I was one of a few lucky people to meet Professor Charles Handy at the RSA event recently. My love affair with Handy’s work goes back as far as 1987, when I first encountered him via his first book “Understanding Organisations” and then through my involvement as an MBA tutor and Alumni conference organiser with The Open University Business School. Since then, I’ve met Charles a few times at events I’ve hosted and socially. He kindly gave me a personal affiliation for my first book and this is something I have never forgotten – a great honour. Here are some of my personal reflections on Charles’ wonderful talk:

Reinvention and Resilience

Handy talked about his new book “The Second Curve” and the idea of the second curve, which he introduced us to some years ago when he wrote “The Empty Raincoat”, through the story of “Davy’s Bar”. He reminded us that what stops individuals and organisations from reinventing themselves is the fact that everytime you start anew, there is a period when losses occur in transition The ellipse between the curves. This is particularly difficult for companies with shareholders, who expect a steady upward return on their investment. HR’s job is very much to help manage these ellipses.

Handy on Managerialism

Handy talked passionately about the 1970’s tipping point for MBA’s when Milton Friedman wrote his article in The New York Times, where he stated that the primary role of a business was to make money for its shareholders. This was followed by Agency Theory in 1976 which completed the volte face from the more humanistic outlook on the purpose of businesses. Managerialism has probably informed the last 40 years of corporate development in leading business schools. Charles Handy, Tom Peters and I are united in our complete disagreement with Milton Friedman et al. If you look after the people, the profits look after themselves. This is akin to what is now viewed in some circles as the “quaint” outlook of Quaker based companies such as Cadbury, Pilkington and Johnson and Johnson, companies like Merck who stated: “Do good work and the profits will come”. HR sets the tone for organisation culture and this presents an opportunity for anyone in HR to take the lead.

Reinventing Education

Handy talked passionately about the need to reinvent education, pointing out that the world’s knowledge is now on display for most of us to see. Education still requires us to “upload knowledge” and then “download” it onto an exam paper. The real job of education is to prepare young people to use knowledge and to teach them to collaborate and co-operate in a changing world. Handy’s thoughts align very much with my own and those of Sir Ken Robinson which I’ve written about in my new book for Bloomsbury “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”. 

Reinventing work

Handy talked of the decline and fall of large corporations, to be replaced by networks where people exchange their skills and traded their time in rather different ways than we do at present. This is a world I’ve inhabited for 21 years more or less since he coined the phrase “portfolio worker”. I also know it is not a world that many people wish to inhabit, given the various uncertainties that surround this way of working.

Reinventing society

Handy wisely observed that we will need to reinvent society if we are to face a more connected world and look after it in ways that will ensure our longevity. On politics, he had this to say:

“Most politicians know what to do in order to make society better. But none of them have worked out how to get re-elected after they’ve done it”

Wise words, succinctly put – the work of a master.

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