Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: Management

Book-changing lives

My thoughts turn to Davos, just a few miles up the road from where I live. Now what do you think about when you think of Davos? The WEF. Yes, it is just over. What was it about this year? Who cares? It is such a non-event that there is little to report, except that this time Mr Xi put in an appearance. It was the annual opportunity for the élites to shake their heads over a world out of control. They came. They talked. They left again. And nothing changed.

But that is not what I want to discuss. I want to talk about a book, a story that happened in Davos. And about the strange properties that book seems to have. The book in question is Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (or, The Magic Mountain). To know what it is about, you have to know about what made Davos famous long before WEF: the air. The pure, bracing Alpine air was supposed to be very good for tuberculosis patients, and so, in the Belle Époque, Davos was the European capital of sanatoria. The novel tells the story of a young German fellow who goes there on a three week visit and ends up staying for seven years, only leaving when the First World War breaks out.

This is a very long book, and you don’t start reading it lightly. I first read it as a teenager, and thought it was marvellous and profound. About ten years later I read it again, and found it marvellous again, but this time for different reasons. In fact, I read it every ten years or so, and every time it seems like a different book. I see things in it I didn’t see before. I see parts of the story I didn’t notice before. It amazes me that a book can keep changing like that. There it is, sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, seemingly inert, and yet when you pick it up ten years later, it has changed and become a different book. It is as if the author has been surreptitiously adding new chapters or putting them in place of old ones. Or as if the book itself was alive, somehow regenerating itself and growing, all that time on the shelf when no-one was reading it! You have to give it time, mind you. If you looked at it after a week, or a month, or a year, you would not detect any change. You have to leave the book for ten years. Then it has time to do all that magic stuff that printed books are not supposed to be able to do.

We talk about “life-changing books”. Indeed, the highest praise for a book is to say “it changed my life!” But I would want to talk about “book-changing lives”. Instead of saying “the book changed my life” I would have to say “my life changed the book”. Just imagine that: merely by the fact of ten years being added to your age, the book changes. I feel in the presence of a great mystery, one involving a strange, unsuspected alchemy of books and those who read them.

So there you are. A new buzz-phrase. I give it to you for what it is worth: “book-changing lives”.

Reporting citizens’ forums

Last week I talked about Flemish Belgian writer David van Reybrouck’s pamphlet “against elections”. He praises the recent innovation of the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, which discusses ideas for legislation and constitutional change, and which contains 99 ordinary citizens chosen by lot, plus a chairperson (a judge). He thinks there should be more of this, instead of everybody going to the polls every few years and then leaving all decision-making up to the politicians.

However, putting a group of people in a room and telling them to talk is not quite the answer in itself. Politics is no stranger to the committee. The trouble with committees is that viewpoints cancel each other out and that the consensus that emerges is well-nigh meaningless; or else the “spontaneous hierarchy” effect takes over, which means that some people succeed in dictating their views while others are ignored. There has to be some way of ensuring that all participants speak their minds and are heard.

Again, in any citizen consultation, the essential point is to hear what the people are saying, but also to understand what they mean.  This means that we need some kind of record and analysis of what is said at the meeting. Verbatim reporting usually turns out to be too much, while impressionistic notes are far too little. There needs to be an independent rapporteur who captures everything that is being said but also makes sure that all viewpoints are heard.

Some years ago I developed such a method for the rapporteur role based on the precedent of conference interpreting.  The rapporteur at a consultation meeting can best be compared to a simultaneous or consecutive interpreter at a multilingual conference. In conference interpreting, the interpreter listens to what each speaker is saying, and, almost simultaneously,  translates it into the target language for the benefit of participants who are speakers of that language.  In the case of an extended intervention by one speaker, he may wait until after the intervention is concluded and then interpret it consecutively (as it is called).  It is important to understand that the conference interpreter does not provide a mechanical word-for-word translation.  Instead, he gives the meaning, the sense of what has been said.

That is precisely what the rapporteur does according to my method.  He captures the meaning of what is said, writing it on his computer screen.  The rapporteur does, however, often use the terms that the speakers have used, if those terms seem to have some significance to the participants which should be brought out in later analysis.

