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:



Second coming

It’s been seen so many times before. A cracking first album… new fans, fame, fortune, exponentially rising expectations… and then the second album lands to a mediocre reception. Personally I still enjoyed Second Coming, but let’s be honest, The Stone Roses is and always will be the real masterpiece. ‘I Am The Resurrection’? Cocky, Mancunian genius, but utter genius nonetheless.

So I have Neil Usher of @workessence fame, the workplace industry’s current sophist laureate, to doff my cap to as motivation for this. Not only did he warn me about the challenges of the notorious second blog post, but his recent ‘firedances‘ musings, resplete with his trademark wordsmithery, afforded rich ideas to riff from. Inspired move or just downright cheeky? Well, that’s entirely up to you.

If you haven’t already read it, principally, Neil is none too impressed with the current state of workplace affairs:

  • Are we any further forward now than ever?
  • ‘Industry expertise’ proclaimed everywhere and yet nowhere
  • The real value of workplace still not organisationally recognised
  • The notorious Google workplace halo effect
  • …and a viscerally expressed lambasting of polarised media coverage

These are all, clearly, interrelated. Subtly and powerfully. Maybe this comes with age, but I feel an increasing, almost Socratic concern to be mindful of history’s lessons:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana, 1905, The Life of Reason)

Now I don’t know anywhere near enough about this yet, but in the 1970s Anthony Giddens began formulating ‘structuration theory’, a sociological perspective which sought to reframe the perpetual objective/subjective duality inherent in social science’s ‘paradigm wars’ of the period. His aim, recognising our seemingly inherent social nature to have to take sides – rightly or wrongly(!) – was to recognise the interrelated, recursive nature of human behaviour. We are bound by structures of our own (cultural) creation. We also have the agency to do something about these very structures. Or do we? Such is the critical challenge. Others have suggested similar, in various guises, but all roads seem to lead back to Giddens. Clever chap. If only structuration theory was just a little less, well, impenetrable…

“The structural properties of social systems are both the medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize” (Giddens, 1984, p.25)

This is the rub with workspace and place, and links to the frustration, certainly from an enlightened minority, who perceive that something is worryingly awry with an industry that may or may not grow the balls (agency) to climb out of @workessence’s toilet cubicle window (structure). There is a lovely, ironic acronym coined by Waddington (1977) – ‘cowdung’ – the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. This is always the case. The first challenge is recognising it exists; only then can we start understanding what it is, and what it does. To quote Morpheus, during his first meeting with Neo (yup, sci-fi geek out time):

“There is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad … it is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”

From this hilltop, it sometimes feels like the media fall on the same old turgid workplace issues time and again, using biased (yes, even ‘credible’, peer-reviewed academic sources are axiologically compromised) or attention grabbing headlines, like Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell (I mean, really @OliverBurkeman?!) Maybe though we’ve started to become a bit oversensitised; they have been collectively picking at the scab of this one forever. Even the hacks need to make a crust, after all.

Media, maybe increasingly, is professionalised gossip. Some facts. Some fiction. Perspectives and perceptions. This is nothing short of what makes us human. It is biased. It is socially constructed. It is a version of an ever unobtainable, fleeting truth. The challenge/opportunity is to recognise the structure/agency at play in all of this. What is perhaps more telling is number and nature of the comments. The article mentioned above? 258 responses. Burkeman’s latest offering from Saturday, based predictably on Nikil Saval’s new book, ‘Cubed’, out in the UK in June? 107 and counting. Polarised, visceral, personal comments, where accepting one angle means rejecting another. What if this couldn’t be further from ‘the truth’? This is human nature; human being. This is what we have to deal with as workplace professionals. This is why spatial ‘solutions’ get compromised, by us as much as anyone else. So what would a workspace ‘anti-solution’ look and feel like, I wonder?

Certain ‘pioneers’ were raising similar issues, with similar concerns to @workessence, about the workplace derived Facilities Management (FM) industry over 25 years ago. We are 40 years young, yet already verging on the historical. And a myopic desire for progress creates nothing more than @smartco’s concern of a ‘delusion with novelty’. Which is where Google, Innocent, Microsoft and all those shiny, pimpy office designs come in for a DIY and Ikea obsessed nation.

“In 1981, Franklin Becker … noted, “The way the physical setting is created in organizations has barely been tapped as a tangible organizational resource”. Over 25 years later, almost the same statement could be made.” (Elsbach & Pratt, 2007, p. 217)

So why are we still bound by these shackles? Because, according to Giddens (and Morpheus) these very shackles which enable us, recursively and paradoxically limit us. Perhaps only when we recognise that the change comes from within, as opposed from without/elsewhere will we seed a groundswell of something different. Picture yourself, sandbags in hand, frantically trying to keep an ensuing flood from destroying your cherished home. All by yourself. That is the scale of the current challenge, in a world largely that isn’t ready for different. But how do we change our collective system that should have invested in better levees?

More than the media effect, I worry that if we regard workplace pseudo ‘laboratory experiments’ which treat humans deterministically as valid ‘knowledge’, about something as subtle, nebulous and complex as our interrelationship with space and place then we only have ourselves to blame. You can take your potted plant and shove it, right there. It might be FM’s role to manage space. But perhaps it is our job to protect place too, and for the very customers we claim to serve:

“Undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan, 1977, p.6)

To paraphrase Tuan, place is security, space is freedom. Is there a future for FM where it can climb back down from its attempted escape through the toilet cubicle window, freshen itself up, and proudly walk back out the door ready to do things differently?

“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth…”