Revolution In The Air

22 Novem­ber 2017 | Dis­cov­er­ing the Future

Is the busi­ness world due for a rev­o­lu­tion? That was the idea behind a bril­liant clos­ing address by Charles Handy [link] giv­en last week at the 9th Glob­al Peter Druck­er Forum in Vien­na [link].

I sensed a degree of rest­less­ness among the 400 – 500 atten­dees. The theme for the event was daunt­ing: “Growth and Inclu­sive Pros­per­i­ty: The Man­age­ment Chal­lenge of the Cen­tu­ry.” Many atten­dees, I felt, were look­ing for some­thing dra­mat­ic to be said — per­haps a whole new direc­tion for the pro­fes­sion of man­age­ment to be dis­cov­ered and announced. And, to be sure, in the mod­er­at­ed pan­els, ple­nary ses­sions, and expan­sive inter­per­son­al dis­cus­sions, there were many instances of exhil­a­rat­ing thinking.

Yet the always quotable [link] Charles Handy did not dis­ap­point in his clos­ing comments.

I want to start by tak­ing you back five cen­turies because there is wis­dom in his­to­ry,” he opened. “500 years ago, last month, an unknown fri­ar in an unknown Ger­man town, laid a com­plaint against his employ­er. The unknown fri­ar was Mar­tin Luther, the unknown town Wit­ten­berg and his employ­er was the Catholic Church. It was­n’t a com­plaint, it was 95 com­plaints. But there were two basic the­ses, themes to his complaints.

The first was that to be able to buy your route into heav­en and par­adise was wrong. Yet that was exact­ly what the church was offer­ing through its sys­tem of indul­gences. A sort of pass­port to heav­en that you could buy. It was a scam. It encour­aged the poor to give what they had to make the rich rich­er. Sounds famil­iar today. Luther thought it immoral. I thought it immoral. And inde­cent and inhu­man and it still is.Charles Handy

The sec­ond theme of his com­plaints was that you did not get to heav­en by virtue of what you did because what you did was so laid down by the organ­i­sa­tion and so reg­u­lat­ed by the organ­i­sa­tion that it real­ly could­n’t count as yours. You got to heav­en, in oth­er words, you suc­ceed­ed by what you are not what you did. And he called this jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by faith, I call it recov­er­ing our basic indi­vid­ual human­i­ty. I think that mes­sage still rings loud and clear 500 years later.”

Not­ing that “Luther start­ed some­thing”, he added that this one great thinker gen­er­at­ed great change:

It took time. Great change does take time. But one man can do it. He start­ed the ref­or­ma­tion of the Chris­t­ian church­es which became, in due course, the Enlight­en­ment. Which led to the ulti­mate sep­a­ra­tion of church and state and to free think­ing, the rev­o­lu­tion in France, the rev­o­lu­tion in Amer­i­ca, the release of indi­vid­ual ini­tia­tive; and we had two fol­low­ing cen­turies of amaz­ing inven­tive­ness, cre­ativ­i­ty, and eco­nom­ic growth which end­ed up with being more pros­per­ous, liv­ing longer and more health­ily than ever before in his­to­ry — for most of us any­way. And we should be grate­ful for that.

He soon described his own ear­ly days (60 years ago) work­ing among the organ­i­sa­tion­al norms of a cor­po­ra­tion, Roy­al Dutch Shell. He notes, at first, that his small part of the larg­er com­pa­ny made things human. He says he knew all his fel­low employ­ees: “I knew what they did, but more impor­tant­ly, I knew who they were. I knew their fam­i­lies. I knew who was good and who was bad. I knew whom I could trust and whom I should avoid. I knew whom I should fol­low and whom I should avoid. It was good. But then, things began to change. I got back to Lon­don and by then, the thing was not a com­pa­ny any­more, it was a cor­po­ra­tion.” There seemed to me some dread in his voice when he said “cor­po­ra­tion”. In Lon­don, Handy became “a tem­po­rary role occu­pant in a cor­po­ra­tion — with the empha­sis obvi­ous­ly on the word tem­po­rary because [cards with names on doors] could be slid in and out. And I had what was called a role descrip­tion. Three pages of the things that I was meant to do which would be checked. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I noticed that my name was­n’t on the top. It was just the role of who­ev­er had it at the time, who had to do these things.”

Things got worse, said Handy.

Then, one day I noticed the bits of card­board had been removed through­out the organ­i­sa­tion. Sud­den­ly I was­n’t a name at all, I was just a num­ber, MKR34. This did­n’t sound very human to me nor to my wife, whom I had just mar­ried, whose instincts were that this was not a very human place and that I was bet­ter off out of it. I was obe­di­ent and I left.”

Over the last four decades, those who have fol­lowed Handy’s slew of easy-to-read but deep-with-thought books know that he made the right choice. And, in the rest of his clos­ing remarks, he essen­tial­ly called for a ref­or­ma­tion in how the busi­ness world oper­ates. He essen­tial­ly called for a more human face to what is an increas­ing­ly cor­po­rate world defined by dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy and arti­fi­cial intelligence.

So we must be care­ful. We must be care­ful that our human­i­ty is not swamped by the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. I thought, maybe we should need a char­ter for human­i­ty that peo­ple can hang onto as they organ­ise their cor­po­ra­tions. And I thought, that’s not enough. Actu­al­ly, we need a cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion. We need to rethink how busi­ness­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly, but all organ­i­sa­tions are actu­al­ly run. And why they are run. And what is the pur­pose of busi­ness. Again, the things that you were talk­ing here about ear­li­er. And you’ll say, a rev­o­lu­tion? Isn’t that a bit steep? I say, well no, Luther did it. One man. An unknown fri­ar did.”

Per­haps the best thing about Handy’s clos­ing words were that he did not in any way put him­self for­ward as the leader of the rev­o­lu­tion in the busi­ness world. He said, at the start, that he was but a “page turn­er” in the his­to­ry of organ­i­sa­tion­al change.

Instead, he said that those attend­ing the Druck­er Forum meet­ing should assume the lead­er­ship mantle.

Let me ape anoth­er Mar­tin Luther and have a lit­tle dream. No, a big dream.

Could not the mod­ern Wit­ten­berg be here? In the Druck­er Forum.

And who is the Luther of our time? Why could it not be Peter Druck­er with his words from the grave mag­ni­fied by you, by us? And exem­pli­fy it by putting our words into prac­tice so the word goes forth mul­ti­plied by 500 peo­ple speak­ing with a loud voice in their areas, in their own spheres of influ­ence and act­ing out their words in their actions.

And if peo­ple crit­i­cize you, be bold as Luther was and say, “Here I stand. I can do no oth­er because this is the right way to behave.”

To all of you who were not at this meet­ing in Vien­na, you can see the entire Charles Handy address via this link. To my mind, his peti­tion for major change in the world of busi­ness was not at all lim­it­ed to the atten­dees at the Druck­er Forum. Handy has invit­ed all of us to start fires where we live and where we work. And lest you feel that this is too big a task for you to take on, please heed his clos­ing words.

And I say to you now, final­ly, if not us, then who? And if not now, then when?”

Joseph PistruiJoseph Pistrui (@nextsensing) is Pro­fes­sor of Entre­pre­neur­ial Man­age­ment at IE Busi­ness School in Madrid. He also leads the glob­al Nextsens­ing Project, which he found­ed in 2012.

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