The magic of mobile

It is not wireless gizmos that make us stupid at work, but the kind of Hey Presto management thinking that prefers rabbits out of hats to real insights.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Politics

On 27 April Scotland Yard announced that it would use the services of a professional magician to train chief superintendents in the skills of communication and networking.

But another kind of networking – the corporate adoption of mobile data – is not helped by this kind of management malarkey.

London’s Metropolitan Police are to pay £3000 to Michael Vincent for two five-hour courses. Vincent, 37, from Maida Vale, is a member of the Inner Magic Circle and has been voted Britain’s Magician of the Year. Suave, bespectacled, black, he will do card tricks, mix oil with water, cut ropes in half and put them together again, talk about gaining the confidence to handle an audience, and encourage the police top brass to develop their ability to improve relationships and establish rapport.

This news must be viewed with deep concern. Not because, as the police support group Protect the Protectors contends, we need to magic up more bobbies on the beat. Nor, as the plebeian Metropolitan Police Federation suggests, because it is those bobbies, rather than chief superintendents, who ‘would benefit more from team-building exercises’ (1).

No. The hiring of Michael Vincent by the Met symbolises a wider climate of irrationality at work. In particular, admiration for magic in its widest sense – the charisma involved in public presentation, the indefinable nature of interpersonal empathy, the team fun of a Halloween-style prank – has come to infect not just the police, but general management.

Worse, management and social commentators on both sides of the Atlantic show themselves much more sympathetic to sorcery than they are towards the next technological leap in workplace organisation: the spread of networks that carry internet-based data to workers who are not tied all day to an office desk.

Outside the workplace, the Harry Potter series of adult-read children’s books has helped fuel a revival of British interest in the occult. The British Satanist Aleister Crowley and his growing band of disciples were recently featured in a television documentary on witchcraft as a kind of lifestyle choice. But inside the workplace, too, the acquisition of magical powers is now taken seriously.

Ever since 1990, when the influential US management guru Peter Senge called for ‘personal mastery’ and spiritual growth at work (2), corporate leaders have walked on water – so long as business goes well. Thus the best-selling king of therapy, Daniel ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Goleman, outlines a ‘repertory’ of no fewer than six distinct styles of leadership; indeed the outstanding ‘affiliative’ leader, he says, has mastered the art of ‘making the apt symbolic gesture at just the right moment’ (3). But what’s the difference between that, and shouting ‘Abracadabra’?

Leaders, the Harvard Business Review has also proposed, initiate ‘decisive dialogues’ at meetings and, to improve employee behaviour, need to repeat ‘highly visible exercises in conflict resolution’ (4). But what’s the difference between doing these things and holding a séance?

At the London Business School, professor of organisational behaviour John W Hunt also invests leaders with a special something. Like Michael Vincent going through incidents of stage fright to ‘connect’ with police superintendents, we must surmise ‘effective leaders understand the importance of plots as ways of winning commitment’. Indeed, the most effective leaders, Hunt assures us, are ‘good storytellers….They describe logical steps to get there and involve others in their journey’ (5).

For all the reference to ‘logical steps’, however, this narrative is about as convincing as the illusionist David Copperfield and his smoke-and-mirrors affair with Claudia Schiffer.

The search for a kind of magical, ecstatic transcendence from the alienated, humdrum world of work goes further than Manager as Merlin. Whole teams of workers, we are told, can benefit from shooting soft projectiles – foam in the shape of cubes – at each other (6). Or take workplace IT. Microsoft’s new suite of office software, Office XP, is named that way because XP is short for ‘experience’. The ads for XP lead with a blurry photo of a bungee-jumping dervish defying gravity over a metropolitan bridge. The experience of using XP, it is seriously claimed, will be ‘liberating’.

Here IT is represented as a means of getting on to the astral plane. Alternatively, IT can be portrayed as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. As we know, there are good hackers, selflessly dedicated to exposing firms and governments that are complacent about IT security. There are also bad hackers. It’s rather like black magic and the white sort. With IT, the subconscious feeling goes, spells can be cast on a firm’s security system by a bad hacker, but can be broken by IT departments if they work with responsible good hackers.

The Financial Times’s Lucy Kellaway, a perceptive critic of politically correct trends in the workplace, hopes that today’s financial correction in the world economy will prompt what she calls ‘the bullshit correction’ – an end, in other words, to jargon-ridden management incantations (7). For its part, Management Today hopes that the collapse of the dotcoms will ensure that the elixir of ‘energy, enthusiasm and originality’ held by young workers is henceforth coupled with the ‘calculation, caution and maybe even cunning’ of older ones (8), whom we might otherwise describe as mature wizards.

