Age of Discontinuity and the Chinese Shi


Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live   

                                                                               – Mary Catherine Bateson, 1990.

 The other day, I sat leafing through the yellowing pages of that half a century old Peter Drucker classic, ‘The Age of Discontinuity’. This book never ceases to amaze me at the prescient feeling it can generate even after so many decades. Drucker of course could not have envisioned the internet and today’s information flows but his book does ask the question, “As technology becomes ubiquitous, how would we need to cope?” He also challenged us “to be prepared for the complexities”. Big discontinuities that he saw so many years back……. as yet unresolved.

Since the dawn of history, Mankind has experienced discontinuities brought in by adoption of learnt skills and technology. As the first human learnt how to seed and grow plants, Mankind did a makeover from a wandering lifestyle to that of settlers on land. Then with the successive arrivals of the steam engine and electricity, the agrarian lifestyle started morphing into industrial clusters and an associated urban way of life.

And so has been the cycle. A periodic massive disruption of the way we live, the way we work, the way we trade, all leading to a discontinuity. But always, Mankind returned back to stability. Adjusting back into the equilibrium of a new socio-economic format, till the next bout of discontinuity.

But methinks we now have reached a different arena. A space and time where technologies are no longer stabilizing. If at all, they seem to be changing at a faster and faster pace. One needs to just see what is happening to computing, information and communication to appreciate this.

As I reflect, I am left wondering if we are facing the mother of all discontinuities, a shift to a world without stability. A world in which extreme social and economic disruptions become the norm. Be it the ongoing financial turmoil in the global markets. Be it increasing volatility in commodity prices. Be it companies losing out their leadership positions at an increasing rate. Be it product life cycles becoming shorter and shorter. I wonder if these indeed be the symptoms of a world becoming increasingly unstable.

So how do we, the individuals, cope with such constant discontinuities and loss of stability? Wired as we are to cherish stability and continuity in life, how do we retain our balance and sanity?

I think of the Chinese concept of Shi. Simply put it signifies a propensity based on situation. So whenever there is the propensity to play out to an extreme, there also occurs the tendency to self correct and reverse course. And herein lies the magic of Shi- embodying the spirit of dancing in the moment.

Shi is a belief. It promotes lightness and a dynamic view of our world. In Shi, everything is in a state of becoming. So as we focus on the flows and the lightness of the moment, we lose our obsession with discrete people, objects or situations. Shi allows a holistic appreciation of the complex webs of relationships among people, objects and the broader environment.

In a world fast losing traditional reference points, the future may well belong to those who adopt a Shi mindset. Those who embrace the lightness of relationships and flows rather than the heaviness of resource ownership. I believe it would be these ‘dancers of the moment’ who would lead the world in this era of uncertainty and discontinuity.

Acknowledgements:

1  The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to our changing society

by Peter F Drucker,1969.

2.   The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China

by Francois Julien,1999.

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What if……..


If thought is the fabric from which reality is made, then faith and intention become the mechanisms by which we focus and project thought.

                                                                                                              – Anonymous

What if we were spirits, balls of energy?  What if prior to being born, we could choose the Men and Women who would conceive us and help us with our values and beliefs? What if we could meet up with all the other spirits who would also be born to play enabling roles in our future life? What if we could choose our destiny?

What if…..

Grounded back to our reality, we see “What if….” as the yearnings of a meandering soul. Or a delusionary dream that needs to be closeted in the attics of our minds. But what if we did carry a master blueprint containing all our yearnings somewhere in our DNAs? Or what if the dream did have moorings in our wakefulness?

I see two pathways. One arising out of faith and the other from our intention. Which path to follow becomes our choice.

Our faith leads us to the realms of spirituality .We conjecture that situations do not happen randomly nor people come into our lives by chance. As we move through this maze of situations and people, we can choose to see our life journey as a blueprint ordained by a higher purpose. With this choice comes the realisation that the reason we are here is to heal our beliefs, learn from them and not to master and forcibly change them. Such a perspective does allow us to make peace with areas of our life which we find confusing and out of control.