It is important that the rapporteur operate in “real time”, as a conference interpreter does.  This enables him to provide feedback to the discussion as it unfolds, using an overhead projector to show what he has heard. This regular feedback clarifies to the participants what they have been saying, if that is needed.  It helps to keep the discussion on track.

When the rapporteur has done the first part of his work in “real time” the text of the meeting (ephemeral, volatile, spoken language) has been captured for further consideration and analysis. He then proceeds to analyze this material and summarize it. Following further input, if any, from the participants, this becomes the report of the meeting.

I suggest this could be used as an approach for citizen forums, and could serve as a tool for participatory democracy.



Cold start

The rapidity of change has become proverbial in our world. We don’t seem to be able to change fast enough to keep pace with the innovations. Not only do machines become obsolete, but knowledge does too, maybe even our very brains. I can’t help wondering if our capacity to change has its limits; if the dilemma of constant change won’t someday lead us to jettisoning our whole mental cargo, like a sinking ship trying to stay afloat.

There are such individual acts of heroic despair in our midst. Think of an office-worker in the days of paper (not so long ago) who, despairing at the pile of unprocessed correspondence in his in-tray, took the whole thing and threw it in the wastebasket unread. Well, it still happens. Inquiring why someone has failed to responded to my last e-mail, I hear that the recipient had returned from a couple of weeks’ vacation and, overwhelmed by what they saw, emptied their e-mail inbox in just this way by clicking “delete all”. This sort of informational hara-kiri happens more often than most would people care to admit.

In the old days of computing with mainframes there used to be a “cold start” every so often. That meant that the system shut down for maintenance, and everything in process at the time when it happened would be lost. As a young computer greenhorn, I remember thinking: suppose everything in backup memory was lost too, and we had to start again from scratch? It would be catastrophic, but it would also be liberating. One night, in fact, I dreamed of evening rush-hour in the city. People were frantically hurrying to and fro. A friend I grabbed took the time to tell me that tomorrow there was going to be a cold start. That meant that everything would be over and forgotten. Everything. Contracts, guarantees, even relationships, even personal memories would no longer have any validity. There were only a couple of hours left in which to finish things up.

Now, in reality there could be no such conspiracy to delete the past. Apart from the case of harried users pressing “delete all” on their e-mail, no-one would ever take it on himself to pull the plug, to dump the entire past unilaterally. But suppose it was decreed by the powers that be – as arbitrarily as changing over to winter time on this or that weekend in October? People would go along with it, relieved at the prospect of casting their burdens from them. At two-o’clock in the morning it would be programmed to happen while they slept. Then in the grey light of dawn they would wander the city streets aimlessly, suddenly knowing nothing, turning blank faces to friends and colleagues of the day before, their eyes not showing so much as a flicker of recognition, and they would go into unfamiliar offices and boot up the empty computer systems. Since knowledge becomes obsolete anyway, the world would reason, why not do ourselves one big favour? What a relief! It might yet happen.


Whose China?

François Jullien is a well-known Sinologist in France. Actually, he says he is not really a Sinologist but a philosopher interested in Chinese thought. At any rate, he has a great influence on the French perception of China. He is regularly consulted by media and business.

Jean-François Billeter is another Sinologist. He has criticized Jullien in a pamphlet, Contre François Jullien. He says Jullien has constructed a vision of China which is just a projection of his own thinking. Jullien characterizes Chinese thinking in terms of “immanence” rather than “transcendence”. This means that the world is seen as a self-perpetuating entity, a process with which we can be in harmony or not. What is important is not ultimate purposes or universal laws, but managing the flow of things, making things work.

Billeter says Jullien feels close to the business world – the world of internationally operating CEOs – because that is how business thinks: don’t ask why things are the way they are, much less try to change them; just adapt to the market and profit from whatever happens there.

According to Billeter, the “immanent” way of thinking, which he admits has been the prevalent one in Chinese history, is a creation of the old imperial system. If the Emperor ruled from Peking and could not be questioned, the only thing that remained to be done was to make the system work, which the mandarins did.

What is more, says Billeter, France is like that (he is Swiss). France is a place run from Paris by an élite. French intellectuals see themselves as a kind of Republican mandarinate. This way of thinking derives from the Enlightenment, and he points out that Enlightenment thinkers admired China as a rational state. Ironically, he says, whatever they knew about China they got from their arch-enemies the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were an intellectual élite themselves, wanted to justify their top-down approach to China – converting the élites – by showing how excellent the mandarin system was.

