donderdag 22 april 2010

Truly together

It is fairly popular with companies to present themselves in commercials as top performing symphony orchestras. With employees who are fully tuned in to one another, a perfect collective timing, a visionary conductor and of course resounding (financial) results. The orchestra as a metaphor for excellent corporate performance.

I always find that annoying. Not because I don’t enjoy the artistic creations that are to be heard through the symphony orchestra. Indeed, most of them are great monuments of culture. I almost die in the beauty of a well performed symphony of Beethoven or Mahler.

What’s annoying about those ads is that in them the orchestral playing together is presented as something special and exalted. While I think the orchestra as a model of cooperation is entirely outdated. It is in fact a military organization, dating from the eighteenth century. With a leader who can visibly fully express himself and gets one hundred percent space for initiative and flow, along with a number of sometimes solo-performing key players and finally a lot of bowing foot-soldiers.

In the world of music this situation has, according to the violinist Gordan Nikolic, led to collections of excellently performing artists of consistent quality, who nevertheless produce mediocre or boring music. In his view that has to do with a shortage of space for reflection and imagination with those musicians. And this in its turn is, I think, all about the hierarchical and rigid structure of a traditional symphony orchestra.

I infer this from an interview in which Nikolic states his preference for a certain democratic dynamics within groups of musicians. Nikolic is the artistic director of the Dutch Chamber Orchestra, but he leads that from the concertmaster chair. He emphatically does not want to be a conductor, because he values "the collective conscience of a group he belongs to" as much more important. "Have fun" Nikolic calls out to his orchestra at the beginning of a rehearsal. He even proposes to someday give a concert without any rehearsal beforehand because that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. Of course this includes the risk that at a time such a concert may completely founder.

Instead of a working situation where orchestra members ask him "What do you want from us" he managed to create an atmosphere in which all together tell a story. To have something like that in an ordinary labor organization seems to be very nice to me, but the reality in most cases looks more like a traditional symphony orchestra. In this respect, the metaphor of the commercials is still not that wrong at all. The only thing is: don’t present it as an ideal model.

zaterdag 17 april 2010


Happy Hour in London Docklands, a first spring-like Friday. In front of the pubs and on the terraces along the Thames groups and couples of men and women stand drinking and chatting. They seem busy with evaluating the past day or week, or perhaps themselves.

This kind of finishing the week looks like a purely British affair. While earlier that day - at the university, on the bus, in West End – I found myself in the midst of a fairly representative reflection of the population, at this happy hour there may be some Indian and African types around, but certainly no Muslims. Of course not.

But what does this mean? This means that the integration between Muslims and non-Muslims may advance quite well but that it will stop where the consumption of alcohol comes into play. Whether you assess the latter as positive or negative, it plays an important social role.

This observation certainly applies to the Netherlands too, yet in London it foists itself more forcefully on me because there everything is more pronounced. The Muslim community in London is much bigger and more publicly present than it is in the Netherlands. And the sizes of the beer and wine glasses are two or three times as large as ours. And therewith the exuberance associated with the consumption of alcohol as well as with its abuse and its socially disruptive impact.

Maybe a good outcome of increasing Muslim integration is going to consist in a more moderate alcohol consumption.

But to completely eliminate alcohol does not seem desirable to me. That would be a shame of that exuberant atmosphere along the Thames. And frankly, I myself benefit from a couple of drinks for getting my thoughts a bit smoother, and for promoting my self-evaluation. I fancy.

donderdag 15 april 2010

Blowing Bubbles

For too long I have let the idea be foisted on me that thoughtfulness or philosophy is something unworldly, a sort of noncommittal blowing bubbles. Only the quantity and speed of delivered action would testify of maturity. But this is not true, I know now.

Of course, unworldly philosophers exist. But it is only in respect of their playing field that they differ from the financial whizkids who saddled us with billions of debt. Or from busy executives who hardly can be said to live normal lifes. Those bankers and managers easily measure up to unworldly philosophers, when it comes to unworldliness.

Yet common perception tends to assign to groups such as bankers and managers more effectiveness than to the group of philosophers. That has to do with the mixing up in common language of the word ‘action’, however unfocused it may be, with effectiveness. And that is no longer sustainable. Because we may perhaps perish in the amount of thoughtless action. To this area apparently applies that things are not always what they seem to be. Words and their meanings are not always adequate to reality. In particular, the words 'effective' and 'unworldly' are ripe to be detached from their usual associations.

Perhaps we knew that already for some time, but the new thing is that even within management it has become more difficult to maintain the old dichotomy in common language. What I note, for example, is that good managers are dealing nowadays with something philosophical like semantics. The use of ICT is forcing them to be very precise in the meaning of words, or at least to be able to value that kind of exactness. Because if you neglect that, any logistics and control system that you order to be build will make the confusion still bigger than it already was. So, deliberate reflection in this area is clearly more effective than display of decisiveness.

The same applies to reflection by managers about what it means for their employees to work in an organization. This kind of reflection appears to pay off in the sense that people often respond well to it and perform and innovate better. So these reflexive managers are simply more effective.

Therefore, what makes a person unworldly or not is not attributable any longer to the difference between action and lack of action, decisiveness and shyness. Rather it is the difference between meaningful action and senseless action.

Maybe it's the difference between Obama, who knows to await his time, and Sarkozy. The latter thought himself to be rather resolute when by presidential decree he prohibited French aid airplanes to take off from Haïti’s airport when they were not completely loaded with victims of the earthquake. The airport got completely blocked up.

So, who is blowing bubbles after all?

Also see Go with the flow