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How my spat with Virgin Media might be indicative of a society of mistrust.

For as long as I can remember I have been a customer of Virgin Media. I have spent a large amount of money on their services. Every so often my bank statement reminds me that I have again drifted into a situation whereby I am paying a monthly charge for those services at a level not dissimilar to a mortgage payment for a two-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Typically, at this point I play the game of threatening to take my business elsewhere and end up entering into a new contract. But what happened this time around has made me stop and think about the underpinning business ethics of this game and how this generates a society of people who mistrust anything other than the community around them.

So to start the game I made the phone call and said I wished to cancel my contract. The call centre operator at ‘Retentions’ said that she could reduce the cost for my services, quoting a monthly charge. This seems reasonable enough to me and so I agreed. It was only when an email came through several days later asking me to electronically sign the contract that I noticed that it was for 18 months and the charge I had been quoted was only for the first six months and would double for the remaining 12 months. I was not prepared to sign this and phoned the company to say so. At this point they told me that I had actually agreed to the contract on the telephone. I was savvy enough to know that I was still in a cooling off period and so ended my relationship with virgin media. That is until I had a phone call from them several days later asking me to negotiate with them about staying with them because they wanted to recognise my great loyalty to the company. I declined to negotiate on the grounds that that loyalty had been one way – me to them – and that the previous negotiations had been carried out in an underhand manner. Apparently, I had previously only been speaking to an inexperienced ‘young girl’ representative but now I was speaking to a very experienced man who had the authority to offer me a great deal!

Now here is the point. I hate bartering. As an honest and ‘heart-on-my-sleeve’ person, it causes me stress. Bartering, to me, implicitly entails an element of underhand behaviour as both parties conceal the extent to which they will concede to the other party. I like to pay the price on the ticket. And I like it when every item has the same ticket price. It is an honest system. The onus is on the seller to price it so that the number of customers who choose to buy optimises profits. Price it too high and I walk away. It is a fair system for a society that embraces an ethic of social equity. Bartering on the other hand embraces an ethic of competition. The fittest in the jungle – the savvy and confident disciples of Martin Lewis – will be able to negotiate a good deal.

However, let’s stop and think about the least fit in the jungle. The elderly of Britain were brought up in simpler times in which everybody paid at the same rate for their telephone, electric and gas usage. What’s more when these services belonged to the people as nationalised companies politicians were accountable for how much people were charged. My parents, now in their mid-80s and living on a limited income, pay far more for their telecommunications services because they still insist on BT providing their landline because they (or their predecessor, the Post Office) have always provided their landline. Now that’s loyalty. But, again that loyalty is one way: from my elderly parents to a large corporate body that abuses that loyalty rather than rewards it. Separately my dad has paid Sky whatever they have demanded for as long as they have been showing football. My elderly parents don’t want to barter with these companies, nor should society expect them to. Yes, to the competitive mindset, that is their choice. But it is also exploitation.

The corporates have demanded that we enter into the competitive arena with them to barter, or else we roll over and get fleeced by them. In that competitive arena they, of course, have far more power than the isolated individual consumer. In my case, they used that power to conceal from me the real terms of the contract they were offering. They made a fool of me and made me angry. Perhaps more significantly the implicit trust between me and this corporate entity was shattered so that when they later came back to me to offer me the opportunity to negotiate a better deal with them, I politely told their representative that I could happily live without them in my life. Of course, I cannot escape from being saddled to another corporate provider of telecommunications services that  will no doubt similarly exploit my loyalty. And nor can most people. But I do put it to you that my experience is perhaps indicative of a society of real people (i.e. not consumers) who have lost trust in anything other than the people they are in everyday community with.

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How Corporate Senior Management Might Invite Major IT Failures

Recent IT failures at British high street banks and telecoms companies have made big headlines because of the impact they have had on the companies’ fortunes and the public at large.  From the messages that the companies give to the media, you might think that such failures are inevitable because of the complexity of the IT systems, and that they will learn any lessons to be learnt!

However, in an account just published in Work, Employment and Society journal, for which I have provided an introduction, an IT professional insider reveals that at one major British company senior managers are acting in a fashion that has the potential for leading to a calamitous IT system failure in the future. As the insider writes in the article, ‘I have a professional interest in managing risk, and all I can say is that the company’s appetite for risk is high’.

So what is it that the management are doing and why does it present a risk to the company?