Now, the Sinologists can argue this one out themselves. But I think Billeter is on to an interesting idea: what you see in other countries is a projection of what you are yourself, and what preoccupies you. There is no universal account of China. There is a French account of China; maybe a Swiss account of China; and that’s just the beginning of it…


Back to skool – to learn Chinese

Journalist Chuck Chiang had a recent article in the Vancouver Sun to mark the beginning of the new school year. The article is about the pros and cons of learning Chinese in Vancouver – of all places. It seems numerous parents and business groups have been lobbying for it in the public school system and say it should be taught more. The only reason given, by the way, is that it helps you make money and be competitive.

The people doing the lobbying are mainly Chinese-Canadian, also by the way. One non-Chinese-Canadian, a former diplomat named Jimmy Mitchell who actually learned Chinese on a posting and has been making a career of it ever since, remarks that there are lots of Chinese speakers in Vancouver but they’re all Chinese. He thinks white guys should be learning it too. Fat chance, I thought.

When I was working with the BC Ministry of Education in the 1980s, we were developing a new languages curriculum. This was triggered by the introduction of Chinese and Japanese as optional subjects in the public schools. I for one told the bureaucrats and educators you might as well focus on offering Chinese as a heritage language (that is, one taught to children of immigrant speakers of that language). They reacted with righteous horror, saying no, public school subjects have to be for everybody. But the bottom line was, and is: no ordinary English Canadian kid is going to learn Chinese, or at least stick at it once the novelty has worn off. If they can’t be bothered to learn French – the country’s other official language, and relatively easy to learn for English speakers – they’re not going to learn Chinese with its tones and artistic writing system.

Another thing is that, in these debates, people confuse teaching with learning. If you ask whether kids are learning languages, educators come out with impressive statistics like “we have so many students enrolled in so many programs”. That’s not what I asked. I asked if the kids were learning the languages – namely, whether they know anything at the end of the program, and have something to apply it to. English-Canadian kids have been dutifully enrolled in French courses for years, and at the end they can’t say a word. Even kids in French immersion programs, who actually do learn French, forget it afterwards due to lack of practice.

Anyway, the basic problem is not Chinese – it’s English. English Canadian society is deeply convinced that no language is necessary but English, and no language should be spoken but English, and anyone who speaks any other language besides English is, like, weird. Young people have learned this from their parents; it gets passed on from previous generations. This is why young English Canadians (like young Americans) can’t be bothered to learn languages.

So if we want to have English Canada able to speak Chinese to China, guess who will be doing it? Chinese-Canadians. Howls of righteous horror, anyone? Well, look on the bright side. Young Chinese Canadians will no longer need to soul-search and ask themselves “what can I do for my (adopted) country?” Their work is already cut out for them – for generations to come.








Snow’s world (2)

Snow’s world, the world of elites discussed last week, is based on the educational system. Elite secondary schools and the universities feed into it. They create the unity of outlook and the camaraderie that will sustain its members for a lifetime. But national systems of education differ: the German Gymnasium is not the French lycée, which is not the English “public school”. That, it seems to me, is why Snow’s World has always appeared in fairly distinct national varieties. England was one (Snow described it in his novels and essays), France was another, Germany, and the Soviet Union, were different again.

In recent years this has started to change. The élites are becoming more homogeneous, along with their educational systems. The urge to look beyond one’s borders and compare one’s situation with other élites is proving irresistible. The world of élites is now more and more an international world, rather than a locally rooted one, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out. In previous generations, national élites could live in splendid isolation from one another. Today, young members are encouraged to go abroad and study or get work experience. However, eventually they come home and take up the place that has been prepared for them, for that is where they belong. Only outsiders stay away for good. So the trend to international homogenization still has its limits.

On the other hand, these élites are also the place of what Snow called “the new men”, the modern managers, flexible, pragmatic and often ideologically neutral. To use Charles Handy’s terms, they tend to be Apollonian (dedicated organization men) or Athenian (members of élite teams, trading on their professional reputation with their “peers”). There is less and less room for the old-style Zeus (the paternal, intuitive “boss”) and for Dionysus (the individualist who wants to run his own show).

