03/2020 - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Never let a serious crisis go to waste

Published by in Reflections ·
Never let a serious crisis go to waste was the title of a 2013 book by Philip Mirowski[i], which looked at the 2008 financial crisis and how in its aftermath the banking and economics world conspired to shift the blame for the global collapse on to everyone else’s shoulders, and how they created a story that it had happened because the principles of neoliberalism were not being followed strongly enough. And they were pretty successful at doing that.

12 years later, another serious crisis hits the world, and of course, there is every possibility that a similar narrative will emerge. However, it would be nice to think that something different could happen, that this will be an opportunity for everyone around the world to reflect on how the global system is not necessarily working for everyone. The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting poorer and sicker. In wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom financial and health inequalities are growing, life expectancies are stalling, the mental health of younger people is deteriorating, the quality of our air and our general ecosystems is getting worse. Is this because neoliberalism is not being applied strongly enough?

In my area of professional practice, learning, reflection is crucial. Reflecting on what we are doing and what we have done in order to learn. Now, being confined to our homes with immediate partners, could be a time for us all to reflect seriously on the world around us. Let’s start with this virus. Is it just bad luck? Maybe not, research has shown that the number of infectious diseases originating from human contact with animals is increasing[ii], arguably a result of our destruction of natural ecosystems and the increasing confinement of animals for consumption. If so, our apparent need for ever greater consumption and global travel is going to mean that pandemics such as we are currently experiencing may become increasingly common.

I recently read a paper[iii] talking about the idea of a ‘learning society’, one where we all actively think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what this might mean in terms of our existence on this precious planet. What is the point of all of this futile consumption, buying more and more stuff, going to more and more exotic places? Is it really making us any happier? The current lockdown means that there are far fewer cars on the road, the air is cleaner, our cities are quieter, we seem to have more time to look at the world. Now is a perfect time to start local, national and global conversations about what we want out of our limited time in this world. I would like to think that the media would take a role in starting this debate, but I am not seeing many signs of it.

One of Mirowski’s core ideas is that we have all been infected by the virus of ‘every day neoliberalism’, that each of us sees ourselves as an individual, exercising our rational choice, striving to ensure our individual success. But what we are seeing with Covid-19 is that we can only survive by working together and making individual sacrifices for a greater, common good. We need to reflect on what is happening around us and take this forward so that once Covid-19 is a part of our history we can develop a society which works for everyone, not just the rich.

[i] Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso Books, 2013).
[ii] Katherine F. Smith et al., ‘Global Rise in Human Infectious Disease Outbreaks’, Journal of The Royal Society Interface 11, no. 101 (2014).
[iii] John Foster, ‘Sustainability, Higher Education and the Learning Society’, Environmental Education Research 8, no. 1 (2002): 35–41.

I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more

Published by in Reflections ·
I came of age in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, a glorious decade when beer was 1s 11d (later 10p) a pint, the three-day week brought random power cuts and the 1973 Arab-Israeli war sent oil prices rocketing. Perhaps not surprisingly it was also a golden period for paranoia movies. One of the best was “Network”, in which a chat show host played by Peter Finch had a mental breakdown on live television, and exhorted his viewers to go to their windows, lean out and shout, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdQCPlAZjbY)

Well, I feel like I have got to that point, and I think a lot of other people have as well.

Came the 1990s, and the German sociologist Ulrich Beck started writing about what he called the ‘risk society’. He argued that modern society was characterised by increasing risk as we became more and more knowledgeable and sophisticated, living in ever more complex and interconnected societies. He also considered climate change, and proposed that as people around the world became increasingly aware of an impending catastrophe that they would “have to conduct and understand their lives in an exchange with others and no longer exclusively in an interaction with their own kind” (Beck, 2010, p. 259). In other words, that as the reality of disaster became more apparent, that we would start to realise that the way the world is currently working was just not working.

Systems thinkers like Stafford Beer have pointed out that the purpose of a system is what it does. From that perspective the purpose of the economic system that we live in is to increase inequality, poison the environment and individualise society so that we pay little attention to the shabby reality of modern life. As long as we have gadgets to buy and a credit card.

However, the Coronavirus may be changing that perspective. Our interconnectedness has led to a pandemic where societies are being locked in their homes and told not to socialise, but at the same time it is making us aware of what is happening, while vacuous politicians put on serious faces and tell us they will save us.

In Italy, people confined in their apartments are going to their windows and singing to each other. At the moment they are singing songs and playing music and making us smile.

But in reality they are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more. It’s time to change the purpose of the system.

What did HRD ever do for your grandchildren?

Published by in Reflections ·
My first real job after I left the security of my parents’ home was in the 1970s, as an engineering apprentice for a company near Leicester. On my first morning I was told to report to the Personnel Department, where they made sure my name was on the payroll, arranged my accommodation with a landlady in the city and explained where I needed to go to collect a union card. In other words, they looked after my well-being.

The years passed and Personnel Departments disappeared, to be replaced by Human Resources Departments. Now, people were our greatest assets was the organisational mantra. Recognising this would mean that the Boards of Directors would pay serious attention to what Human Resources said and things would change completely.

Of course, nothing really happened. HR is still something of a poor relation and takes orders from line functions. At least, that is one argument which says that the role of HR has been reduced to carrying out the wishes of senior management and that the principles of ‘beneficence’, protecting employees’ well-being has been pushed to one side. The idea of ‘human resources’ came out of the interest in the concept of ‘human capital’, which was developed by the economist Gary Becker in the 1960s. Becker was a member of the Mont Pelérin Society, the somewhat secretive group of economists who developed the idea of neoliberalism, which is the economic model we all swim within nowadays. The essential principle of neoliberalism is the primacy of the market, so all human activity needs to be reduced to financial value: hence the conversion of employees into resources, at the same level as machinery. Perhaps this is why nothing really happened as far as the status of human resources is concerned?

The neoliberal principle of relying on markets to make decisions is also another reason why we in the West are gripped by an inability to really come to terms with the climate emergency. As I write this article parts of Australia are gripped by record temperatures and people are burning to death in wildfires: outside, here in Yorkshire it has barely stopped raining for the last three months. The world as we know it is changing dramatically, and fast. To deal with problems such as this requires large-scale, integrated action which will only see benefits over many decades, and this is something that neoliberal economics cannot deal with. The market makes calculations about financial returns only, and decision-making for what may happen in the future is discounted. Immediate returns are prioritised, and what happens in our grandchildren’s generations is given very little weighting. So, from the neoliberal mindset, taking action to mitigate the actions stoking the fires and floods of climate change is of little interest.

But economics is all about values. What do we think is worthwhile? What are we prepared to pay for? What is important to us? These are questions about values, and within organisations the guardian of values is, or at least should be, the Human Resources Department. Through HR Development activities, such as training and encouraging informal learning, HR can influence the ethical culture of the organisation. HR is also a function which provides an essential boundary spanner role connecting an organisation with its social environment, the people who work for it. Most organisational writings seems to treat employees as unidimensional beings, whose only interest is in furthering the interests of the corporation, whereas in reality employees are members of society, societies where people are burning in wildfires and having their homes destroyed by floods, if not today, then in the decades to come when it will be our grandchildren who are bearing the burdens what we are doing now.

So I think that it is time that all of us who work in Human Resources Development think about the values we are promoting within our organisations and how they contribute to the future of the planet. What will be your answer when in 30 years time your grandchildren ask, “What did you do in the war against climate change, Grandma or Granddad?”

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