Well, in common with corporate trends, the organizational management have shifted their outlook away from competing on product or service market terms, and towards competing on capital market terms.  In other words, they have focused upon short-term shareholder value, and in doing so have honed in on labour costs for particular scrutiny as a controllable budget item.  From there it has been a short step towards a decision to outsource the work performed by directly-employed IT professionals to an IT service provider offering to perform the work at less expense.  In this case, the work has been outsourced to an Indian company who are providing their workers to do the work, some travelling to work on Tier 2 work visas to Britain, but most working remotely in India.  The financial argument is that the company gains the benefit of what is known as labour cost arbitrage, i.e. the same work is being done whilst paying less for the ‘same’ labour asset.  The managerial assumption here is clear: the workers are interchangeable.

However, and it is a BIG however, the workers are not the ‘same’ labour asset. The incoming employees of the Indian IT service provider, however well qualified they might be, inevitably lack the expertise of those they are replacing because they haven’t gained the contextual experience working under pressure with the IT system. Through this experience gained over the years of the system’s historical evolution, the IT professionals now being replaced will have collectively acquired what is known as professional inference, i.e. the capability to think and react rapidly in that obscure place between the identification of a major IT incident, its diagnosis and its resolution.

And so I have two questions for you to consider:

  • Can we identify in an individual professional’s account of the outsourcing experience a management blind-spot that invites unnecessary corporate risk?
  • If and when the IT system at this organization crashes big-time, and that necessary professional inference is not at hand to resolve the matter and get the system back up and running before it reaches the news headlines, will the managers who made the decision to outsource the work to a cheaper workforce own up to their mistake?

Personally, I suspect the answers to these questions are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively!

 

This Blog post was written by Dr Clive Trusson, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour at the SBE. The article upon which this blog is based “‘An end to the job as we know it’: how an IT professional has experienced the uncertainty of IT outsourcing” by Clive Trusson and Frankie Woods can be found at http://wes.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/08/03/0950017016656320.abstract

On the death of Nelson Mandela

The name of Nelson Mandela probably came to my consciousness at some point during my youth.  At that time of my life, like so many other teenage miserables, I had a sad habit of pouring forth my angst in the form of highly pretentious poetry.  I have long since weaned myself off such wordplay, but as my tribute to the great man, it seemed somehow appropriate to return to poetry to express my thoughts at this time for reflection. 

 

A fascist-defaced head on the Southbank, as black as black can be.

A defiant face staring in black from a folded  white broadsheet.

Bogeyman, terrorist, gaolbird, ghoul.

Stir him in the pot with the car workers and the commies, the pitmen and the poor.

And cry freedom for diamonds, for fags, vir wit heerskappy,

And rhino whips and bullets from blessed Blighty.

 

And then Hugh Masakala and the Special AKA

And a march to the park to sing and to chant

Free Nelson Mandela, Free Nelson Mandela…

And I ain’t gonna play Sun City neither, so there.

But I’m playing games and I’ve got an orange sticker on my orange Horizon

That’s telling you to boycott Shell.

 

And then….

Well, I go about my business

And I go about my business

And I go about my business some more

And time trots on

And then Madiba trots out.

As powerful and as colourful as the Springbok.

And he greets and he meets

Hypocrisy with love.

 

