Bookshelf: Talk: The New Work

An emerging corporate citizenry is negotiating new ways to energise its businesses.

by Stephen Overell, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Once upon a time, business books studied determined, charismatic men, who bent the world to their will. Then in the mid-20th century along came the organisation man with his herd instinct, his protocols and his attachment to the bureaucratic pyramid. And now he too has been superseded by a new character, a semi-autonomous, striving, networked, collaborative and largely ungendered corporate creature, who discovers personal fulfilment in organisational goals and spends its time having purposeful conversations.

Talk is the new work. It's a relationship economy out there. And it's not just people who make the difference; it's the interactions between them that count. They are not really cogs in the wheel or levels in the hierarchy any more, but rather - if we don thermal-imaging goggles for a minute - those blobs that glow a bit brighter than the rest. They are pimples on the sociogram, nodes in the network.

Lynda Gratton, one of the UK's leading thinkers on human resources strategy, has made it her business to understand these people. In The Democratic Organisation (2004), we were introduced to Nina, Stewart and Greg, the model citizens of an unfamiliar workplace that looked, pace the Athenian polis, to the "highest and harmonious expansion of individual capacities". In Hot Spots, we meet Amit, Polly, Carlos and Nigel, who create "energy that is palpable, bright and shining". Doubtless, they are supposed to humanise the big-concept narrative; doubtless, we are supposed to identify with them.

But this reader can't help feeling a certain nostalgia for organisation man - who may have been downtrodden and limited but had humility - and drawn to the Rockefellers and Carnegies - who may have been tyrants but were at least fascinating. Node-folk are so self-satisfied, so preeningly co-operative, so insufferably goody-goody and so morally vacuous that the temptation is to pour milk in their calf-leather document wallets, dip their interesting eye-wear in ketchup and perhaps embrace corporate bullying.

We do not have to like them to recognise them, though. They have many loathsome labels - talent, stars, high potentials, the human factor - yet today they are the obsession of all top-performing companies. Hot Spots' important contribution is to move the focus away from both individual and organisation towards relationships - that mysterious alchemy that occurs between people.

Of course, the study of group interaction per se is nothing new. The novelty here is the boundary-less nature of today's work groups and the challenge of forming a sense of community when conventional senses have been ruptured by globalisation. Hot spots supply the energy for exploiting and applying knowledge, for finding new knowledge and for creating value for organisations and excitement for individuals. The book's formula is 'Hot Spot = (Cooperative Mindset x Boundary Spanning x Igniting Purpose) x Productive Capacity'. It is these elements that must cohere if a hot spot is to occur.

It is tempting to think groups work best together if they know each other well and enjoy stability. Yet too great a similarity or outlook and the innovation dries up. "Over time, members of the group become more alike and the people in other groups become more different... Some of the most creative and innovative hot spots are filled with people from very different places with their own separate identities, who have found a way of working with each other."

It is also tempting to think that magic could be created by vision and leadership. Yet, while a uniting purpose is unquestionably important, there are issues of process and practice that help entrench certain types of desirable behaviour and delegitimise others (what Gratton neatly calls "signature processes"). The role of the leader is to ask difficult questions, put commitment into signature processes and create opportunities for boundary-less co-operation. In keeping with the trend in modern organisational theory, the emphasis is on just how limited the levers of power really are. Leaders guide, shape and inspire, but they do not control.

Hot Spots is perhaps a little less substantial than The Democratic Enterprise, but is a worthy companion piece. From both, we sense the rise of a new corporate citizenry, negotiating the tensions inherent in modern work.

Hot Spots: why some companies buzz with energy and innovation - and others don't, Lynda Gratton, FT Prentice Hall, £20, ISBN: 0-27371-146-6.

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