But were we to move on the pathway of intention, we can choose to see our life as something we create and are responsible for. This becomes the essence. As we step out with positive intentions to make a choice, we start understanding the underlying reasons why we fail to do so on many occasions.

I get reminded of that wonderful Arbinger Institute publication, “Leadership and Self Deception: Getting out of the box”. While the book focuses on leadership in the organisational context, its argument applies in our life situation too. The book states that people respond to “how we feel about them” and not because “how we treat them.” Let us halt here and absorb the import of what is being said. “Feeling inside” has far greater impact than “action outside.” The genuineness, or otherwise, of what our true feelings or thoughts are, seeps out irrespective how or what we show on the outside.

We “get into the box” as we allow our lives to be dominated by our insecurities and start projecting our failures on to others to try and protect ourselves from our own reality. This then becomes our strategy of self deception and “keeps us trapped inside the box”, away from the truth of our attitude towards others and its crippling impact on our relationships.

As an example, if you are in an abusive relationship, this could be due to your belief that you are unloved. If you believe you are unlovable, you will attract those ‘into the box” who can help you to demonstrate this belief because you have it, not because it is the truth. Abuse is one way that this belief can be played out.

But intention does allow us to choose to become the observer of our beliefs and changing them once they are no longer working for us. And as we change ourselves inside, what we attract on the outside also changes. And this becomes our pathway to move “out of the box.”

So, do we move on the faith path as we reconcile and make peace with our troubling beliefs and other aspects of life? Or do we follow our intentions as we face failure and turbulence in our efforts to implant new beliefs and a life change?

What if….. we could make this choice?

In Learning………                                                                                                  Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement:

* Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box – An Arbinger Institute publication, 2008.

Not so elementary, my dear Watson!


“Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.”

                                                                                                        Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1862

 Awhile back, I had been intrigued to read about IBM’s artificial intelligence (AE) named Watson competing in the Quiz show Jeopardy and beating two of Jeopardy’s record holding champions at their own game! It made me realise the extent to which AE development has been able to close in on to the human mind in terms of sifting through and analysing information to reach a correct decision. IBM’s Watson has clearly graduated from the realm of data crunching to become a possessor of knowledge.

Since the dawn of civilisation, Man has sought knowledge. Knowledge to alleviate hardships, to control the environment, to predict outcomes. Knowledge became a source of power and this manifested itself throughout history. Be it through intrigue, technology or the Brahmin rituals. Through millennia and centuries, such a belief only got reinforced.

As individuals, we develop our knowledge by linking it to other knowledge bases. But our belief in our own knowledge is not for knowledge sake but the power we derive from it. Be it in our personal or professional lives. Our inner fears of loss of power or relevance make us resist any changes in our knowledge structure. Eve though deep down we do realise that like all else, there can be no permanence; change in one aspect can shift the entire knowledge structure and its relevance.

But knowledge to be useful has to move away from being mere information. Especially as we face an exponential overload of information. Raw, disjointed data streaming in from all over. And as we grapple with this information avalanche, we have no time to reflect, analyse and produce usable knowledge.

It was only in the last century that we witnessed a formal acknowledgement of what has come to be known as “knowledge work”. And in 1959, Peter Drucker coined “Knowledge worker” as someone who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

So how do I see knowledge trending? As organisations have sailed into this century, business leaders have believed in the mantra of investing in technology and knowledge workers. But they also continue to hold the belief that for goals to be achieved there needs to be a control over the work activity and process flow. But this clashes with the loose and unstructured environment that the knowledge worker seeks.

And then there is the deeper issue of a radically changing workplace. As chip based machines take over structured and repetitive activities, the less skilled workers increasingly take on “knowledge worker-like” qualities. Be it book-keepers, clerks or factory floor workers. In essence, more and more workers are learning to manipulate and use knowledge in a decentralised and flat manner.

The twenty first century workplace demands knowledge through unhindered access to information not only within the organisation but by connecting to diverse, outside sources. But does this not run contrary to our age old belief that to retain power, we need to keep the individual in a silo, fed with only ‘need to know” information and expertise? Clearly a significant perspective shift is warranted in our business leaders to be able to accept a radically different information flow and power structure.

