Book review: Richard Donkin’s “The Future of Work”

Don’t judge a book by its cover is a well-worn cliché, but in this case the caveat should really be ‘don’t judge a book by it’s title’. This is a valuable read – that it will be hard to keep this review to reasonable length indicates just how much thinking or comment it provoked (which seems to be a large part of the author’s intention) – but it’s not really about the future: it’s far more about the present and what the author – well qualified by experience, judging by bios and blurbs – finds both good and bad in it. That it considers work in the context of both human life and human society is also to be applauded, even if (like many other aspects of the book) this is both a strength and a weakness.

The book attempts to divide its enormous scope of content into a series of themed chapters, addressing variously demographics and ageing, women and work, technology, social networking, leadership and teamwork, human resource and capital management and work-life balance, although this ‘chunking’ feels both more and less successful as the book proceeds. As the author acknowledges, these factors and aspects can’t be truly isolated: their influence and impact interacts, and content spills from one chapter to the next. The recognition of this is one of the books’ strengths, although tighter editing and review of the book before publication could have made an easier read: it is rambling and disjointed at times, and some sub-sections would have benefitted from a trip to the cutting-room floor.

What struck me at the end of the book was that there were larger running themes that cut across this sectionalisation, particularly the perils of metrics and evaluation, the double-edged sword of technology, the human tendency towards ‘star systems’, the unforeseen impact of major events (which can provoke more drastic change than careful planned progress, which tends to be resisted), and the ability of existing business processes to stand in the way of potentially beneficial progress. I was also powerfully struck by a sense that the author wanted to make radical and often sharply critical comments of much of contemporary practice, but ‘bottled out’ rather too often. While this is a book that provoked much thought (if businesses held book clubs and selected it, it would also likely provoke intense debate – this is an idea it’s tempting to promote on the author’s behalf, as it might achieve the re-thinking he seems to want to encourage more than reading the book in isolation might do), at the end of the book I wanted to invite the author to re-write the book around the themes that had emerged in reading it. Possible trepidation on his publishers’ behalf aside, he should also be encouraged to be more critical of current practise if he does write a follow-up: his intended audience would benefit from reading it.

The penultimate chapter – a future fantasy about future life that reads like a William Gibson re-writing William Morris’ News from Nowhere and Disney’s Wall-E – seems an amusement, and is highly derivative, but provides the author the opportunity to include big themes he admits in the final chapter to avoiding: globalisation, environmental issues. It also allows one or two telling asides: I was struck, for example, by the ‘Dees’ (genetically modified humans who’s human rights have been withdrawn) campaigning against ‘the proliferation and systemizing effects of human performance metrics’. Other potential targets, however, are missed. While both Obama and Susan Boyle are referenced in discussing the power of social networks, the fact that more of us watched Ms Boyle singing on YouTube than watched the Presidential inauguration felt like it deserved comment, particularly given the hopes that had been invested in Obama during his ground-breaking campaign. Likewise, Matt Harding may have carved an ‘alternative career’ out of his travel and dancing agenda, but was still working to an agenda driven by short-term celebrity and business sponsorship: ‘follow the money’ and Mr Harding’s life looks less radical – and more trapped by existing patterns and thinking.

Other points are weakened by the disjointed approach. Omlet, a start-up business selling a new design of chicken-huts, may be operating on a seemingly unstructured ad hoc, MD-less platform, but it’s several pages before Donkin points out that most small enterprises with interesting working pattern ideas abandon them and follow existing patterns if and when they achieve significant growth.

 In reviewing the young who will inherit the current world, women’s struggle to combine careers and motherhood, the over-50s seeking meaningful work facing both age and uncertain pension provision, Donkin is right to point out that new approaches could benefit both society and business, and that current structures accommodate us mainly at our own expense. What the book struggles to do is to identify how we might move on from our current situation, where he argues at one point that “Degradation of work, whatever shirt we wear, is a modern malaise in the process-focused workplace.”

