Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reflections on recognising Individual contribution

I am not naturally a negative person. The world is too full of interest to allow that.

Take, as an example, a story in today's IT Wire that the Hubble Telescope has discovered traces of methane on a large and very hot planet 63 light years from earth. Apparently NASA will be making a full announcement on Wednesday. If I interpret the story correctly, we have have found the first trace of organic life outside earth. Now that's interesting!

I make this point because there has been an apparently negative tone in some of the things that I have written recently. Part of the reason for this is the series that I have begun on economic and demographic change, education, ethnicity and the maintenance of social cohesion in Australia.

Policy failures lie at the heart of this series. They triggered the SMH campaign that in turn triggered my attempt to respond. Many of the elements in the story are negative.

I find that as I try to synthesise my ideas into something approaching a readable and logical form, I am reading much current news material within a frame set by my thinking on the series. In doing so, I keep on coming across examples that seem in way way or another to bear upon my thinking about the reasons for failure, as well as what might be done in response.

In yesterday's post, SMH headline - Family ties: proud institutions decline hurts those who built it, I spoke of the distress felt by Professor James Isbister at the decline of the Royal North Shore Hospital, an institution that he, his father and grandfather fought to build. Now he sees it all torn down by Government neglect.

Musing about this, I think that we need to make a distinction between recognising individuals or families that make contributions as compared to recognising the contribution made by individuals or families.

We are still pretty good at the first, some would say at times obsessively so, especially in sport. We are very bad at the second.

Contribution in society comes in many different ways and at many different levels. Those making the contribution may value recognition they receive as a consequence of their actions, but they really place value on the contribution itself.

As a society, we have become careless about recognising, taking into account, past contributions. We change things without recognising that our actions affect the way that people think about themselves, about what has been achieved.

Take a small, common, example. A family gives a memento to an institution that has significance to them and the institution. Valued at the time, the memento is subsequently lost or even disposed of. The family finds out about it and is hurt.

Things change. Institutions are imperfect. The past cannot be locked in stone. Yet I think that it pays us as a society to be more sensitive to the way that our responses to current needs affects those that have been involved.

The family that gave the memento says no more. The individuals who have gone the extra mile in working for an organisation say no more. The individuals who have given thousands of hours of volunteer time say no more.

To my mind, the single biggest difference between the world of work today and that holding at the time I started working has been the rise of cynicism. Organisations, public and private, have worked very hard to achieve this result. This cynicism spreads across society.

People can be passionate and are still prepared to contribute. We can see this around us in a thousand ways. Yet many now do so on a partial, qualified, basis. They are less involved and draw the line much more quickly. We are all losers as a consequence.

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