Patience Wheatcroft, one of those tipped for editorship of The Times (London), likewise celebrates the end of ‘net culture’ at work (9). However, the application of childish, New Age witchcraft to working methods will prove more durable than these critics allow. In particular, the vogue for magical irrationality at work looks like slowing down the pace with which companies adopt mobile data networks.

Mobile data networks contain much promise for wealth creation. With the fixed-line internet, there is the chance to exchange information, at the desk, with co-workers across borders and time zones; with mobile data networks, there is the chance to do the same while moving around the office, the home or the planet. Mobile data networks will allow unified messaging, so that email, fax, voice and SMS come to the same portable device – whether mobile phone, personal digital appliance (Palm, Handspring Visor) or laptop PC.

Mobile data will allow remote access to all the databases and software applications a firm can muster. In potential, at least, it will allow co-workers’ diaries to be synchronised, and time and money spent on the move to be tracked by location.

Of course, we can expect employers, motivated by ‘shareholder value’, to fix things so that we all find ourselves working harder and longer through the use of mobile data. No doubt, too, they will whitewash their introduction of mobile data as an aid to a better ‘work-life balance’. But the potential for mobile data to raise world productivity and save the world time cannot be doubted.

Right now, however, the problem with mobile data is not that employers are rushing to impose mobile slavery upon us. Of course, the cost of going over to such arrangements is daunting, and not all technological problems have been solved. But the real barrier to mobile data networks at work is ‘informed opinion’ about management; for that opinion is informed by a distinct preference for the magical over the real.

Charles Handy is the prolific doyen of UK management gurus. His 1999 book, The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something Out Of Nothing, sees top achievers in management – Richard Branson, Terence Conran, Dennis Stevenson (of ‘people’s peers’ fame) and Bob Ayling (now sacked from British Airways) – as having a ‘third eye’: ‘the ability to look at things from a different angle, to stand outside the mental box’ (10).

His latest article, on the other hand, attacks telework, hot desking and – above all – mobile work. He mounts a sterling defence of in-the-flesh meetings: verbal expression, body language and eye contact beat email, confirming that ‘hi-tech needs a bit of high-touch to work well’. And if some execs use mobile IT to work anywhere, any time, well, that’s only ‘to impress people at the next table’ (11).

Now, it is true that quite a lot of IT is adopted by corporations for the same reasons that they adopt lavish corporate HQs: because IT often falls, as UK corporate IT expert Dan Remenyi and others observe, into the category of ‘prestige projects’ with only ‘intangible’ results (12). But to see mobile IT only as a kind of conspicuous corporate consumption is to turn the clock back.

IT researchers Butler Group argue that personal wireless devices will replace PCs as the main corporate ‘client’ machine by 2005. Investment bankers Goldman Sachs argue that firms can save thousands of pounds a year each time they replace an employee’s laptop with a handheld wireless device such as BlackBerry, Research in Motion’s dedicated emailer.

In 2002, a massive 31 years after Xerox PARC’s Alan Kay proposed the Dynabook, Bill Gates and Compaq will finally launch a 3lb, $2000, wireless Tablet PC that handles pen and voice and runs Windows XP Pro for more than four hours at a time. These examples of progress are modest enough; but they are worth recognising all the same.

No matter. In his usual amiable, twinkly way, Handy gives a lofty yet populist account of why companies should not adopt mobile IT. Work can be fun as well as useful, he reminds us, but that has little to do with ‘technology gizmos’, and more to do with ‘the best organisations’ following the example of football clubs in their attitude to workers. Football clubs, after all, ‘put their players on their balance sheets as valuable assets with a price’.

In part, Handy just gives a gloss on the saloon-bar prejudice that people will always work in fixed-location offices because they enjoy the social contact involved. But he goes further. In the UK, he observes, jobs in personal services are growing faster than those in call centres, and he is right here: indeed, in the USA, Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts show that, including legal jobs, what could broadly be described as ‘therapy-to-victim’ (T2V) occupations will run second only to IT trades in terms of employment expansion.

Yet Handy goes on to argue that education, health, tourism, catering, caretaking, gardening and bus conducting are ‘areas that technology won’t change that much’. About electronically-mediated teamwork, he warns more generally: ‘It is hard to know how far you can rely on someone whom you never meet….We need to know what sort of person hides behind that cryptic email address.’

So if people-as-soccer-stars, not mobile IT, are the company’s greatest asset, we should still distrust them – especially when we can’t see them. Moreover, the satirical US social commentator David (Bobos In Paradise) Brooks has also discovered that out-of-the-office IT is an indictment of the human race. He attacks Wireless Man. Wireless Man is a multitasking speed freak and info junkie for whom there is a prompt to react every 15 seconds. For Wireless Man, Brooks says, creativity, reflection, the time for books and the access to unexpected knowledge – not to speak of the ‘energy for undirected mental play’ – are alien (13).

