Schumpeter on the Art of Management

My ex-City coursemate Michael Braga shares with me a love of The Economist newspaper that must be very unusual among writers — many of whom probably consider its readers as the evil spawn of the global capital machine. I must admit I often disagree with its often over-opinionated editorial stance but it’s an unfailingly fascinating publication. Almost every time I pick it up I find half a dozen immensely fascinating articles — not just on current affairs or business but it has superbly concise science section (where Dr Olivia Judson used to write some superb articles on evolutionary biology that might have started my interest in this subject) and a similarly focused arts sections which features some great book reviews (including novels).

The Economist is also exceptionally well-written — much better than any daily newspaper or other weekly magazine, publishing its own style guide. It ought to be a good example to fiction writers.

So when I came across an article in last week’s edition, written by the business columnist, Schumpeter (no bylines are allowed), titled ‘The art of management: why business has a lot to learn from the arts’, I was intrigued.  It starts by complaining that the liberal arts world really doesn’t understand business and often misrepresents it by caricature (e.g. ‘Wall Street’). However, it soon moves on to castigate the philistinism and macho-aggression of the corporate world — there’s even a popular management book called ‘A Good Hard Kick in the Ass: the Real Rules for Business‘ — written, naturally, by an ex-marine.

Schumpeter argues that this culture results in poor communication, dysfunctional attitudes to risk and the stifling of creativity — failings that corporations are constantly trying to argue they have overcome (partly through spending vast amounts of money on snake-oil management training programmes — the kind of ‘put on a blue hat and you’ll be creative’ or if you ban people from frowning then the workplace will become more productive). Instead of wasting money on pseudo-scientific brainwashing the article sensibly suggests that a study or appreciation of the arts might suggest better solutions to these issues.

The article concludes by saying that, if business can learn from the arts, then in return perhaps artists should also take business more seriously and calls for writers, among others, to be more subtle in their examination of commerce — which it calls a central part of human experience.

I thought that sounded quite reasonable and while this might be a potential gap in the market for fiction that might be readily identifiable, it’s uncanny how I might have unconsciously constructed myself a CV that qualifies me to write in this sort of genre. As I wrote in a comment on the article on the web site, I’m originally an arts graduate but also have an MBA and I’ve often thought there are many parallels between the arts (communication, motivation, psychology and so on) and business than the syllabuses of business schools care to admit (perhaps to boost their pseudo-scientific credentials).

I realised that I’ve also tended to gravitate towards roles in business that have played to my ability to put a few half-decent paragraphs down on paper or a word-processor — and it’s a constant source of amazement how poor are many of the most successful business types at expressing themselves with the written word. (An interesting hypothesis about business’s uneasy relationship with the arts might explore whether this is borne out of personal frustration and resentment at individuals’ own shortcomings.)

So it’s almost a logical extension that I’m now taking this a step further and have now spent more time on creative writing courses than I did on my MBA — which is now in the process of being complemented by an MA in Creative Writing.

And, Schumpeter would be pleased to learn, that this is exactly what I’ve been doing myself with The Angel which starts with exactly the premise that’s explored in the article — as it takes a City trader and explores his latent ambition to learn more from the arts. Its central premise is the relationship between business and the arts — both in the background of the two central characters and in the plot, one strand of which is all about the pair or them setting up and running a business. While it’s a comedy, hopefully I can make this a subtle enough examination on the page to redress the current balance a little.

The Naked Office

I was doing some ‘research’ today which involved sneaking in the back door of my local pub when it was officially closed up for the afternoon — the landlord had previously told me he’d be staying open all afternoon and he must have felt guilty when I turned up at 4.30pm with the doors shut. So I hung around in there for a quick pint — then had to stay for a couple more when it started raining outside — while he counted up his takings and watched some mindnumbingly sensational programme on Virgin TV on his Freeview TV about car crashes and people falling off motorbikes.

There was a bizarre trailer during the advert breaks about a programme that seemed so ludicrous and prurient it could only ever appear on such an obscure channel — ‘The Naked Office’. It appeared to feature people taking their clothes off in their offices but you couldn’t tell if they actually did because as the trailer was shown at 5pm then Virgin put big labels over any potentially controversial body parts.

I happened to be flicking through the TV guide tonight and came across the actual programme on Virgin+1. I was amazed to see that the programme was being positioned as some sort of business psychology programme rather than the peep show that most viewers no doubt expected. There was some ‘expert’ on who made the specious argument that if office workers stripped off naked for a day then they would be more open and it would ‘enhance communication’. This is the kind of HR bollocks that I’m interested in for ‘The Angel’ — the sort of unquestioning, controlling mentality that assumes people can be coerced into abandoning all dignity just by a few uplifting words from a motivational speaker.

Of course, these same HR consultants are no doubt the people who would come down mercilessly on any sexual harassment in the workplace and, thinking about the Peter Kay John Smiths advert mentioned in a post below, I can think of a very obvious practical reason why ‘The Naked Office’ will find its male participants quite reluctant to join in.

No fear, the whole programme was one flaccid non-event. In the end no-one got naked — a few of them paraded for about ten seconds in their underwear, long enough to display their array of tattoos, but no more titillating than one would see at the beach or swimming pool.

The programme was utter crap but a source of ideas for the novel and I’m wondering whether Emma should do a ‘let’s go naked Friday’. While on this programme the expert sensibly stayed fully clothed, I wonder if Emma might cause no end of tension if she suggested to James that she had to take the lead by stripping off in a copycat event that she might quite innocently organise — she’s going to be into crystals and mysticism anyway.

Charlie Brooker completely skewered an earlier edition of the programme in one of his better reviews in the Guardian.