Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium and the pace of change

In a comment in his Google Reader series on my post Musings on the Byzantine Empire - decline, Neil Whitfield wrote:

I find it interesting too that Jim is drawing lessons from this reading which, it may be thought, converge with some of his concerns. But we all do that...”.

Neil is right and wrong on this one.

The reasons for the decline in the Byzantine Empire after 1025 are Warren Treadgolds' and are set out in considerable detail in his book. However, the things that I focus on are certainly my selection.

In the post I wrote:

The history I am reading about just at present sits at the centre of fault lines in some current divides. The Crusades and all that, Christian vs Muslim. Balkan conflicts. History is used, misused, as a weapon in some of the arguments and conflicts around the fault lines.

This is clearly my view and has nothing to do with Warren Treadgold. I think the first point, the place of the particular historical period, is factual. The second is an expression of opinion.

I won't comment further until I have completed the next stage in my reading plan, the history of the Ottoman Empire.

One of the reasons why this section of Warren Treadgold's history so struck me is that I have always been interested in the reasons why states and empires decline.

All human institutions ultimately either collapse or change their form so as to be almost unrecognisable. Entropy is a powerful force.

During the week Noric Dilanchian, an old friend and colleague, sent me the following graphic. It comes from a slide presentation by Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley published in October 2007.

The slide shows quite clearly the decline in the US share of global GDP over the last decade. This is one of the modern economic fault lines, the shift of economic power. 5_us_gdp_relative_to_world_gdp_oct_2007

Just as the British Empire, once the leading global economic power, declined, so the US is now facing a major structural shift. We all know this, but have yet to work through what it really means.

My interest in the rise and fall of human institutions is part professional, part personal.

At a professional level, much of my working life has been connected with change and reform. This is as true today as it was when I started work all those years ago. At this level, I am a professional change agent.

There may seem a disconnect here between this role and my sometimes defence of tradition and the status quo. The linkage lies in my personal experience.

At a personal level, I have witnessed the decline of many of the institutions and traditions that I once took for granted.

I am not arguing that these changes were good or bad, although I found some of them personally distressing. It is hard to see things that people have worked to build simply discarded. I am simply making the point that change happens.

Still at a personal level, I recently had cause to review my old client lists.

As a consultant, I have personally completed or managed more than 300 hundred assignments for over 100 clients including a large number of major Australian and global organisations. A remarkable number of those clients no longer exist or have changed form so much as to be unrecognisable.

Again, change happens.

I still support change and reform, but my experiences have changed my views.

To begin with, I no longer take the survival of institutions or of particular sets of views as a given. Now the opposite is the case.

If we take current social attitudes and values in Australia, the only thing that we can be sure of is that they will be very different ten to twenty years out. Those presently sitting comfortably in what they see as the self-evident right position will be just as discomfited as I have been by change.

Often I pussy foot around this one. I do so because a statement warning that a particular change might be coming, that a different strategy is required to manage this, can lead into a mine-field among those still involved in pushing previous agendas.

Change analysis is also an imprecise business. This makes it hard sometimes to justify what are, after all, intuitive judgements even if based on evidence.

I do not pussy foot around another issue, the sometimes need to slow the pace of change, to create stability in the midst of change.

If you look at a lot of the discussions on the pace of change they are expressed in terms of faster economic or technological change. These are external factors. In fact, we have institutionalised change within our structures in such a way as to create instability independent of external events.

You think that I am exaggerating? Consider this.

Anybody who has been involved with change processes knows that it takes time to bed change down, to get the benefits from change. The bigger the change, the longer it takes.

The average in job life expectancy of CEOs has been falling. I am not sure of the latest number, but I think that the average has now fallen to three years or less.

Each CEO comes in under a performance agreement making their pay dependent on short term goals. Each CEO want to do new things.

Given the time involved in bringing about real improvement, we now have a basic asymmetry between institutional practices and the operations of the real world. The result is a mess.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting thoughts, Jim. You may have noticed little markers of what things were like are now appearing on my "unmothballed" Ninglun's Specials...

My comment -- and they disappear after a few days -- was simply to say that we often do find ourselves drawn to things that complement or reflect our concerns. We all bring something to what we read; in fact if we can't do that at all, the matter is perhaps unreadable. Reading is an endlessly fascinating interaction between ourselves and the text.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good afternoon, Neil! I was in way upset by your comment. The opposite is in fact the case.

I know the comments disappear. That is one reason why I record them.

Your last point is very true for both the different thoughts contained.

I have been trying to decide how far outside the barriers I should come on some of the change issues.

My feeling is that the tide of change is now running hard against some of the things that I perceive as current orthodoxy.

Some of this I don't mind. Some I think of as very dangerous.

Part of the problem to my mind is that Australians are not good at disentangling issues, at defining and dealing with principles. But that's another story!

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I missed out the no in my comment. It should have read I was in no way upset by your comment.