Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On storage sheds, the past and a need for change

I spent all yesterday shifting boxes, moving things into a smaller storage shed. It took me a week in all to complete the move. It had to be done to reduce costs, but it is a sign of age that I can no longer lift heavy book boxes with the ease that I once could.

Inevitably I had to throw things out, so part of the time was spent loading the car with boxes to take home to sort. Lift to trolley, lift from trolley to car, lift and carry from car into the house, sort and put out for later disposal. I did establish one thing: there is a lot more that I can throw out, but the move had to be completed within a specified time.

I complained in a previous post about the loss of things that I should have retained. Clearly, I retained a lot of things that I should have lost!

My knowledge of English is pretty good. Still, every so often I come across a word that I have been misusing.

I had wanted to use the word desiderata to describe the storage shed as holding the traces of previous lives, fragmentary remains, random things. I have always used the word in this sense, but it appears that the word actually means desired things.

Life is a passage. We all go through phases, stages, in different locations doing different things. Inevitably, a sort of this type reminds of those stages.

I was just turning twenty two when I left home to work in Canberra. I had kept letters to me over the previous few years. After I left, Mum put them in a folder. There they were, now frozen in time. They sit on my desk as I write.

It's a mixed bag, but one that brings out elements of a past life: letters from girlfriends, school friends, family members; formal letters accepting invitations or dealing with career plans; telegrams. Telegrams! I hadn't seen one of those for years. Today, of course, we use email or Facebook when organising social functions or other activities. Then we used letters or telegrams.

In throwing out, I kept boxes with some of the consulting and research reports that I or my people had completed in the past. During my very active consulting phase, we completed over three hundred assignments for more than one hundred clients, mainly large corporates in the electronics, aerospace and information industries or bodies concerned with the sector.

We aimed to be industry specialists. Our other main industry focuses included education and training, professional services and defence. We also invested a lot of time in research.

There is actually quite a modern feel to the older reports because of the topics.

Even in 1987, data privacy in the electronic world was a concern, as was the use of stored data for commercial purposes. One report for Westpac examined the very different approaches to data privacy in Europe and the US. The Australian Information Industry Association was concerned about the slow take-up of computers in school. Our report on this was launched by a then Federal minister. TAFE NSW was concerned about the implications of industry and technology change on the demand for TAFE courses across NSW. We provided longer term analysis looking both in aggregate and in distributional terms across the state.

Inevitably, our work reflected changing needs and fashions. From 1988 we were writing about rapid change in the education sector. We examined the new approaches to competency based assessment in various countries and discussed the likely rise in Australian education exports. Quality, just in time, process re-engineering, downsizing, market redefinition, merger mania and the rise and partial fall of business planning all flow through.

We were early spread sheet adopters for quantitative modelling especially in telecommunications. However, the qualitative element in our work was pronounced. Today's obsession with models and modelling was not then possible. Our core focus was not so much on the numbers, but on the variables affecting the numbers. What were they? How might they interact?

I would no longer claim to be an expert in some areas such as telecommunications, although I still have a good working knowledge. However, one of the things that I find interesting looking at the material lies in the way I have come to reject things that I once argued with some passion.

Part of the reason for this lies in my return to history and writing, changing my perspective. A more important reason is that some of the areas I have been most passionate about in areas such as management or public policy clearly don’t work. I see this in my writing over time.

In 1988-1989, for example, I was a strong supporter of competency based education and training. By 1990, I was having my doubts as the policy machinery locked in approaches that breached fundamental aspects of competency based analysis. Today, I regard many aspects of current competency based approaches as unthinking, anathema to real improvement.

I should, by all accounts, have got more conservative as I grew older. Just looking at my professional work, I find that the conservatives are those who defend a now status quo that I once advocated as a reformer.

A conservative wishes to conserve what's good. I find it an odd and uncomfortable feeling that I should wish to tear down entire structures since modification has become so difficult.


Ula Heximer said...

I'm glad we're both conservative, Jim. I, too, have my own ways to live. I know you'll achieve your dream as an industry specialist. Don't worry. Based on what I've read, I think nothing's wrong with your English. It's understandable.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Ula.

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