross inequity. Profiteering, price-fixing, pillage. Productive work is almost non-existent. The economy is destroyed, any productivity that exists is leaking badly into just a few people’s pockets, the black market rules. You have to improvise, be extremely lucky, or corrupt to survive. People sacrifice their long term productive capabilities for immediate-term survival. They eat their seed corn, kill their milking cows.

We tend to think of famine as being about scarcity – and it often is – but it is the lethality of famine that is the most traumatic. Those of us who have been fortunate enough not to have been touched by it will still recall the images of famine and the look of death in the eyes of the still-living, a look that we also see in the photographs of Nazi concentration camp victims.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying describes this final stage as a decathexis, a letting go, an absence, a mental and emotional separation from life, as if the journey into death is already underway. These people will not come back.

We come across these lost people all the time in our cultural archetypes projects. Almost every organization has them, but they are much much stronger in the types of organization I have described over the last few days. In Singapore slang (and in our archetypes), they are often called “bochap” which in Hokkien literally means “don’t care” and is used to describe apathy and indifference often in a dismissive, semi-joking way.

And in management-speak we talk about “lack of staff engagement”, just before we launch into heady strategies for re-engagement, as if this condition can always be fixed with the right approach. But in the stories behind these archetypes there’s something much deeper, more desperate and irredeemable at work – a real decathexis at work. These people will not come back.

I have seen cases where people seem to enter organisational life with a moral blight already upon them. Others have their spirit consumed steadily by what happens to them in working life till their flame goes out. It’s not the simple loss of people that makes a famine, but losses on a massive scale – as well as the basic conditions for perpetuating that production line to hell.

Where does this famine of the spirit come from? It would seem that it cannot be starvation of information; if anything we are bloated with information in our organisational lives. But here the resonance with physical famine comes through again.

In extreme cases of malnutrition the belly swells, caused by a combination of a wasted diaphragm muscle, and massive migration of fluid into the peritoneal cavity from the bloodstream under osmotic pressure because the blood protein levels are too low to maintain the fluid in the vascular system.

The conditions that produce famine also frequently favour parasitical infestations, which creates a hellish combination of ravenous hunger which can never be satiated. Food no longer nourishes the host, the parasites have taken over.

There are strong parallels with the information environments we have created for ourselves.

So the availability or scarcity of information alone is not the cause, but more crucially the capability to gain benefits from information. It’s an absence of meaning that causes famine of the spirit, the inability to command information for one’s own goals and benefits.

The economist Amartya Sen revolutionized famine studies in the 1980s when he showed that famines are less about scarcity of food, and more about changes in the power of a whole social class over the means to getting food. Power surfaces again.

In the great Bengal famine of 1943, which touched Sen deeply as a child, food production was higher than some previous years without famine. What had happened was that the earning power of the labouring class had not kept pace with rising food prices. Similarly, in the Irish famine of the late 1840s, Ireland remained a net exporter of food to Britain, where better prices could be fetched, so that the labouring class who were already struggling to produce enough for subsistence as well as to pay the rising rents on their land, could no longer compete for food in a free marketplace.

The terrible thing about famine is the despair that it brings in its wake. Famine is when it’s already too late. You have only two choices if you are in the affected class of society, stay and die, or flee. Nobody knows how many died in the Irish potato famine, but the combination of death and migration is estimated to have reduced the population by a quarter, and it started a precipitous decline in the population that would take 70 years to stabilize.

The deadly combination of flight and apathy is a desperate condition to be in for an organization, and at least one of the organisations I have talked about describes itself in this way in the stories they tell each other. No matter how fast you recruit, the underlying conditions threaten to consume everyone who stays. What do we do or advise as consultants when we come across organisations in this state? And is there anything we can do if we spot the conditions for famine emerging?

There’s a possible clue from Amartya Sen, who famously argued that multi-party democracies with a free press do not have famines (though they may still have endemic hunger). This is because information about the early signs of famine becomes available to the public faster, and political action can be marshaled to redress the threatening capability imbalance. In democracies information and power interact, power is essentially constructed socially.

This is not an argument for a literal translation of democracy and a free press to corporate life – that would be too simplistic. But it does seem to support the ideals of the Enterprise 2.0 movement, towards favouring the loosening of information flows, and greater visibility of diverse opinion within the enterprise. To the extent that the famine we’ve described is a starvation of meaning, the more it seems reasonable to think that giving our colleagues power over the information they use, will allow a productive and life-nourishing environment to emerge.

But it cannot be an unrestrained power. Both organisations I have described in this series of posts started with an unrestrained power over their information, an ungoverned power, which blossomed into a jungle of locally-adapted silos that cannot function at the aggregated level of the organization. They create the preconditions for the pestilence, war and famine that follow. It’s the tragedy of the commons in another guise.

The organization needs to wield power as a coherent entity, just as society does. And that’s where we are still stuck, with that intractable problem of what we can do when the organization has no seat of power, when powerlessness is endemic, when the pestilential archer strikes.

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