Softly, softly, catchee monkey…

Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy (Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1773; public domain) via Wikimedia Commons










“On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées” (Victor Hugo, 1877)

This wasn’t going to be my third post. It was going to be about the wonderful Jane ni Dhulchaointigh’s perspective-shifting Sugru and the mass customisation of FM. You’ll have to wait for that. Soon. I promise. Why? Because something has happened this week that can’t go unacknowledged, and following the lovely messy reality of announcements and responses, it has left me reflecting on hubris… and humility. It’s easy to get carried away.

The BIFM’s annual conference #ThinkFM happened on Tuesday. Last year, as a chair for one of the conference streams, I experienced a day spent encouraging poor little FM to give itself a big sorry hug because no one was (still!) listening to how valuable it is. Sadly I couldn’t make this one, and I’m actually a bit disappointed. Because what transpired was, by the sound of it, a carefully choreographed reveal, primed by CIPD head honcho Peter Cheese, delivered (and masterminded?) by FM industry A-lister Chris Kane. The announcement was that BIFM and CIPD will be working together, because …drumroll… it’s all about people and place.

Now let’s be honeset here. Folk don’t half like to gossip and grumble. It’s part of human nature, right? When I heard, I was in a room with a group of our lovely Sheffield Hallam FM students, all mature, experienced, passionate, practicing FMs. What was the session about? Oh, you know, just stuff about the fact that until organisations realise that it starts with people, workspaces will never be on the money. You can have the slides if you like, on the house – give me a shout. Anyway. I digress. Our first reaction at Hallam was “aye, we knew that; about bloody time.” In fact we knew it to the tune of (a) working with CIPD on it in 2005, and (b) trying to catalyse a commercial university spinoff called Spaceworks to get some academic rigour behing the people/place thing: Spaceworks executive summary (2006). So yes Gareth Tancred, Peter and Chris, we sure as hell want a seat at the table. We’re so ready for this we’re about to pop.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, a range of reflections followed. All compelling, visionary perspectives in different ways. If you haven’t read them yet, you should: @ChrisKane55, @SimonHeath1, @markcatchlove, @workessence and @dougshaw1 are a great start. As Alfred Brendel said, during an episode of BBC Radio 4’s glorious Desert Island Discs in November 2013:

“I abhor the conviction that one has to find the one and absolute truth. There are truths with an ‘s’.” (Alfred Brendel, 2013)

And then something clicked. I realised (newb that I am!) that behind this big, shiny, corporate, industry pledge was a diverse collective of connected individuals proactively driving at a fresh conversation. And there’s the rub. By ‘going public’ through ‘going corporate’ to enable wider transmission of intent, yes, the idea can’t help but get institutionalised. And institutions very often limit agency. I was having a right old vaguely intellectual rant about this ten days ago in my second post, as I am fairly convinced, like Giddens and many others, that it is the crux of all our challenges. So what should we do?

Remember that time when you loved something really, really good? Something – maybe a band, or a restaurant, or a bar, whatever really – that you knew about but other folks didn’t. You felt close to it. You felt special. You felt privileged, because you knew about something exciting that the other folks didn’t. Then what happened? Sigh. It probably went mainstream, right? Because culture unfolds through people, and people love to talk. The first rule of Fight Club? You get the idea.

This might be how this feels to some of the visionaries right now. But there is a careful balance to maintain. If we can harness the value of the vehicle, and remain aware of the incumbent politics and tactics that come with it, then just perhaps we have a trojan horse to covertly wheel something really inspirational right into the middle of the city. Meanwhile our indispensable scouts are off exploring elsewhere. Not everyone can push the envelope of possibility. But they still have a right to know about it. Love or loathe him, Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ notion comes to mind. What do sticky ideas need to tip? There are multiple roles to be embraced or the system falters. And since I’m on a Gladwell tip (boom boom!) maybe we’re about to watch a David and Goliath dynamic play out, both actually and metaphorically. Honestly. I should be on commission, I really should…

So, following my slightly smug ‘about time’ knee-jerk reaction, I feel a bit humbled now. I realise that behind easy to criticise conference announcements and press-releases, subtle, passionate genius can be at work, stage-left or right. And perhaps at this point, saying “we knew that already”, even when tempered with “so please get us involved” is not actually that constructive. Timing is everything. Sometimes we push ahead too soon, blow up, run out of momentum and get caught; sometimes we need to spot the breakaway, get on board quick and work together to drive at something potentially successful… ahead of the peloton.

We can turn to one of FM’s many definitions to spot our hallowed holy grail, the intersection of people, process and place. It’s always been there. But maybe now though we are recognising and developing our agency to actually do something about it:

“Ultimately, the practice of FM is concerned with the delivery of the enabling workplace environment – the optimum functional space that supports the business processes and human resources … as an enabler in the first instance” (Then, 1999, p. 469)

If you haven’t seen it already, you could do a lot worse than watch Dave Coplin’s utterly inspirational RSA Animate to realise that behind people and place (and technology) lie the far more fundamental issues of perceived trust and value. My own perspective and prediction, for what it’s worth? The people/place intersection might not have been tackled by our industry convincingly yet, but there is so much knowledge to draw upon already. What we might learn will challenge our current wisdoms. It will challenge us to rethink our stale “property is an organisation’s second biggest cost” rhetoric, because it will force us to look at the first most important organisational element in a new light. It will be a qualitative step beyond quantitative considerations of economy and efficiency, towards enabling genuine effectiveness. Sorry folks. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Decision time. And that will challenge what we think we know about workspace, because to do this the focus will have to be specific, not collective.

Ultimately, despite all this talk, actions will need to speak louder than words. Someone will have to develop the cojones to do something about it. To take that leap of faith beyond the dogma and existing evidence. If I have learnt one thing recently, it is the way ideas can now ripple through this brave new socially-connected world; where knowledge, talent, passion and energy can find each other, independent of the confines of rigid structure and hierarchy. So, as Mr Ramsay has been rumoured to say, minus the trademark expletives:

“Less chit chat. More chop chop.”

Let’s get on with it. Don’t sulk if you don’t get an invite. Get involved. You have the power at your fingertips. Meanwhile, which is better, and what does better mean? You decide:




4 thoughts on “Softly, softly, catchee monkey…

  1. Ian a marvelleous read and extemely objective, my compliments. I like the trojan thinking also.
    To be clear my drivers are;-
    to engage as many as possible with a degree of structure but only so far as to help build momentum.
    too many fellow travellers bemoan the status quo yet their concerns fall on deaf ears – could I help stir the pot by acting as convenor?
    I abhor the fact that a lot of good work goes on with little real recognition.
    Also we don’t have a detailed plan of action we have deliberately lit the blue touch paper to see what would happen – very risky for some but for me a necessary component of being disruptive.
    As for invites I want to see sessions which are a mix some formal, some drop ins and maybe even some self starting. For me a big conversation is all about capturing ideas that we help all of us to move forward towards a meaningful outcome.
    I have no axe to grind for either institution and am completely independent, this will enable me to champion a cause that is important to me. FYI – last year at ThinkFM13 I nailed my colours to the mast, they haven’t changed.
    Our motley crew so far have literally no fixed ideas on how to move forward we do have passion, initiative and drive. Care to throw your hat in the ring??

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