And this I would term as our knowledge quandary.

As workers, we need and demand more and more instant access to information from all over. As individuals, we have less and less time to mull over and process the veritable deluge of information coming at us. As leaders and managers, we like to retain power by restricting information and knowledge flows on a “need to know” basis. As we hold onto these power bases using outdated knowledge. And in the midst of all this, now queering the pitch is Watson and artificial intelligence coming centre stage. Truly a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes and he would have doubtlessly remarked, “Not so elementary, my dear Watson!”

And what do I envision going forward? Do I see the “power of knowledge’ pendulum swinging wildly between the individual and the corporation? As the former uses unfettered knowledge for empowerment? And as the latter fights to retain control through use of Watson to aggrandise and analyse information, convert to knowledge and take decisions? And what if Watson were to evolve and “learn” to the point that he cracks the last human stronghold of intuition and creativity?

In Learning……………..                                                                                  Shakti Ghosal

QE1, QE2, QE3……………..QEn.


” There’s no disaster that can’t become a blessing, and no blessing that can’t become a disaster.”  Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I have never failed to notice one common thread in most Hollywood disaster movies. Of a precursor to the main event whose significance is lost to all except the protagonist. And how, when the latter tries to convince the authorities about the impending cataclysm, he is ridiculed. Till it is too late.

So in Independence Day, when David Levinson discovers a signal within a signal which is counting down to the Doomsday attack of the aliens, most of Mankind prefers to think of the event as the path to Deliverance. And in Day after Tomorrow, when the paleoclimatologist Jack Hall presents clinching evidence on global warming at a United Nations conference, diplomats are unconvinced. Interestingly the audience, sitting on the seat edge comprehends the emerging situation with the main guy and one tends to leave the theatre wondering at the woodenness and ‘stuck in the groove’ mindset of the powers that be in the movie.

As I sat reading a piece on the global economic situation the other day, one aspect caught my attention.  Of how more and more Governments are raising funds against bonds. Enter the central bank ( Fed in the US, RBI in India) which buys back these bonds and credits the commercial banks through a single entry and hey presto! money has been created out of thin air. The much touted QE1 and QE2 in the US were such “money printing” initiatives. The banks sit on piles of cash which they would like to lend out. And the more such money sloshes about in the economy, the more it chases physical assets like real estate, gold etc. And before we know it, we are inside a bubble, a dangerous territory to be in.

I remain amazed at how nonchalantly the world has passed over the above real life disaster in the making. How Governments, like opium addicts, continue to indulge in QE3, QE4………. up to QEn, by which time we are sure to be overwhelmed by hyperinflation. And how the interest payments on the borrowings are becoming unbearable and sending whole economies into a vicious tailspin. What a huge problem China, with its three trillion dollar reserve in US treasury, is facing due to a looming bond crisis. Or how an aging population in developed economies are finding their pension systems increasingly under threat. As people watch in horror their life savings getting eroded to near nothing.

Keynes in his 1919 essay on Inflation quoted Lenin, the Communism ideologue, as saying, “The best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens……………………………. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.” 

So like David Levinson and Jack Hall of our movies, did Lenin have the prescience of what would happen a hundred years later? Was he the one man who foresaw the self destruct capability of Capitalism nurtured economic forces gone wild?

In Learning…….                                                               Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement:  Keynes on Inflation. Excerpts from ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’ by John Maynard Keynes, 1919. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/shared/minitext/ess_inflation.html

Clash of our pillar beliefs?


It is early days yet of the twenty first century. And while we look forward with hope to human development and new fangled wonders that the future would bring, we also remain rooted to our pillar beliefs which have stood us in good stead. So what are these beliefs?

Pillar belief one: Capitalism remains the panacea for economic development. Capitalism fosters and aligns with Man’s inherent nature to create and innovate for his own benefit.It thus spawns and rewards entrepreneurs. As economic activity expands, so does work and jobs. We hold the belief that Capitalism leads to pulling up of the lower economic strata by the shoe laces. Through more employment and “trickle down” distribution of wealth.

