Book review: The Shift, by Lynda Gratton

The menu may be a little hit-and-miss at times but there's plenty of nourishment in this three-course analysis of the changing workplace.

by Richard Donkin
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, is one of those authors who lays out her books like a table plan for readers, who must understand exactly where they're supposed to be sitting, even if they've been placed rather inconveniently next to the auntie who never approves of the way they dress and always buys them talc for their birthdays.

You don't get to choose in a Gratton book. The choices are made for you. You're embraced at the door and yanked across the hall to meet a carefully selected cast of characters - the big corporate suits, placed strategically among various relatives, historical figures and surprise guests such as the cookery writers Elizabeth David and Julia Child, who both feature here.

The conversation is breathless, directed and assured because Gratton is so confident a host that anything less than blind obedience to her argument would seem impertinent. We're told without fear of contradiction that the world will be shaped by five forces in future: technology; globalisation; society; energy resources; demography and longevity (for those who wonder if the author has lost count, the last two are listed as a single force).

I wouldn't quibble too much with the place settings though, except to question whether society is a force. Surely, like the way we work, society is something that is shaped by various forces such as education, legislation, equality of opportunity and politics, to name a few. But five forces, six forces, who cares? - as long as those chosen have broad enough shoulders, and that seems to be the case here.

I'm a little surprised that Gratton has not included innovation - one of the subjects of a previous work, Hot Spots - as a force for change, although it's not overlooked when discussing the strides in technology that have been a hallmark of work evolution from the earliest stone tools.

She deals with the Industrial Revolution in a page or two - it was steam, not those silly textile machines that may have made Richard Arkwright a rich man but hardly transformed the economy. No, steam did it, and it all happened a bit later than some have suggested.

When she emphasises the 19th-century culture of innovation, I bite my lip at any temptation to mention Crompton's mule and Hargreaves's spinning jenny, or Abraham Darby's iron forge.

So we must go with the flow - except the argument is fractured at intervals as the host, mindful perhaps that some of her guests may be feeling a bit left out, continues to interject interesting themes and gobbets. They're interesting because she tells us they are. This grates. Anyone who has watched MasterChef knows that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

As a home worker, I welcome the book's analysis of the isolating potential of such work and the way this may be a symptom of other changes in society. Indeed, although I question her choice to list society as a force for change, Gratton's eagerness to confront societal change in parallel with workforce change is one of the book's strengths.

Overall, the analysis is sound. She doesn't miss much in her discussion of demographics. The implications of longer lives and the uneven demographic map across the globe are discussed with an authoritative grasp of their complexity. There is also plenty of academic substance to pick on as we plough through the courses.

By the time we get to the pudding it's beginning to feel like a long evening. The book could have done with some tighter editing. A human resources audience might be able to digest a phrase such as 'key drivers', but someone of the author's reputation should have sifted out such lumpy jargon by now.

The tired 'boiling frogs' analogy should also have been left off the menu. Like those poor frogs that fail to react to their changing circumstances when slowly heated in their pan of water, this trite fable has been done to death in HR seminars.

Maybe I have been immersed in writing on workplace change for too long, but some of the ideas in the book are far from fresh. Don Tapscott long ago cornered the market on the internet generation, described here in The Shift as Generation Z. If the present crop of youngsters has reached the end of the alphabet how on earth shall we describe the next lot?

But there's certainly merit in Gratton's recommendation that we influence our children to find a way of carving a career from something they love doing, and she recalls that much-repeated assertion that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve mastery of a skill (not always demonstrated by the writers of management books).

But there's a hitch here. Too many of us are spending too much time flitting around, answering emails, tweeting and surfing in our 24/7 society. How can we concentrate in the fragmented workplace? The book suggests discipline, but it needs more ingredients here. What about self-management, prioritisation and structuring of work?

I agree this much with Gratton - there is a place for elegance and whimsy and the kind of narrative beloved of Elizabeth David in our work - which must settle itself in society, not the reverse. I'd like to say more but someone has moved my cheese. I cannot suppress the glow as I take my leave with a frog in my throat. Could I have it grilled next time?

The Shift, The Future of Work is Already Here

Lynda Gratton

Collins £18.99

- Richard Donkin is author of The Future of Work, published by Palgrave Macmillan, and an honorary visiting fellow at Cass Business School.

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