The Golden Age of Coding and the Rewriting of History

At the weekend the Chancellor of the Exchequer quietly made a novel addition to the list of conservative images of a longed-for idyll Britain of old. To the smiling milkmaids and warm beer of Stanley Baldwin in the Twenties, and the long shadows on county cricket grounds and invincible green suburbs of John Major in the Nineties, so George Osborne has now added ‘the golden age of coding’. He tells of how when he was but a lad on an estate (his family’s not the council’s) he would idle away his days writing computer code, a bit part player in a phenomenon that created ‘an entire generation of gifted British software engineers.’ And how he now longs for those days to return. In his rhetoric he implies that schools were the architects of this national triumph in cutting edge skills development, writing of how the golden age came to an end when schools started to focus during the New Labour years only on how to use software rather than create it.
Well, Little Lord Gideon, I’m very sorry (I’m not!) but that is just historically inaccurate, and I know because I had a front row seat in that golden age of which you write. The computer workers that built Britain’s technological infrastructure were in the main carefully selected and thoroughly trained by the large organizations of the day. The civil service, the nationalised energy companies, local government, the banks, large companies – they all had conveyor-belt programmer training programmes churning out a steady supply of programmers to meet the needs of the day.  The needed programmers weren’t available elsewhere, the labour market was short on supply, and so the large organizations got their act together and trained thousands upon thousands through the Eighties and well into the Nineties. I was one of them, being handpicked in 1989 by internal recruiters at the Inland Revenue for extensive training to be a COBOL programmer and then released into a team of programmers who had gone through similar training before me. There were hundreds of us, coding away into the long small hours in concrete towers in Shropshire. Six years’ later I was running a similar programme in Nottingham, training new recruits carefully selected for programming at Experian, then part of the FTSE listed Great Universal Stores group of companies. This went on right across Britain, right up until the neoliberal bandwagon had thoroughly built up a head of steam within the land. The writing was on the wall when the Inland Revenue outsourced the IT services it provided to tax assessment and collection offices to an American firm, and the end of the Golden Age was confirmed for me when Experian closed the programmer training programme I was running, switching off the conveyor belt of technical skills development that had seen the company grow from a small credit arm of Midland Household Stores to a company that was adjudged strong enough to stand on its own as a FTSE100 company. Of course, Experian still needed skilled workers, but they, along with the banks and the privatised utilities companies, and the specialist IT service companies, no longer felt the need to train up workers. In the neoliberal world of individual responsibility and global labour forces, the training programmes for new coders came to an abrupt halt. In the new world, if you wanted entry into a career in programming, you had nowhere to turn but to formal education. Now, as my research into IT service support workers shows, formal computing qualifications rather than simply aptitude for computing have become the expectation.
George’s golden age of computer programming in schools never existed; the only golden age of computer programming was in industrial and governmental organizations. And now in the collective flexing of neoliberal corporate muscle the old golden age of coding has been pronounced dead. Why trouble corporate budgets by investing in a long-tenured workforce when you can rent one from India and lobby the UK Government to encourage students to spend £27,000 (plus compound interest) of their future earnings on training for fragile employment in an ever-changing world of computing?

Death in the City: A Failure of Human Resource Management?

Earlier this week a gifted 21 year old undergraduate died in London. He had an epileptic fit whilst taking a shower in his temporary accommodation. These facts alone do not constitute a news story worthy of the front page of a national newspaper. And yet, there on the front page of the Financial Times, news of his death is reported in some detail, with commentary elsewhere. For his death is symbolic of a failure of Human Resource Management in companies that promote a neo-liberal agenda that carries an unambiguous ethical code of workforce commoditization into resources to be sweated to their utmost.

You see, Moritz Erhardt, as an intern at the Bank of America who prided himself on his competitiveness, was effectively worked to death. Like a pit pony asked to carry too much coal for too long without recreation, his life ceased – and it should not have. Sure, he may have had freedom of choice to walk away from the demands of what are casually referred to in the City as ‘all-nighters’ (with visions of northern soul dancing at Wigan pier) but the organizational culture he had walked into was not of his making, and those with the most responsibility for that culture should accept culpability for his death. Specifically, questions should be asked of the Human Resource Management director at the Bank of America as to why their employees, whether interns, contractors or permanent staff, are placed into situations where they are pitched competitively against their colleagues and culturally expected to work 100 hour weeks.

Of course, in a neo-liberal economy of dehumanized workforces and a general antipathy to regulation, the hunger for money will continue to trump any stirrings of moral concern evident in the reporting of Mr Erhardt’s death in the financial press. And so we are left with the question: who is to save the next intern from his own competitiveness? One answer is for Britain to adhere to the European Working Time Directive which it opted out of. Another answer is for Human Resource Managers to show some backbone, acknowledge the human frailty of their organizations’ workforces and fight for more humane working cultures.

Whatever the answer, it is not sufficient to accept Mr Erhardt’s death as collateral damage in a macho game that pushes humans beyond the limits of their own competitiveness.

Hurdling and Hustings

It is good to have ambitions at any age.  This morning started with a trip to Harvey Hadden Stadium in Nottingham and my first coaching on how to hurdle – at the age of 49!  A few years ago I joined the vibrant Track and Field movement for what are variously called veterans, masters or just oldies and have since won the Midlands 400 metres gold medal in the over 45’s category.  As a new challenge I recently decided to set myself an ambition of winning a 400 metres hurdles medal in the 2014 British Championships.  Ambition is good for the soul if it does no harm to others.

After my training session I went straight from the track – still wearing my sweat drenched running gear – to a Methodist church hall in Chilwell to participate in that democratic mechanism that is the Labour Party candidate selection hustings.  It was here that my sporting ambition met its political cousin: five ambitious candidates competing for one opportunity to contest the marginal seat of Broxtowe.  It was hot in the room, not enough circulating oxygen to last the 3 hours of speeches, Q and A’s, the inevitable political points of order and the very methodical casting of votes.