Pillar belief two: Technology facilitates economic development through higher productivity and process efficiency. History has shown that while in the short term, technology may take over repetitive work and jobs, it ends up creating more jobs requiring different and higher competences.

 Though mutually exclusive, both Capitalism and Technology collaborated towards job and wealth creations throughout human society. Until yesterday………..

So what has changed? For the first time in history, technology has evolved to a self sustaining state where it now is able to create wealth without creating jobs. At a subterranean level, technology is clicking and whirring away as it takes care of vast tracts of economic activity 24X7. So today, wealth creation may no longer be an issue but wealth distribution sure is.

Is this a malaise? If it is, symptoms of it are everywhere. As wealth gets created, it gets aggrandized by the CEOs and leaders who envision implementing of technology and cutting of jobs and costs. And so under the protective umbrella of capitalism, we are witness to those huge bonuses and golden parachutes for business honchos and top bankers while “We the 99%” need to make do with largely stagnant pay packets.

Do we realise that Capitalism, the Ayn Rand propagated 20th century pillar belief, possibly for the first time, is no longer “pulling up the lower economic strata by the shoe laces”? On the contrary, it is taking the refuge of technology to increase disparities between the Haves and Have-nots.

A clash of our long held beliefs?

So how do we ensure an equitable distribution of wealth? And how do we do this so that the intrinsic quality of life continues to improve, the initiative taking and creative abilities continue to flower? Frankly I do not profess to have an answer. But I can envision some broad directions and perspective shifts that may be needed.

Can we afford to be purists and let Capitalism and Technology be absolute? And what are these purist beliefs?

  • That “Governments need to adopt a laissez faire stance in economics and commerce”.
  • That “all subsidies need to be frowned upon”.
  • That “cloning of technology in different parts of the world is the fastest route to development”.

But as we start thinking of these, do we not spot inherent contradictions within each of these that could self destruct the entire system?

With the turning screw of time, synergies can turn contrarian as we have witnessed above. And as we shift our perspective away from what we have been conditioned to believe, what could remain the bedrock for anchoring our purpose? Could we achieve this by fostering core values? Values such as   Sharing, Caring, Truth, Service to others and Sustainability?

“Predatory capitalism created a complex industrial system and an advanced technology; it permitted a considerable extension of democratic practice and fostered certain liberal values, but within limits that are now being pressed and must be overcome. It is not a fit system for this century.”

NOAM CHOMSKY

                                                                                                                       **************

In   Learning……………..                                                                       Shakti Ghosal

26.11 Mumbai and Harvard


 Recently, I chanced upon a report about Harvard Professor Rohit Deshpande’s research on what empowered the exceptional display of heroism by the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel staff during the 26/11 terrorist attacks inMumbai,Indiathree years back. Of incredible tales of hotel staff forming human shields to protect guests, some of them losing their own lives in the process.

Prof. Deshpande has found three HR practices relating to recruitment, training and staff recognition to which he ascribes the many uncommon acts of employee valour. But as I reflect on the report, I sense that the findings could be mere tip of the iceberg. Has the research truly been able to drill down to the reasons behind this clearly contradictory conception of human behaviour?

As I reflect some more, I wonder if it all comes down to how organisations think and act, how they relate to their employees. To most of us, an efficient organization is all about “command and control”, a heritage harking back to the industrial revolution. As organisations have continued to ramp up efficiencies, technology has taken centre stage with jobs getting more segmented and even expendable. Low qualification jobs have created disqualified humans. And the attendant social costs of a mentally dissatisfied and spiritually impoverished population are visible all over.

Other symptoms are there to see. Of organisations losing their life blood of core personnel and entrepreneurial energy.  As they try to meet future challenges by using a    “fix-it back to how it was” mindset. A mindset of a command and control Management which has become increasingly misaligned with today’s environment and technology evolution.

And how does all this look like at a macro level? The old economy “brick and mortar” structure which served us well over the last century in terms of standardisation, assembly line productivity, modular approach and cloned processes is in crisis. A crisis fuelled by uncertainty and unpredictability. Of an environment that is getting increasingly disconnected from the past, difficult to comprehend.

