UK: SHAKE OFF THE PAST'S SHACKLES. - Charles Handy, Britain's best known management thinker, and author of a long list of bestselling titles, reflects upon the German experience, and lessons for both Germany and the UK.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy, Britain's best known management thinker, and author of a long list of bestselling titles, reflects upon the German experience, and lessons for both Germany and the UK.

The New Germans

By Giles Radice

Michael Joseph; 235pp: £16.50

The real British disease, I often think, is a tendency to let our past get in the way of our future. We cling, too long, to old ways, to institutions which have outlived their usefulness, to products prolonged beyond their life-cycle and to stereotypes of other peoples and businesses which are long out of date. Hankering after a world that has gone, clinging to what we proudly call tradition, we often ignore a new reality until it is too late.

A learning organisation, or learning society for that matter, is one that acknowledges its past, even honours it, but which moves on from there to new beginnings.

Fifty years ago in May, Britain celebrated the victorious end of a dreadful war. Germany lay defeated, its people scattered, shattered and demoralised. Today it is undoubtedly the Germans who have succeeded in putting that past behind them. It is, of course, easier to move on to a different future after failure than after success, but unless the successful can also put their past achievements behind them, that success will be a bar to any further progress. It would be sad if the only way forward for our businesses, and for Britain as a whole, were to court disaster in order to learn how to do things differently.

It is understandable, however, that there should be, still, a certain nostalgia for the war in parts of Britain, because it was our last great act as a major power. When that nostalgia is accompanied by a continuing distrust of Germany and things German, then our past is truly getting in the way of our future.

Germany is now our largest trading partner, with 14% of our total trade. It is also the dominant economic force in the European Union. Besides, the new Germans, Giles Radice argues persuasively, are different. We would do well to cast our stereotypes aside and see them as they really are.

The Germans were greatly helped, of course, by the constitution and the institutions which the victorious Allies imposed on them: a written constitution with a Bill of Rights, federalism (or 16 countries in one), an independent central bank, industry unions and an army restricted to defence. Such things we denied ourselves, and still do, in spite of all the evidence that they work rather well in Germany.

More important than the specifics of the institutions, however, were the attitudes of most of those new Germans and their inherent determination to build a new nation for a new world. Their challenge, now, is to do the same trick again: that is to leave their recent successful past behind and move to another stage.

It is important to all of us that they succeed, because, like it or not, Germany is the engine of Europe. As Radice explains so well, it will not be easy. There is the burden of the Ossis, the old East Germany. Chancellor Kohl was right, Radice says, and courageous, to seize the historic moment and re-unite the two Germanies.

But he grossly underestimated the cost, or, at any rate, concealed it from his countrymen at a time when they would have been prepared to pay to redeem the past. Now many are not so sure. 'If my parents' generation wanted to buy an underdeveloped country', one young businesswoman said to me, 'why did they have to buy this one?' German determination should solve this problem, given 10 more years, Radice feels. They may find it more difficult to get rid of the burden of their economic and business success of the last 50 years. 'German managers', one of them said to me recently, 'think of organisations as machines, because so many of us are engineers, and the assumption has worked well for us in the past. Our minds tell us that this must now change, that organisations have to be networks, but our hearts find it hard to follow our minds.' They now have to do what Britain has mostly failed to do: they must leave their past success behind them, change and move on to meet new challenges.

Entrepreneuring, self-employment, personal services and the opportunities of the information age are all still parts of an alien landscape to most Germans. The dual system of vocational study, much lauded by others, may now be a way of trapping the young in an outdated past.

A paternalistic financial system may be too risk averse, or too complacent, to cope with the new business futures. Radice, however, is cautiously optimistic that the new Germans will succeed in changing, and his book explains why. The new Germans, he believes, particularly those at the front end of politics and business, want to build a new, responsible and internationally respectable Germany. They also know what needs to be done to achieve it. Understanding, acceptance and resolve - these are always the first essentials of any organisational change.

Short, compulsively readable and full of personal anecdote, Radice's book takes you behind the numbers and the old stereotypes to the heart of a people on the brink of a major change in their way of living and working. He sets business in a cultural context, which is where it belongs, because unless that context encourages change, business can do little.

There is a lot to learn from this book, not only about the new Germans but about ourselves, and what we must do to reach the levels of understanding, acceptance and resolve which will ensure our own future.

The top ten business hardbacks

1 The State We're In

By Will Hutton

Cape; 352pp; £16.99

2 Being Digital

By Nicholas Negroponte

Hodder; 243pp; £12.99

3 Re-Engineering management

By James Champy

HarperCollins; 256pp; £17.99

4 The Naked Manager for the Nineties

By Robert Heller

Little, Brown; 390pp; £17.50

5 The Warren Buffet Way

By Robert G Hagstrom

Wiley; 288pp; £17.95

6 Riding the Business Cycle

By William Houston

Little, Brown; 304pp; £17.50

7 The Leader in You

By Dale Carnegie

Simon & Schuster; 288pp; £16.99

8 All Together Now

By John Harvey-Jones

Heinemann; 211pp; £15

9 Reengineering the corporation

By Michael Hammer & James Champy

Nicholas Brealey; 223pp; £16.99

10 Sid's Heroes

By Sid Joynson & Andrew Forrester

BBC Books; 192pp; £12.99

Compiled by Bookwatch.

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