Indeed, it seems we are – viewed as a species – working against ourselves. While he argues that a root and branch re-think of work’s relationship to society is due, he also feels that there is a lack of either political commercial will to do so. Changes that could be made are too routinely challenged as ‘losses to business’ rather than opportunities – symptomatic of a socio-economic framework where HR may (but only may) argue that human beings are a company’s greatest asset, but they are still accounted for as a cost and a liability.

Like Richard Sennett (who’s The Craftsman we reviewed recently, and who is referenced in the book’s closing chapter), there is also a sense that a meaningful and constructive challenge to what he sees as bad practice would have to be partly political – Donkin’s allegiances are perhaps not so different from Sennett’s, but are more timidly expressed. There is certainly a similar concern for the impact on human beings of current and possible future working life. The ‘No Accounting for People’ chapter that reviews HR and HCM practices notes that best practice in employee engagement tends to occur where qualitative measures are taken into account rather than what is effectively number-crunching: “quantative measures alone cannot hope to get at the substantive issues producing results. An absence record counts days off. It does not differentiate between days lost through illness and those lost through skiving”. (A short section on the move to project-based freelance piecework, however, makes the point that focusing on results rather than hours spent has merits but misses the point – which as a freelance writer he must have experienced – that the price must still be agreed. While the buyer still controls both price and timescale, the supplier is left to judge how many hours would really be required, and make their own calculation of the hourly rate their labours will equate too – the freedom of freelancing does not extend to breaking free from the basic rules of breakeven analysis.)

Although it’s a lesson he doesn’t draw, it also struck me that there are parallels between effective workplace reform and effective learning transfer: even where change can be demonstrated to be necessary and desirable, it meets resistance as it challenges our current habits, practices and thinking and is, as a result, uncomfortable. Patterns of thinking about work are no less ingrained than patterns of thinking in work, the tendency towards ‘bottom line’ analysis being no exception:

One of the greatest impediments standing in the way of a healthier society is the tendency of employers’ organizations to wield their political clout by reaching for the calculator and measuring the cost to industry of anything that might be perceived as workplace reform.”

Though the dots are not explicitly connected by the author, figures from BT are cited that demonstrate that accommodation and travel costs have been saved through home-working. The impression, right or wrong, is left that this workplace transformation was driven rather more by accounting practice than by the benefits of having a distributed workforce working from their own homes. To be fair to Donkin, that’s a much bigger issue (although I was left feeling that BT need to ponder that as much as the author), although the following analysis perhaps represents one of the book’s more powerful sequences:

But measuring alone is not enough. Measures can only deliver meaning in business if they are linked to good management. Good management bridges the gap between basic measurement and strategy. Good management establishes a working narrative around the measurement process so that results can be translated into learning, development and performance management. Albert Einstein was right when he said: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

As I said at the outset, this is a book about which I could easily write a much longer review although I should perhaps draw to a close. This is a book with some major flaws – contradictions, disjointed writing, points left unchallenged where more courage or insight should have been shown – albeit ones that are acknowledged in the final chapter: perhaps the sheer scope is ultimately too large to cover in a readable single volume. (It’s a brave book to even attempt to write, even if it is book that feels like one that contains the kernels of a number of other, perhaps more focused works.) Nor is it a book that, although the author concludes with an 18 point ‘Charter for the New Work’, tells us where the future lies. Yet the underlying point remains that the political and commercial will to address some of future challenges does not currently exist; one implicit message is that unforeseen events are more likely to implement or trigger that will than anything else.

So, good book? Bad book? A mixed bag can be the only ultimate verdict, but one that I’m highly glad to have read – and that I would recommend others to. Given the value the author places on time to reflect and on human endeavour that brings satisfaction – and given the huge number of questions it left me wanting to ask him – I was left wanting to sit down with him on the allotment one Sunday afternoon with a pot of tea and ask as many of them as I had the energy to. I think we’d both consider it time well spent. Failing that, I’d suggest buying more than one copy, giving them to colleagues to read, and then booking a time to see what you all made of it. It may not provide definitive answers, but it does provoke some very valuable questions along the way.

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