Think of strategy as a dance. Bodies travel in space. You join them, move with intent, find your place in the shifting whirl.Read more
Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.
You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.
Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.Read more
Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat.
Renew, which evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. Paul, following a storied career in the Australian museums & galleries sector, joined Renew as CEO in March.
In our conversation, we talked about Paul’s journey across sectors, the nature of creativity, the challenges of a sustainability organisation’s evolving mission, and the opportunities which await.
You joined Renew in March. What’s it like taking up a CEO role in the midst of a crisis like this?
For me, the idea of being in charge of an organization while not being in lockdown feels strange! Because I knew nothing else, it became normal so quickly. On the third or fourth day of my role, I had to shut the office and put in place rules and procedures for working from home.
We’ve been doing that for seven months, over two lockdowns. We’re only just starting to go back to the office now.
It’s much easier to apply the technical and functional requirements of management and leadership at a distance. What’s hard is putting the emotional aspect back in, especially when that’s a relationship of one to many. I’m very happy and open when it comes to one-to-one emotional relationships, but having to hold that relationship to an entire community – and on an unfamiliar medium too – was hard.Read more
The late Claudio Ciborra (1951-2005) was an information systems researcher, organizational theorist, and Chair in Risk Management at the London School of Economics. Energetic, pioneering, unafraid to take a contrarian position, his work remains thought-provoking for readers today – even though he wrote on information, communication technologies, and organizational theory for a pre-smartphone age.
The Labyrinths of Information, published three years before Ciborra’s death, is a slim but densely written volume which sets out to “challenge the wisdom of systems”. It puts the complex and ambiguous realities of human existence and interaction at the heart of research into information systems and business processes.
Among other questions, Ciborra asks: Why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? Are age-old practices valuable for dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and emotional concerns in influencing how we think and act?
As he reminds us, “the very definition of information systems as a set of technical […] and human resources devoted to the management of information in organizations spells out the composite nature of the field.” Humanity is always woven into the fabric of information systems.
Ciborra challenges our tendency to describe how information technology is used in terms of rationality and formal method. Academics, management consultants, journalists and other commentators tend to frame what is happening in business in terms of established concepts, neat little pigeonholes for the messy business of the world.
They tend to share basic assumptions: “there is a complex problem to be solved or a task to be executed; a corresponding strategy is deployed to achieve the goals and solve the problem; and a new structure is put in place to implement the solution.”
“To be sure,” Ciborra goes on to say, “decision makers would admit that day-to-day management is run in a more organic, ad-hoc fashion, and that textbooks and journal articles seldom seem to capture the intertwining of market events and managerial responses.”
Often rationalizations are brought in after the fact, and the “gap between what theoretical, ex post explanations and models can deliver and the actual garbage-can style of managerial choice is considered to be a fact of life by practitioners, and an unavoidable result of the limitations of any modelling approach[.]”
Yet Ciborra wants to move away from this approach, attending precisely to what he calls “the hidden or dark side of information systems […] focussing on the obvious, the workaday, and the very well known to any practitioner in the field.” He’s not excited by the latest management buzzwords or theories, and he’s disdainful of their “hospitality on PowerPoint slides by consultants and practitioners.”
Ciborra seeks improvisations, hacks, awkward real-life experiences, and the hard work involved in taking care of complex systems. He probes at the blank space papered over in presentations by phrases such as “You know no organizational model will fully capture the actual flow of events”, “The strategy was well laid out, but then, as you know, life is interesting because it is full of surprises”, and, simply: “You know what I mean.”
He builds his collection of essays around seven words, deliberately chosen for their unfamiliarity to English speakers – words that are meant to stop us in our tracks, shake us out of routine thinking, and apprehend the world of organizations and information systems anew.
No précis can fully do Ciborra’s rich, complex little book justice. But I can take you through a tour of those seven magic words to get you started. Magic for beginners, if you like.Read more
“Smoke, fire, hail, and pestilence…we’re just waiting for the locusts, really” – the wry and insightful Marie-Louise Ayres, who heads the National Library of Australia in Canberra, talked to me about guiding her unique federal institution through the many challenges faced by the Australian capital in 2020.
I also spoke with Håkon Haugli, CEO of Innovation Norway, a state body which promotes sustainable growth and exports for Norwegian businesses through capital and expertise. Håkon talks about moving to a digital workplace, the struggle to preserve multilateralism, and embracing the messy nature of innovation. His episode of the podcast can be found here.
Following a successful engagement last year at the State Library of New South Wales, I’ll be returning to Sydney with colleague Brendan Fitzgerald for two workshops in early May.
In our “Library Leaders Workshop Day” on May 4, Brendan & I will help senior library staff to explore a range of strategic tools and techniques. These will help teams think about changing wants and needs in their communities, building the capability to respond with creative local strategies.
Then, on May 5, we will explore ways of defining, measuring, and sharing the difference that public libraries make to their communities, in “Next-generation Measures and Metrics for Public Libraries“.
Join us for one or both of these sessions in May – we’re looking forward to seeing you.
The US-based GovLove Podcast, run by the Engaging Local Government Leaders network (ELGL), celebrates the end of each year by showcasing the most popular episodes of the previous 12 months.
I’m pleased to announce that July’s episode on Leadership & Scenario Planning, which I recorded with ELGL’s Kirsten Wyatt, has taken the number one slot.
Check out the whole list in this Twitter thread from the GovLove team.
My latest article has just been published in The Mandarin, Australia’s publication for public sector leaders.
“We can’t predict the future, but scenario planning can identify what it might look like” explores the practice of scenario planning, including interviews with practitioners and clients from the OECD, Australia’s science organisation CSIRO, and leadership roles in government and policy bodies.