It was the second ‘first’ of the day for me.  After hurdling for the first time, now I was deciding on who I wanted to represent the party I had rejoined the day of the Cameron and Clegg kissy-kissy, pat-pat, kissy-kissy, joke-joke, kissy-kissy press conference in the 10 Downing Street rose garden.  Perhaps it was the Romany blood on my mother’s side of the family or perhaps it was just my historical knowledge, but I had a heart-wrenching fear of what was to come and made the decision to once again pledge my allegiance to the Party after a gap in membership of 28 years.  I had never stopped being a socialist, I had just – for the selfish sake of my happiness – avoided the politics of being involved in politics!  And now I was back in the fold…. except I wasn’t really…. I paid my subs – by direct debit, that convenient method of technological anonymity – and, well, that’s it.

But, now on a hot August morning – heading into afternoon, I was ready and willing to make a humble contribution to the necessary fight against neo-liberal Goldman Sachsism.  The five candidates each spoke for 5 minutes explaining why they should be the Labour candidate to take on the Tory incumbent of the parliamentary seat of Broxtowe on the edge of Nottingham.  I can’t bring myself to type her name and it is best that I refer to her as  She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (SWSNBN) a.k.a. Nick O’Teen’s best mate, always ready to oblige the Old Etonians’ new favourite Aussie, Lynton Crosby.

For all the good manners and polite applause, it seemed clear to me (as effectively an outsider of the local party scene) that this was a battle between two very strong candidates: the former MP, Nick Palmer and the born-and-bred candidate, Greg Marshall.

Apart from a couple of vote-for-me leaflets I didn’t know Greg, but, having been a local school governor myself and with my two children going to the local Chilwell School, his involvement in that school’s governing body spoke to me of local commitment (although I have had cause to raise issues about the school’s tendency to unthinkingly discriminate against children from poorer families, but that is for another day!).

As my previous MP my understanding about Nick and his views was more substantial. Several years ago he had contacted an Education minister on a matter of unfairness  that had affected my wife. (The Minister confirmed that it was indeed unfair – but hey, ho isn’t life!)  Having replied to a personal email asking for my support, I had replied saying that I thought he had the best chance of beating SWSNBN and I would be attending the hustings and voting for the person who I then thought had the best chance of winning the seat.  So I have to say I was somewhat irked by being contacted by telephone by somebody on his behalf during the campaign to firm up my vote for him.  It smelt of the politics of politicking that had kept me at arm’s length from the Party all my adult life.

But nonetheless, I attended with an open mind, willing to be persuaded as to who would be able to win the seat.  I was letting my pragmatism govern my heart.  But at the hustings I realised that if I was going to be an angry middle-aged man then, letting SWSNBN have power over what I really cried out for, was plain and simply an act of stupidity.  Nick was articulate and thoughtful, and as considerate and artfully humble as ever.  He is well known in the constituency and wouldn’t scare those constituents who wept for the loss of their own aspirational vigour on the day that Thatcher died.  But he looked a tad worried about not winning.  In contrast Greg was charismatic and passionate about the Broxtowe constituency.  And above all he was smart and quick with his answers.  I allowed my heart to be swayed and voted Greg as my first choice, with Nick as my second choice.

Nick Palmer won the vote and he will be a strong candidate that with a fair wind and some smart national as well as local campaigning can help Broxtowe see the back of SWSNBN.  The 400m hurdles race is a fair analogy to make.  She – backed by the Ashcroft millions and the Old Etonian millionaires – will no doubt compete ferociously.  Both will have multiple hurdles to overcome in the race.  And I shall be doing what I can to encourage Nick over the line so that when I watch Parliamentary TV coverage I no longer have to see her pretentious posturing on the back row of the Commons during PMQs, or her fine impression of a Bullingdon Poodle when called to the Dispatch Box to take the flak whilst that smiling dangerous idiot Jeremy Hunt hides away with his latest dodgy SPAD in a private health lobbyist’s office.  As I wrote at the top of this article ambition is good for the soul if it does no harm to others.  Well, as a junior health minister doing the bidding of cancer merchants, the political ambition of SWSNBN is being pursued at the expense of children yet to face the temptations of Nick O’Teen.

So, go on Nick Palmer, shoulders back, high knee lift, plenty of effort and dip for the line! And as for Greg Marshall, well, thank you for restoring my faith in socialism as the art of the possible. My historical hero, George Lansbury would have been proud of you.  I’m confident that the local party has made a good choice of candidate but I do feel a little sad for Greg and hope that he gets the chance his ambition and talent deserves.

