Friday, October 03, 2008

Personal Reflections - modern management and Shanghai's Yu Gardens

Yu Gardens, Shanghai.

When you think about it, finding personal space has always been an issue in a crowded society. If you look at the traditional Chinese garden, they are designed to achieve variety as well as quiet in a small area.

Chinese gardens are also very stylised, marked by a particular aesthetic.

I make these points to illustrate a central fact, that we see the world in terms of patterns. Sometimes these are explicit. Often, they are implicit, simply assumed.

On 17 September in Architecture and beauty: some thoughts Nicholas Gruen mused about what he saw as the ugliness of modern architecture. He asked:

Why is it that virtually every building - well so many buildings anyway - built before 1940 is beautiful and virtually every building built after - say - 1950 is ugly?

At one level, this is a sweeping statement. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There have been beautiful buildings since 1950. Further, some buildings or structures that were opposed at the time on enironmental or aesthetic grounds have later become familiar and much-loved. Despite this, my instinctive reaction was to agree with Nicholas.

In an apparently unlinked story, Fred Argy wondered Why is Australia so opposed to debt?. Here Fred, who was a senior officer in the Commonwealth Treasury while I was there, was referring not Australia's love of credit, but to our obsession with avoidance of Government debt.

In a further apparently unlinked story last December, Saturday Morning Musings - endings, beginning and the role of the tribal elder, I discussed ageism. The genesis of the story lay in what I saw as an apparently growing gap between my language and attitudes and those to be found in the "modern" organisation, at my difficulty in disentangling my own history and experience from my day-to-day work. To fit in, if you like.

I have sometimes describe myself as old-fashioned. This implies that I hark back to some past point or pattern. My interest in history, my reference to past examples, all make it possible for me to be typed as old-fashioned. In turn, this has affected my own perceptions of myself.

I do not know just how much I have written over the last two years, perhaps a million words.

This includes my blog posts, as well as my professional and official writing. That writing has taken many different forms from blog posts to Cabinet Minutes to power point presentations and has been written for many purposes: to provide information or briefing; training courses and management how-to-do stuff; explorations of management and public policy theory or history; explorations of my own past.

In writing, I have slowly come to the view that my problem, and that faced by many other commentators, is that we know that the things that many of us have supported in the past no longer work.

Some of us, the purists, re-state their past positions. The problem lies not in our mental constucts, but in the doing. The answer is to re-state past views, to hew closer to the true faith.

For others of us, the reformers, the problem is more complex because we have concluded that the system is broken. In my own case, I have come to feel that modern management and public policy is fundamentally flawed, that the constructs we now use do not work.

While I use examples from the past to illustrate my points, this is not in fact an old fashioned view. I do not hark back to some golden age. Rather, I am trying to look forward to some new approaches. I am a radical, not a conservative.

This position creates a number of difficulties.

At a personal level, I have had to accept that things that I once supported as a reformer, things that are now the management or public policy status-quo, have become pernicious. This does not mean that all elements should be rejected, rather that we should select and modify as required. This is quite hard to do. It is far easier to adopt a purist position.

Still at a personal level, those like me who are active in professional life can suffer from acute schizophrenia. We know that the system is broke and requires change. However, to achieve specific things we have to put our arguments and recommendations in language that people will understand and accept, and this means using constructs and associated jargon that we no longer accept as valid outside clearly defined fields.

For most of us for most of the time, we try to work on a case by case basis.

Fred argues, as I have down, for re-instatement of the importance of fiscal policy, for spending on infrastructure as part of this. Given this, I obviously welcome the decision by the Australian Heads of Government meeting to try to bring infrastructure spending forward. Yet that decision also illustrates just how hard the problem created by current modes of thought has become.

Project lead times can be long. In the past, Australian Governments at all levels had capital woks pipelines, things that authorities wanted to do and that were at various stages of development. This appears to be no longer true.

Take public housing in NSW.

NSW is suffering from the worst housing downturn in many decades so we have lots of spare capacity in the building sector. We also have a public housing sector where past Government policies have created a major maintenance backlog. Given all this, let's take advantage of the current situation to get rid of the maintenance backlog - a win-win situation.

It all sounds so easy. Yet, and I stand to be corrected, I doubt that the current system would allow maintenance spend to be significantly increased without a substantial lead time.

Modern public administration, and I think that this is true of modern management in general, has become as formalised as Shanghai's Yu gardens, but without the same beauty. To use modern jargon, we are no longer either efficient or effective.

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