Managements Sans Frontières

15 Mar

thinking_heads smallWith great respect to the brilliant medical charity, their title springs to mind as I try to make sense of a minor deluge of academic reports and real world experiences.   Boundary issues abound – and not just in the contexts of Humpty Trumpty’s Great Wall of Machico or the UK’s Brexysteria.

Deep down we all like the comfort of borders but so often spend our lives trying to break down barriers. Parents observe that unruly/spirited teenagers need some boundaries. Accountants would be lost for numbers without tidy columns.  Regulators regularize.  Centralist governments prefer broad-based averages.  Mass marketers shriek Sun-like headlines. But devolutionists see city-states as empowering even as citizens complain of postcode lotteries.  And businesses everywhere seek differentiation by ‘redefining’ markets.  In the 1970’s Tom Paxton would sing ‘The Thought Stays Free’ and, like wireless signals, ideas do not respect borders.

So the Work Foundation report (Working Anywhere) says 2017 will be another peak – the last gasp of working 9 to 5 (that will no longer be ‘the way to make a living’) as the daily trek is commuted to life outside of an office for the average commuter.   They will, of course, still have boundaries. They will still log in to their networks (their presence measured) and no-one yet is predicting the end of corporate monthly reports – not least because bean counters hunger for beans to count and managers imagine they are managing.

There are boundaries we willingly choose to adopt (like marriage) and there are those we (mostly) tolerate for a peaceable society – like speed restrictions. Then there are the envelopes we’d like to stretch – or rip apart. The constantly changing balances between wrapping things up and encouraging creative agility is not something that can be bolted down. Great enterprise leaders know that rules are ‘made to be broken’ (sometimes) and urge their law-abiding followers to ‘think differently’ – ‘outside of the box’.

At this time it is difficult to comment on EU affairs without offending (for myriad reasons) all 784 (28 squared) sides to immigration debates but it is surely blindingly obvious that people will always wish to move and economies need to import and retain talent. With extreme provocations the future tides of humanity will, like the weather, be increasingly difficult to anticipate and, as Canute demonstrated at the shore, unconstrained.   National identity is increasingly a curious notion – especially for the English where ‘ish’, sort of, defies the absolute.

Travel is said to broaden the mind and, in these networked days, virtual travel is a great substitute for the physical effort of getting from A to B – which is partly why the Work Foundation predicts the decline of inflexible working.  But traveling (physically or intellectually) has great inequalities. Academia has huge capacity for stating the blindingly obvious – but sometime it needs to be said.  Pointing out that the  Further_We_Travel_the_Faster_We_Go is not some supposedly great insight designed to justify investment in the UK’s HS2 project but anyone contrasting the time and effort needed to get to London with the effort of travelling within the place will get the point.   But the real point, surely, is about journeys of the mind; ideas. The more outlandish they are the greater the chance they’ll make a real difference. The further you reach the faster you’ll get there – compared to some gradual, incremental, barely-noticeable, short-term, thoroughly non-alarming, improvement process.

We (being very English) often frown on ambition. Centuries of terribly polite censure have curbed our creativity but digitally-networked borderless freedoms cannot now be denied.  Empowerment (the need for it) has wrong-footed those once-great institutions that presume they know best. Who needs all that bandwidth?   What for, exactly? The defence of their comfortable market borders gets in the way of ideas flow – the brick walls can but delay their decay.

So why not? Why not demand a Gigabit? Why stick at home when your partner’s work is far away. Go with him and let the global network handle your usual work-flow. Why return home and only then shop for food when it could have been pre-ordered online from your hotel bed on the far side of the world? It needs only the very real experience of a three-way Skype call with callers in Hampshire, a colleague now in Argentina and a customer in his car somewhere on the M6 to prove the point that, increasingly, borders are meaning less.

Can we manage without borders? In work, in life and in politics we have little or no choice. Ring-fenced isolationism will not (cannot) relieve any of us from responsibility. The best that management can muster is to invest time and effort in avoidance of unexpected consequences and not inadvertently trigger catastrophic outcomes – like civil wars. A bit of forward planning might help. Will the economic decline of London be stalled by a fully-fibred future? Are we, in Europe, ready for a great American exodus if Trump triumphs?

So, yes we need some borders and others we need to relax. A single market across Europe is brilliant. Greater devolution of central authority to Manchester can be empowering – if you trust in the mayor’s capacity to manage.  Localism with expansive freedoms will always contend with the average central reductionist.  Maybe, one day, someone, most probably some uncouth little chap, most probably from some distant place via an online device and twitter, will point out that some wee emperor is nae wearing any clues – and the whole world will once again collapse in a sea of irreverent laughter and/or tears.   Dougal will shake his head, sorrowfully, and say ‘what a way to run a country’ and the credits will roll – leastways for one last time.

Managements Sans Frontières?  We should follow where the angels have dared to tread – beyond the borders of your mind.   If you stretch the imagination it rarely goes back to its original shape.

 

 

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