UK: A classical approach to the problems of society. (1 of 2)

UK: A classical approach to the problems of society. (1 of 2) - "Riding the Whirlwind" by Peter Benton (Blackwell, 214 pages, £16.95).

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"Riding the Whirlwind" by Peter Benton (Blackwell, 214 pages, £16.95).

Review by Bob Garratt.

Peter Benton wants us to learn from the past and understand the present in order to help us cope with an increasingly turbulent future. His book is interesting about the past, pragmatic on the present and rather weak on the turbulent future. The weakness is unfortunately increased by the fact that the book is written in language which many managers might find difficult to follow. Since a counterpoint to the text is a concern about the pressures of time, there is something of a structural paradox here.

The co-ordinates which Benton uses to steer his course include the Greek and Latin classics, Erasmus and Luther, Generals Slim and Templer, Whyte's "The Organisation Man" and Galbraith's "The Affluent Society", among others. All the way through the historical analyses, present axioms and future prescriptions his sympathies are with a Fabian preference for avoiding (or delaying) unnecessary battles. He prefers Erasmus's style of creating political cover for innovation to Luther's head-on attack on convention.

The literary quotations proclaim an underlying belief in the benefits of a good general education. Benton has "confidence that the personal interests of soundly educated men and women will add up to the best interests of society as a whole". This is highly debatable. I am not sure whether he is arguing that the few remaining liberally educated people should take on the mantle of an elite, or whether he is sadly out of touch with the present system of education.

If the former, then this sits strangely with his constant theme that "freedom was wonderfully resilient once the individual grew confident of his own ability". If the latter, then I can assure him that things are worse than he realises. Recently I was working with a group of 13 senior bankers. I asked them to describe how they were feeling at the time, using no more than six adjectives. Eight of them did not know what an adjective was. What they will make of the Brownian motion of quotes at the beginning of the book I shudder to think.

The second part, on turbulence, is slightly odd. For someone who has worked with British Telecom, Britain's largest high-tech employer, Benton is surprisingly untouched by the current interest of mathematicians and physicists in turbulence and chaos, let alone the joys and relevance of such delights as fractals. Nor are any strong connections made between these, the subject of the book, and emerging management theories for the 21st century. Computers as an enabling technology for the communication of information get short shrift here. The global transferability of information via such an organisation as BT might actually be a cause of current turbulence in the political, social, economic and organisation worlds.

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