Book review: Culture Shock, by Will McInnes

Employees must be 'empowered' in 'open' workplaces by 'conscious' leaders ... Richard Scase has heard it all before.

by Richard Scase
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2012
More than 30 years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote in The Third Wave: 'Instead of the single "bottom line", the Third Wave Corporation requires attention to multiple bottom lines - social, environmental, informational, political and ethical - all of them interconnected.'

Will McInnes, meanwhile, writes in Culture Shock: 'We have to start operating our businesses in new ways ... from improved financial measures through to the less measurable but more meaningful, like providing purpose and satisfaction to people and making the world more sustainable.'

So not much has changed in the nature of organisational prescriptions. There has been a relentless process of M&A activity; the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. Corporate decision-making has become more secretive, while consumers have become more frustrated by outsourced call centres and cynical PR campaigns that claim ethical, social and environmental credits.

McInnes accepts all of this and offers an agenda for revolutionary change not quite of the world but at least of the organisations in which we work. He argues that we, as employees, must have purpose and meaning, and be empowered in work contexts that are open, with fair rewards and, of course (as is mandatory in books of this genre), with conscious leadership.

During my working life, I have lived in three simultaneous worlds; that of the academic researcher of organisational realities; that of the entrepreneur; and that of the keynote speaker at management events. This book can be assessed through the lens of an occupant in each of these worlds.

From the academic research perspective, this book does not even feature on the radar. There is no evidence to back up its arguments, except for anecdotes and random observations.

The second world I occupy, that of practitioners, will, with some exceptions, read this book with scepticism. Many of them, despite their efforts to run 'open' businesses with 'empowered' staff, have employees that don't show up for work, or try to fake their sales figures for bonuses, or abuse flexible family-friendly working practices.

McInnes argues for transparent finances. What if the company is going down the tubes or the owners are negotiating a sale? Key workers with mortgages and kids who have a 'transparent' awareness of these matters will be out the door like a shot.

Where 'openness', 'sharing' and 'transparency' may be appropriate is in small knowledge-based firms (PR consultancies, market research, etc) during periods when these businesses are doing particularly well. (This may be the case with McInnes's own consultancy, from which he draws so many anecdotes.) Then there is the opportunity for everyone to have fun, share ideas, act the fool, etc. But when the going gets tough, that's when the shutters come down, secret meetings are arranged and the whole 'fun' environment goes out the window.

So to the third world I occupy, that of corporate events, many with audiences of middle managers, ranging from delegates who are there because they have to be, to those that 'role play' enthusiasm and commitment, to the small minority that appear genuinely interested.

This book will appeal to them. They love speeches about how high-performing companies engage their staff and where people take turns to buy chocolates on 'fun day Fridays'. But why do they? Because it makes them feel good and they can dream that one day their bosses will treat them this way.

McInnes in Culture Shock is part of a long heritage of writers who offer recipes for how we should do business. In these, the ingredients for revolutionary change are much the same, although the mixing may vary from one recipe to another.

Meanwhile, Corporate UK carries on with its non-transparent executive bonuses, its tightly controlled core employees and the growing use of agency staff, who are treated much like the casual dockers in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront or the farm workers in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Business practices we thought long gone have returned with a vengeance.

- Richard Scase is emeritus professor at the University of Kent. He is the author of more than 20 books, the latest being Global Remix (Kogan Page, 2007)


Culture Shock: A handbook for 21st century business

Will McInnes

Wiley, £14.99

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