Oh, and I hope to win that 400m hurdles over 50’s medal too!  Might not be a gold, but I’ll be engaging my ambition gene to the max!

A Child is Born and the People (Must) Rejoice!

Last week my friends Lenka and Natalio had a baby boy at the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham.  I was happy for them and joined with them in contemplating what the future held for this babe in arms.  This week brought news of the birth of a child into a different family who may one day become the king of England, Scotland and all number of political regions on planet Earth. The 24 hour rolling news and the newspapers pronounced this to be an immensely historical occasion as they continuously informed us of incredulously tangential facts.  The placing of a golden easle on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace became news in itself when a miscommunication resulted in a belief amongst some of the global media that the announcement of the birth of this royal child would be delivered by an eagle. Well, given London’s association with Harry Potter and his communicating owl, this seems perfectly reasonable: obviously English muggle royalty must use regal eagles rather than owls.   But, what a palaver over a series of perfectly natural bodily actions: the conception last autumn, the morning sickness, the internal growth of a foetus and its transformation into a child as it emerges from its mother’s womb.

But for all the time filling there was no time for those questions to be asked that the Establishment did not want being asked.  There was in effect a conspiracy of silence orchestrated by those whose ends are served by the whipping up of public hysteria about an everyday occurrence.  Simply put a child was born but as if to separate this royal birth from any other, the official announcement on the special golden easle read that ‘Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at 4.24pm today.’  My friend Lenka sent us a text to say she had had a boy.  Nothing about being safely delivered of a son. We just assumed that!

In a recent paper I co-wrote[1], the perpetuation of a dominant discourse was held to serve the vested interests of a power elite who determine the agenda of that discourse.   Any views that run counter to those prevailing within the dominant discourse are either ignored or casually brushed aside by the force of the dominant discourse.  This royal birth epitomises this process.  The message given to us is that we are being mean-spirited if we do not join in the national or even international rejoicing.  It seems that we are all expected to jump for joy for as long as it takes for all the news to be fed to us until the heatwave and thunderstorms subside… or at least until the child perfectly naturally develops the capability to put one foot in front of the other, at which point we might start jumping for joy all over again.  What’s more it seems that the BBC expect us to be in awe of vox-pop royalists who dropped what they were doing and transported their small children into Central London at their bedtime so that they might stand around for hours in front of a big iron fence that both physically and metaphorically separated them as plebeians from an elite whose rulership over them dates back in time to when familial power derived more simply from political cunning and physical force.  If parents on social housing estates don’t have their children tucked up in bed by sunset they might rightly expect a knock on the door from social services. So where was the BBC question: Shouldn’t you be getting your children to bed?

The royal narrative portrayed by the media at large is of charitable giving, not tax-dodging, and of brave military service, not corrupt financial self-service.  We should be under no illusions that the counter-voices have been silenced by political power and that this resultant lack of diversity of political opinion has implications for our social democracy.  How can we expect the power elite with the nation’s wealth in their bank accounts to pay for good schools and hospitals when we acknowledge our social inferiority by prostrating ourselves before human cult idols be they of royal, sporting, showbiz or even business fame!  Whether it is the multi-millionaire chanteuse Adele complaining about her tax bill, or footballing-hero Wayne Rooney being paid into offshore accounts,  or Google Boss Eric Schmidt being ‘perplexed’ about the debate on his company’s aggressive tax avoidance policies, or the Duchy of Cornwall’s tax exemption arrangements on its profits from property ownership, by metaphorically doffing our caps we are effectively self-harming.  Because we accept the argument that they are special in some way we send them the message that we deserve to be treated as inferior beings.  And as inferior beings we shouldn’t really expect them to share any of their wealth with us even if the source of that wealth might be traced back to us.

William Wales seems like a decent bloke who must surely despair at the privatisation of the air rescue service.  He and Mrs Wales seem to be a happily married couple (unlike his parents).  They now have a baby.  Fantastic.  But, for me, much more fantastic is Lenka and Natalio having a baby who I shall not be separated from by the limitations of my social status.  What is more I know that they, through their contribution to the UK exchequer, paid for the training of the midwives and doctors who not only served them in the NHS but also those, like the royals, who can and do choose to use the private sector, promoting its agenda in doing so.


[1] Trusson, C.R, Doherty, N.F. and Hislop, D (2013) Knowledge sharing using IT service management tools: conflicting discourses and incompatible practices, Information Systems Journal, DOI: 10.1111/isj.12025