So I have this vision. A vision born of hope and positivity. Of organisations who believe in the strategy of the moment. Of a culture where creativity and flexibility replace detailed planning and control. Of the realisation that constant internal regeneration is necessary to keep up with rapid changes and discontinuity. Of managers with conviction that problems are but symptoms of needed change and not something that has “broken” and needs repair. Of leaders who know that things would never get back to the way they used to be but would change faster and faster.

So how can this vision be achieved? By dispensing with rigid job and task definitions and replacing these with strategic “positions” aligned to objectives and results. By empowering people to create their very own evolving job definition, pulsating with a changing environment. As gas fills up vacuum, as the cytoplasm fills up a living cell. And so no two job descriptions would be alike just as no two personnel are alike in terms of their thinking, values and beliefs they bring to the table.

So could this be the way we, the people, reclaim back the “heart of work” from clicking, repetitive technology? As we develop a messianic vision of our role and transform the organisational ethos to say that if one does not take initiatives, one simply does not have a job.

I believe in some unique way, the management of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai has been able to instill the above radical context of “work” into its employees. And have created a shared deep commitment to service and humanity. But has this been achieved through training and personnel development as the Harvard research opines? Or has it come from a moral energy at the core of the organisation consciousness? From a “caring and serving” value system flowing from the top and percolating through all levels? From sustaining a heritage that empowers people to “get out of their boxes” to creatively enrich, enlarge and connect?

No doubt, the world would be waiting to learn………………

In Learning……………………….

Shakti Ghosal

Democracy: The way ahead


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore
Gitanjali, 1912

 

I sit comfortably ensconced, watching disparate events in News Top 20.

From Arab spring incidents to the Euro zone crisis. From dissent against health care reforms in the USto sit-in dharnas against nuclear power plants inIndia. From strident social activism against corruption by Anna Hazare and his citizen group to Wall Street protests.

The kaleidoscope and colour of humanity, its endeavours and its challenges are so very dynamic, it never ceases to fascinate. But could there be a common thread through all this? Are these seemingly unconnected events but symptoms of some deeper unified malaise?

As I set about making sense of it all, I am confronted with myriad aspects. Those that range from democratic yearnings of the disenfranchised. To anger against increasing disparity.  To democracy itself struggling to sustain itself in the face of a fast changing twenty first century world.

But is Democracy the ultimate panacea to deliver quickly on all things desired for the new aspirants in the Arab world? And as the  fiscal deficits start biting, would the much vaunted democratic freedom of the  developed world  in fact allow it to climb down to the economic and social levels of the developing world? Or would democracy be hijacked by activist groups to further fuel unrests and force Governments to hold onto status quo which they can ill afford? Are we not seeing this happening in the recent political developments inGreece,Italyand elsewhere? I reflect on all such and other questions.

Thoughts flit through my mind. Could our challenges be stemming from a democratic deficit? The issues are many. First and foremost, is Democracy in a position to cope with technology empowered individualism of this century? How do we sustain democracy when people lose contact with their elected representatives? What can make-up for Governments’ loss of control and decision making in the face of Globalisation? And how can Governments come to terms with the increasingly powerful role that media can play?

I am no political pundit but nonetheless would risk offering the following “helicopter view” recipe.

  • Get back to the roots of Governance and face to face      interactions with people. Be it through panchayat empowerment, community      hall meetings or tribal jirgas.      We need to recognize one size or shape does not fit all.

 

  • Foster values to re-connect people to Democracy and      the political process. And how does one do that? By giving equal standing      to Citizen groups for proposing policy options and shaping dialogue. We      need to create those spaces which would allow people to get fearlessly involved      and know that their thoughts are respected.

 

  • Shift our perspective of Media from its perceived      “Government challenge” role to that of a democracy enabler facilitating      information availability and public involvement in policy making.

 

  • Inculcate attitude in the Government to actively      listen to and acknowledge the individual. The challenge is huge but encouraging      online communities may be a way forward.

 

At this point in History, a millennium beyond the Magna Carta, can we provide the next scallop by accepting the paradigm that Democracy continues to be a work in process?  Until we are able to awaken ourselves in Tagore’s “heaven of freedom… where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”?