Handy wrings hands about office conditions, working hours, stress and the work-life balance; he calls for governments to intervene. More sensibly, Brooks jokes that it is important to experience life instead of information; and, if he is wrong to call for undirected play at work, he is certainly right that today’s work culture militates against any thought that is not momentary and superficial. But to counterpose human beings to mobile IT is to be misanthropic. It is not wireless gizmos that make us stupid at work, but the kind of Hey Presto management thinking that prefers rabbits out of hats to real insights.

So: when we are not valued by fun-loving employers as David Beckhams engaged in therapeutic, trust-building ‘face time’ (Handy), we are IT addicts, showing off while we tap into the same information loop as all the other uncreative bozos (Brooks). To cap it all, Handy insists that ‘personal services’ workers won’t ever get much mobile IT – presumably because they don’t need it.

In fact, the truth is just the opposite. People are still intelligent enough to be able to turn their mobile IT off if they want to reflect quietly on their own. Moreover, everybody who meets people on their feet needs mobile IT: it could make a big difference in the NHS, the leisure sector and the transport industry.

Nevertheless, Handy and Brooks are not alone in their hostility to the new forms of IT. Michael Porter, one of the Harvard Business School’s top management gurus, has also joined in with today’s post-NASDAQ technophobia about the internet (14). He attacks IT suppliers’ willingness to link up together in the creation of standards as likely to commoditise IT markets and so lower profitability; in so doing, he undermines the chance the world has to move on to a common standard for mobile data networks.

For Porter, the internet is not important for what it can do to general productivity (‘operational effectiveness’), but rather for what it can do to a particular firm’s position against its rivals. Not surprisingly, therefore, he has nothing to say about mobile data networks, despite the prominence he rightly gives, in his theory of the modern firm, to a key on-your-feet arena for them: logistics. Instead, Porter pillories the internet for decreasing face-to-face contact with suppliers and customers – when it is precisely mobile data networks that can assist in this.

If he has not heard of WAP phones, an early and admittedly primitive incarnation of mobile data, Porter is certainly scarred by the fate of the dotcoms. He mounts, therefore, a lengthy polemic against the idea that it makes sense to be a ‘first mover’ in IT. The Wall Street Journal does the same now. ‘Combo gadgets’ like the wireless web, ‘don’t cut it’ (15).

Through these gambits, business commentators challenge the very concept of innovation. Like the magician Michael Vincent, they prefer to run through the same old tricks.

In principle, mobile data networks should lay bare the knowledge and priorities of the corporation. Perhaps that is why our rulers fear them so much. And, for as long as they prefer a conjuror’s wand to a handset, they will have to go on reading the runes to detect much of an impact, for IT, on productivity.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

Read on:

Moving on, by Sandy Starr

Restricted mobility, by Sandy Starr

Team players, by James Woudhuysen

(1) Dave Rogers, quoted in ‘Yard chiefs get taught by magicians’, Philip Nettleton, Evening Standard, 27 April 2001

(2) The Fifth Discipline: The Art And Practice Of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge, Currency Books, 1990

(3) ‘Leadership that gets results’, Daniel Goleman, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000

(4) ‘Conquering a culture of indecision’, Ram Charan, Harvard Business Review, April 2001

(5) ‘In search of a plot’, John W Hunt, Financial Times, 27 April 2001

(6) ‘Building the emotional intelligence of groups’, Vanessa Urch Duskat and Steven B Wolff, Harvard Business Review, March 2001

(7) ‘When warm, fuzzy bosses turn ugly’, Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times, 26 March 2001

(8) ‘Ageism at work has had its day’, editorial, Management Today, April 2001

(9) ‘In memory of the New Economy’, Patience Wheatcroft, The Times Business News, 3 April 2001, p29

(10) The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something Out Of Nothing, Charles Handy, Hutchinson 1999, p30

(11) ‘The workers’ revolution’, Charles Handy, The Times (magazine), 28 April 2001, p14-16. In his reference to High tech, High Touch, Handy invokes the famous alliteration of American futurologist John Naisbitt. See Naisbitt, Megatrends: 10 New Directions Transforming Our Lives, Warner Books 1982, and High Tech/High Touch, Nicholas Brealey 1999

(12) The Effective Measurement and Management of IT Costs and Benefits, Dan Remenyi and others, Butterworth Heinemann, second edition, 2000, p39

(13) ‘Time to do everything except think’, David Brooks, Newsweek, 30 April 2001, p75

(14) ‘Strategy and the internet’, Michael Porter, Harvard Business Review, March 2001

(15) Jared Sandberg. ‘Combo gadgets don’t cut it’, Wall Street Journal (Networking), 27-28 April 2001, p23

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