“I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.”
Ivan Karamazov, in “The Brothers Karamazov” (Dostoevsky)
Tired of institutional guff and the king’s ransom charged to support creaking bureaucracy and self-serving interests, over four years ago I handed back my ticket of admission. I decided to take all the time I gave to speaking with people from the same discipline who (albeit unconsciously) reinforced my prejudices, and instead to meet those from other pursuits who I hoped would open my mind instead. Experimentally, I kind of went “open source”, to use social tools to build networks outside those expected without needing a membership badge.
It was probably the best thing I ever did professionally. Whether through the Tuttle Club, Centre for Creative Collaboration, ConnectingHR or events like those in Social Media Week I met and made friends with some of the most inspiring and razor-sharp people imaginable.
Having got off my arse and explored, I even implored workplace/property and HR to get closer, as with this post in October 2011. So I have been trying to understand why – when the CIPD and BIFM this week announced that they were dating, and the people danced – I felt a little uneasy. Wasn’t this what I wanted?
Of course, it has considerable promise, and I fully respect the intentions, energy and vision of those involved. It would be a rare type who would suggest that a greater dialogue would be a “bad thing”, and who would not wish to be in the tent (as Simon Heath puts it). There were however, while supporting the move in principle, two causes of my discomfort.
The first is the (unintended, I am sure) emerging collective pressure to be seen to be supportive, positive, constructive. The great thing about the previous years’ adventure has been finding the confidence to express a dissenting or contrary view where I have felt strongly, or felt that it needs to be said and no-one else is saying it. I retain my resolve not to be bandwagoned by all of this. If it starts blowing guff, I won’t be shy in saying so. Otherwise I may as well give up the blog and go and “drive the taxi”.
It’s uncanny – and scary – how institutions (which are in themselves simply composites of people) seem able only to take institutional steps, and are able to instantly enshrine a well-intentioned proposition only in familiar elitist constructs. It’s the same thread as how people change when they walk through the revolving door – talking in a different language, behaving in different ways towards one another. The fledgling relationship has promised joint research projects, and roundtable discussions with “leading thinkers” (whoever determines who they are?) from both sides. Consultants will be engaged and paid. I can sense the good folk of groups like Unwired loading a new typrewriter ribbon for the proposal. There will be a bunfight for a seat at the table, and egos will be at once pumped and deflated. The first session will even be under Chatham House Rules, which flies in the face of the openness that conceived it.
There is a corporate pattern.
The immediate and individual relationships that had begun to form a web – without labels and self-imposed silos, being sown at a human level and that had no need of the heavy footsteps of the behemoths – have suddenly by this dialogue been collectivised. Why do we always seem to feel the need to “take it to the next level”, formalise it, structure it, proclaim it a movement, name it (Beyond the Workplace #btw), before we have let it play out to see where it might have led on its own, ungoverned, free? It may not yet have had an agenda, but that may just be because it hasn’t needed one.
So – that’s my discomfort: the loss of innocence that this represents.
By proclaiming a need to break down silos we actually create a risk of awakening or reinforcing a consciousness of those silos that our low-level activity had started to erode. By announcing the engagement, we risk placing all pre-existing relationships, initiatives and interactions within an institutional frame of reference against which our actions and collaborations will be judged.
I am a great believer that genuine learning happens at the fringes, the places that institutions cannot tread – not in round table discussions or research reports. The CIPD and BIFM have stumbled across a campfire. The embers are smouldering – something fascinating has been happening, those involved must have been here recently – but they’re gone. So the giants are readying to set up camp, clear the area, mark out the territory and wheel up the industrial kitchens. I’ll probably stay for lunch. Foraging is a challenge, after all. But I doubt I will discover the really fascinating stuff with all this commotion…. and the tour bus will never get across the ford.
We need to ask Ivan’s question: is the price of harmony too high? We should think it through.