During a recent exchange on Twitter around Barack Obama, Yahoo and flexible working, I worked myself up in to something of a lather because I felt that, whilst I agreed that the Mayer Memorandum had certainly got the topic of flexibility back on the media agenda, it had been on every working parent’s agenda for some time. I flounced off saying I was going to put some Copland on and left the room, metaphorically speaking.
I had in mind “Fanfare for the Common Man” by composer Aaron Copland which was written in 1942 and inspired, in part, by a speech by the then US vice president Henry A. Wallace proclaiming the dawning of the “Century of the Common Man” which aimed to articulate the goals of the allies for the Second World War.
After some reflection (and a couple of glasses of a half-decent Malbec) I thought I’d explore Copland and Wallace a little further. The result is this blogpost, in which I’m going to highlight some passages from Wallace’s speech and hope to demonstrate their relevance to the world of work and try to look at the ways in which democratisation of work can be said to be successful or otherwise.
I should point out that in drawing parallels here, I in no way intend any trivialisation of the wider subject matter of Wallace’s speech. Merely that some of what he said holds true today in another century and in another context.
This is a fight between a slave world and a free world.
This is the opening sentence of the speech. Whilst the notion of business as war is falling from fashion, it is unarguable that modern workforces in the developed world enjoy working conditions far removed from traditional notions of slavery. However, the globalisation of manufacturing and outsourcing of business processes to developing nations mean that people working in funkily designed converted warehouses that once housed an indentured workforce have as colleagues individuals who work in dangerous or unsanitary conditions on low wages and with longer hours.
Men and women can not be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over. They have learned, and are still learning, the art of production — that is, how to make a living.
This abridged passage is particularly pertinent to the current discussions about workstyles, collaboration and flexibility but it is clear that it’s a conversation that was already underway in the mid-20th century and we’re still looking for answers. It’s a first world problem and we have the luxury of time and freedom in which to have it.
If we were to measure freedom by standards of nutrition, education and self-government, we might rank the United States and certain nations of Western Europe very high. But this would not be fair to other nations where education had become widespread only in the last twenty years. In many nations, a generation ago, nine out of ten of the people could not read or write. When the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live — when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead.
We have noble aims for the learning and development of our workforces and rightly so. However, access to even the most basic of educations remains out of reach for many millions of people. If we, as businesses and individuals are truly altruistic in our search for the democratisation of learning then we need to agitate for the extension of the franchise to everyone everywhere.
Everywhere the common people are on the march. Thousands of them are learning to read and write, learning to think together, learning to use tools. These people are learning to think and work together in labor movements, some of which may be extreme or impractical at first, but which eventually will settle down to serve effectively the interests of the common man.
The greatest enabler of this theme is of course the internet. Connectivity and accessibility to information and data are democratizing at a pace never seen before. In the world of work, the ability to curate, disseminate and target information to those who will find most value in it will be a powerful skill. Aimless marketing of challengeable statistics will not be possible for much longer.
But in countries where the ability to read and write has been recently acquired or where the people have had no long experience in governing themselves on the basis of their own thinking, it is easy for demagogues to arise and prostitute the mind of the common man to their own base ends.
The consultant as demagogue? Perhaps not, but the rise of consulting has also seen the rise of self-professed experts or “gurus” who promise the earth so long as we deliver it ourselves. Those who can add the most value are those who can help us understand our businesses and employees needs best and who can help us define a path to improvement. Utopia* may not be possible but we should be aiming high on our own terms nevertheless.
By definition only one person is allowed to retain full sovereignty over his own soul.
Whether or not it inspires and enhances innovation, creativity or productivity we should aspire to workplaces that provide choice and flexibility over where, when and how work gets done and focus on jointly agreed results.
Some went to excess. But the significant thing is that the people groped their way to the light. More of them learned to think and work together.
Not all workplaces are made alike. Constraints of space and function mean that Eames chairs, slides and digital wall features will remain a pipe dream for many, but employers are indeed groping their way towards the light of happier employees being more loyal and giving more, more freely.
It is my belief that every freedom, every right, every privilege has its price, its corresponding duty without which it can not be enjoyed.
As individuals or employees we may be allowed these freedoms of choice and flexibility. It is beholden on us to not abuse that freedom. If people at Yahoo were using their time working at home to work on their own startups then they rightly lose that freedom. However, it is surely not correct to remove these freedoms unilaterally, impacting others who have not abused that trust.
Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. The methods of the nineteenth century will not work in the people’s century which is now about to begin.
This democratisation of learning of which we speak is enabling people to develop skills in a way like never before and the digital age is producing the tools to do so effectively. Alongside providing opportunities for our people to learn and develop, we should also look to appreciate these new skills and to give them a chance to put them into practice. L&D is not an end in itself.
Production, yes — it will be easy to get production without either strikes or sabotage, production with the whole-hearted cooperation between willing arms and keen brains; enthusiasm, zip, energy geared to the tempo of keeping at it everlastingly day after day.
Freedom of choice and flexibility, responsibly exercised ought to make for a more contented workforce. You really cannot please all of the people all of the time, but the higher the happiness quotient, the better the results, for both employee and employer.
So, there you have it. Aspiration and inspiration in equal measure, From 1942. From before my parents were born. We really are still learning, aren’t we.
*Re Utopia: It’s subsequently been pointed out by the better-informed Adrian McNeece that Utopia as imagined by Thomas More actually included slavery!