Whether it is caused by the trend to international comparison or the prevalence of management models, this increasing homogeneity of élites brings the risk of mediocrity, which seems inherent in bureaucracies but indeed all organizations. It’s good if everyone in the organizational leadership understands each other and subscribes to the same set of values and beliefs – it makes the place a lot easier to run – but a lack of mavericks and wilful eccentrics leads to a herd mentality and a loss of ability to innovate or even appreciate new situations for what they are.

This is where diversity comes in – a fashionable word, to be sure. Diversity means élites recruiting members from outside their own ranks, or at least entering into significant working relationships with such people. This is not just a nice thing to do for the sake of some supposed political correctness. It is the real answer to the problem of mediocrity in the élite ranks.

Snow’s world

For somewhat less than a century now, Western societies have been run from what I like to call “Snow’s world”. This is the world described by C.P. Snow in his novels and essays. It is a world of élites. It spans government, industry, academia and the professions.

It is the world of the “new men”, the managers, although it is apparent that it has grown out of tradition, and that the ghosts of former élites haunt it.  It is thoroughly modern, and of the modern world, although it continues the idea of an élite from earlier forms of society: the aristocratic and the bourgeois. The educational system, especially the élite secondary schools and the universities, have the job of keeping it fed with new recruits.

Snow experienced the system in England. There the old snobbery about the gentlemanly amateur was alive and well, even in the industrial age with its need for science and technology. He talked about this as the problem of the “two cultures”. He did note that there was a rising class of white-collar workers and technicians, but they did not have the polish or social self-confidence of the old élites. You had to go to university for that, a technical college wouldn’t do.

Snow, who came to this élite from the outside, was acutely aware of issues of class. His views were moderately left, and he served in a Labour government. A fellow like Snow, though he may be on the Left, does not really want to abolish the Establishment. He wants people like himself to run it. So he just ends up joining it. As the American historian Christopher Lasch has observed, when people from the working class get promoted into the élite, it just feeds the élite, it does nothing to better the lot of the working class; in fact it worsens it, because it deprives the working class of leadership.

Formerly, élites were thought to be leisured. Hard work was for the socially mobile on the way up from below. Today’s élites are no longer a leisured class – they are, as the British say, “running around like blue-arsed flies”. This is because Snow’s world is a technocratic world. The technical, the industrial has seized the initiative, and people have to be organized around it. The system is surprisingly neutral politically. It was able to function in the Soviet East as well as the capitalistic West. Snow’s world is a nomenklatura, to use a good Soviet word: a list of names from which élite vacancies can be filled. It has more in common with élites in other countries and systems than it does with the man in the street where it lives.

More recently, Christopher Lasch has talked about the “revolt of the élites”. That is to say, international élites are remodelling nations and societies to suit themselves, not the masses. Ordinary people are resentful, which expresses itself in right-wing populism; they know they are further from controlling the agenda of society than ever they were.





The problem of ESL in the boardroom

In the business world, there is a saying that “he who owns the office, owns the meeting”. This means that if an executive can get people to meet in his space, he can dictate the agenda and the outcome to a great extent. But you could also say “he who owns the language owns the meeting”. If the meeting is held in your language, you have a similar home-team advantage to the manager who gets others to meet on his turf. This can be observed in international get-togethers, even of people belonging to the same company.

Holding such meetings in English may sound like a cool thing to do, but it hands power to any Anglo-Saxon there. This is seen in meetings of international companies where people from different countries are hammering out issues and, more often than not, competing with each other for resources. Many such meetings result in the English-speakers getting what they want, like larger budgets, and the others not getting a look in because they do not express themselves with sufficient facility, or do not take up enough space, signalling their power and importance in the manner appropriate.

What can be done about this, given that, in international companies and associations today, English is likely to be the only common language? What you need is an amicus curiae, a “friend of the court”, not an actual party to the process, who ideally knows the language(s) and culture(s) of the participants, but who is a literate English speaker and can express things quickly and effectively in English too. He can level the playing field by compensating for linguistic inequality and ensuring that all voices are heard. He is the one who gets everything down. I call this role the rapporteur.

