Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The ring of change
By Giles Emerson

“Time for a change” rings out the constant cry. Change fashions, change jobs, change phones, change cars, change media, change suppliers, buyers, wallpaper, in-laws, habits, jobs, governments, nappies, cars, buses, one’s tune, one’s money…ways of doing things. Such a lovely word, with so many gradations of meaning for so many people in very different circumstances: the threat of climate change, the hope of regime change; for some a truly desperate prayer, for others a trip to the hairdresser.

Are we not all bewildered by the brutal battery of both global and domestic events interpreted by a hyper-ventilated media demanding everything, all answers to all questions now, and now, and now? We helplessly follow the camera lens and editors pens inertly condemning or marvelling at the daily foibles of the poor sods who put themselves up as leaders. Each effort and well intended breath is amplified and ridiculed on a global stage. With every new day history is in the basket waiting to be recycled. Throw out the old, bring in the rehashed.

Is it just me feeling overwhelmed by the idea of change – perhaps because of the halo that this particular word still forms around President-Elect Obama’s oratory – or could it be that the very notion of change is both changing, changeable and possibly diminished by repetition?

Why diminished? Well that depends on the context in which it is used. If we take two large sorting bags both labelled ‘change’, we could place government aspirations and business practice in one bag and everything else in the other. We can ignore or sift ‘everything else’ as we see fit. The horrors and joys and interim ploys lie in the first bag, muddled and struggling.

So starting with government aspirations, edited to policy, change tends to be something promised but infrequently delivered. In the UK, the lack of a fixed term parliament, coupled with the political machinations required to please the electorate as new circumstances arise, mostly put pay to changes that may well be geared toward, say, improving education and health services. Short-termism and expedience seldom allow fundamental change. Besides which an increasingly wary and informed electorate readily spot old policies with a new name; change starts to mean less and less. Of course, governments do achieve incremental changes of one kind or another, some good, some bad and many unintended. Politicians measure and count and spin and shout about these things. But, in general, the more the bell of change is rung, the less it is heeded.

While the global leaders are up to their necks in spate water, attempting to direct the flow, the rest of us do our best to tip our daily buckets into the maelstrom and make ends meet.  It is not change or reform that the lucky, mostly pampered people who live in developed countries require, but a sense of purpose and a little more efficiency.

And so, very briefly, to business practice, also lumped into bag one. The leaders of major businesses show signs of believing that they must make strident changes in order to gear themselves for a lower carbon future. Given the volatility of global markets and the financial crisis, it is extremely difficult to find a way forward in this respect. Any surpluses or profits these businesses have are hard to reinvest when former, tried and tested economic models and assumptions about future growth are changing, almost by the hour. For more than twenty years, big businesses have relied to some extent on their ability to ‘manage change’ – a constant, iterative process in response to mostly predictable stimuli. But with so much at stake and so little sense of where we will all wash up, the change manager is becoming obsolete. Slightly in the dark, he can no longer hang his hat where the money is.

Yet in the face of climate change and with the desire to perpetrate the goods and services that people need or want, businesses really do have to look at the bigger picture, one which embraces competitors, suppliers and customers - all of us. A species survives by adapting and often by working together and not generally by fighting at the waterhole – unless they’re desperate, by which time it’s too late. With hope our business leaders will explore the symbiotic equivalent of profit and learn to share, collaborate, make the waste of one industry the input of another. Perhaps our political leaders will do this too, using a softer pedal and some courtesy to other drivers. It just takes more time and a longer view.

© Giles Emerson, 13th November 2008

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