The role of (meeting) rapporteur is known, notably in U.N. organizations, but it is usually a passive role, and is often confined to getting down conclusions after the fact. That kind of rapporteur is “seen and not heard”. The rapporteur role as I mean it is activist. This rapporteur intervenes to get clarity and full expression from all the participants, thus preventing viewpoints and ideas being lost or drowned out by louder voices.

The rapporteur, as his name suggests, is there to report on the meeting. He is a listener. He writes in real time, that is, while the people are talking. The way I do it, he shows the progress of the discussion projected overhead from a beamer device attached to his computer. So the participants are getting intermittent feedback about how the meeting is evolving, what has been said, and they get to clarify what they and others have said – without being able to censor it, which is always a temptation. Just after the meeting, the report circulates, for further discussion off-line if necessary. (More details on this on my author page.)







Negative power

In his book Gods of Management, Charles Handy talks about negative power. By this he means the power that groups and individuals have to hold the organization to ransom. It is particularly prevalent in what he calls Apollonian organizations like the factory, where people are cogs in the proverbial machine. These human cogs, as Handy points out, have the power to take themselves out of the machine. The most obvious way is a strike. Trade unionism learned to wield this as its main weapon in the industrial age.

There are other ways to exercise negative power as well. One that Handy mentions is absenteeism. Apollonian organizations have a lot of this. To cope with the unreliability of the cogs in the machine, Apollonian organizations have slack. They hire more people than they need. This is the price to be paid for efficiency in such an organization. Again, as Handy points out, if a cog falls out of a clock, the clock stops, but organizations which cannot afford to grind to a halt “staff up” so there are replacement cogs at hand.

People do not like being just cogs. People who are not appreciated have ways of making their presence felt. “Negative power is therefore fertilized by unhappiness, low morale or a feeling of powerlessness”, says Handy. Today we can see this not only in industry, but in whole nations. Time and again, voters ignore the appeals of their governments and vote destructively in referendums. Or they vote for right-wing populists who express the inarticulate popular anger and resentment. There are countries in economic trouble where the political leaders want to take the bailout and play ball with the rest of the world, but the people won’t follow, as happened in Greece.

Negative power did not disappear with the industrial age. In the knowledge economy – to the alarm of the new élites – it is alive and flourishing. You cannot eliminate it. It is the power of those who have no power. It is the talk of those who are not listened to.



The end of “we”

It is often said now that we are witnessing the decay of “mass society”. In the 20th century, it is reasoned, the mass media reflected, and to some extent created, the preferences, values and tastes of the man-in-the-street. Today such homogeneity is neither desired nor required. With the help of newer technologies, there is a proliferation of different media content, and these media can be directed to the groups who want to consume them. Everybody can be freer in their tastes and have their needs met.

I wonder if people who argue this way are aware of the full implications. When the consensus of media disappears, other forms of consensus disappear too. For consensus is cultivated and nurtured by mass media. The American historian Benedict Anderson called modern nations “imagined communities”, as they consist of people with a fellow-feeling but who don’t know each other personally like the members of a clan. “Imagined communities”, as Anderson pointed out, are communities of readers: they depend on sharing things like newspapers and books. That is what forms “public opinion”, a phrase more and more neglected because it has become so problematic. The great imagined communities of the past are crumbling at the edges. That is what is really meant by the end of “mass society” with its homogenized consumer tastes.

Previously in this place I mentioned Popper’s idea of the “abstract society”, where no-one knows anyone else personally. In an abstract society, ultimately, there is no “we” left. There is no common ground. It’s every man-in-the-street for himself. Popper’s 1950 vision of a future society is now coming true thanks to computers. There is a whole shadowy world out there of people with computers (and similar devices) all on their own. I notice I am a part of it. I look at the morning papers on the Internet, and I shake my head. They don’t speak for me with their pretended consensus. Some of us have ducked out of the meeting and cannot be spoken for. We are flying under the radar. We may not have extreme ideas, but we do not subscribe to the usual blah-blah. Politicians can’t hook us. Advertisers either. Just count us out.

Ironically, I find myself saying “we”. But this is no basis for an imagined community, a cohesive group – any more than people with blue eyes, or people suffering from a particular disease. It is just a growing fringe of people who don’t fit into to the mainstream. Whether this augurs well or not for the future of society, I do not dare to think.