Archive for May, 2012

Responding to an internal prompt here at Henley to provide a Steering Committee charged with moving from one Virtual Learning Environment to another with a rationale for the importance of Learning Journals, I have made a few notes about why I think the Journal is (or should be!) an important part of the MBA. I would be interested to know what others think.

Simply put, the Learning Journals are intended as a mechanism for Programme Members (PMs) to do three important things:

Record – in the act of transferring their introspection from experience or thought to the written word, PMs are in fact processing those “raw” data and transforming them to learning that might otherwise remain elusive or unexamined. As a business school we place great emphasis on the importance of critical thinking skills for management decision-making, and this is another instance of this in practice. In addition, the recorded nature of that written archive then forms a basis for retrospection and comparison – a way for an individual to see how far they have come in their thinking.

Reflect – the iterative nature of keeping a written diary, blog or journal of the impacts, confusions, and insights from the rest of the MBA programme (as well as the Personal Development module) is in fact a modelling of what most authors on the subject agree must be the reflective learning process. When a PM finds their “voice” on the page, the results can be quite emancipatory.

Share – the line taken by Henley in PD is that introspection is necessary but not sufficient for reflection. We need to encourage a dialogue or conversation where members enrich each other’s development. Many members find that their own thinking is made clearer to them when they read (and comment on) others’.


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These days many businesses seem to believe that they need a mechanism to hook consumers into their brand or their services. The other day I received a voucher from a Hong Kong hotel chain, apparently sent as part of my membership of their ‘Regal rewards’ scheme, and normally I wouldn’t give this a second thought. I suppose I take for granted the onslaught of loyalty schemes, credit cards, branded gift cards, and other ‘strange attractors’ that various types of businesses now offer me as a consumer, yet there was something slightly odd about this one and it got me thinking. I’ll describe what they sent me in moment but I wondered what I really had in my wallet.

As it turned out, when I turned out my pockets and turned over the contents of my kitchen drawer (where those that don’t make it to the Champions League of my wallet get “stored”), I had more than I thought… so perhaps a truncated inventory would be in order, with occasional commentary:

1. Tesco Clubcard. This is a massive and pervasive loyalty scheme, and I have to say it does work quite well. Who knows what they’re doing with all this information about what we buy, but they sprinkle enough sugar on to make it worthwhile scanning the card each time.

2. Boots Advantage Card. I use this one whenever I go there, but don’t go there much. It’s a pretty straight-forward exchange of points for pennies at the till, and they also send out coupons, but does anyone use the ATM-like machines in store for more?  Unlike Tesco, this seems to be a card made useful only by the fact that Boots is so dominant on the High Street.

3. Caffe Nero, a simple “stamp on your card each time you buy a coffee” loyalty device, which works for me as I prefer their coffee to either Starbucks or Costa (and now I notice my wallet also has one of these from Pret a Manger and one from Marks & Spencer) and, purely personally, there’s a link to…

4. Blackwell Reward card, a £5 discount on a book for each £100 spent at this Oxford bookshop, my favourite browsing bookshop.

5. A couple of airline loyalty schemes, Virgin Atlantic (lovely flying experience, truly awful rewards scheme, virtually unredeemable), and BA’s Executive Flying Club (mixed experience as a service much more impressive reward scheme, very redeemable). Interesting one, this, as in this case, all other things being equal, I would now choose the lesser service because the reward scheme is more value.

6. Hilton Honors card, rarely used but seems to be a great excuse for them to email me offers of another credit card, and a Hertz No. 1 Gold card (great name for a card that gives you virtually nothing).

7. A Body Shop card valid for 1 year, “bought” only because it was on offer and gave a discount on first purchase. Can’t think I’ll use it much this year, though they promised to remember and reward my birthday!

Perhaps there are a few others, tucked away, or pinned to the fridge door, but eventually a fatigue sets in, and the question about Nectar or offer of points-for-prizes is no longer taken on its own merit. And my  list is, of course, culturally grounded in its content (for example recently, in Sydney, I could only look confused when the checkout assistant at a Coles supermarket asked me if I had any Fly-buys…), but is increasingly universal in its concept. Hence this blog entry, since the offer posted to me was from a hotel chain based in Hong Kong.

What I received now, having earlier got the usual account emails (will I ever remember all that login stuff?), was a paper voucher for a 300 HK$ discount off my next room charge at this hotel chain. The voucher is stamped with a number and counter-stamped in a different coloured ink from the hotel’s Accounts Department.  That’s ok, I guess, if a little bit over-kill for a £25 discount (and actually I quite like the idea of this being so well documented), but then I noticed that the cover letter also asked me to sign the letter confirming receipt and post or fax it back to the hotel. This was novel, and I wonder whether what it betrays of the state of CRM in Asia, or at least the highly bureaucratic nature of many Asian businesses. Is it just a learning curve on the way to greater de-personalisation and automation, or a preferred method of record-keeping?

Does anyone have any thoughts, or expertise in this area?

* One interesting side-point to note on this. I had earlier Tweeted a comment that I was considering writing about Loyalty schemes and cards following my Hong Kong hotel visit, and within 30 seconds my Tweet had been replied to by a site which offers discounts on hotels in, you guessed it, Hong Kong.

The Playmobil Penguins enjoy the view from their hotel window high above the streets of Hong Kong

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A couple in dialogue with nature in a rainforest pool in northern Queensland.

I’m fond of telling anyone who’ll listen not only that reflection is at the heart of Personal Development,  but also that “introspection is necessary but not sufficient” for reflection. This second assertion is prompted by observation and supported by deduction.

The observation is of the shyness exhibited by most MBAs when it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings with others in a learning context. Hardened managers who would not hesitate to chip (or butt) in with their views when it comes to business decisions turn deafeningly silent when it comes to surfacing assumptions about themselves in a collective setting. This silent tendency is even more pronounced, if that’s the right word, when the sharing requires those thoughts to be expressed in writing. This is despite an intellectual acceptance of three ideas; that telling others helps reveal our thinking to ourselves, that listening to others somehow provides a boundary and shape for our own thoughts, and that the process of writing (especially for publication to an audience) is a distillation and perhaps a transformation of our thoughts (when we speak we do not use exactly the same language structure as when we write). Anecdotally, when you have a situation where trust has been established between managers who are all committed to learning, the efficacy of dialogue for PD is very often apparent, with rapid results.

Nevertheless, these observations cannot easily explain why dialogue is a principle of PD. That explanation comes from a deduction, itself following on from the second principle (which spoke of the concept of difference), of what must necessarily be going on in dialogue, intrinsic to reflection and therefore part of the Personal Development process.

Whenever a second view or reference point is made available, and difference created, a new level is not just a possiblity but a logical necessity. Gregory Bateson used the example of binocular vision to illustrate this. On its own, each of our eyes is sensitive to information or sense data. But a single eye cannot see distance; this facility is a property of the information processed from both eyes. However, the fact that we can perceive depth in three dimensions is not simply a matter of addition. Binocular vision is at a logical level hierarchically above the levels represented by what each eye “sees” on its own. As Bateson pointed out, this is a sort of multiplication, “[in] principle, extra “depth” in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded.” (Bateson, 1979: 70).

So it may be said that dialogue in reflection results in a depth not present in either person’s thoughts on their own. A ‘conversation’ is an idea one level removed from the individual sets of utterances that make it up. A dialogue is, then, a double description which is the relationship between components (remember that a relationship or difference between things is not a property of those things and has zero dimensions) and when we engage in a dialogue what results is a viewpoint that we could not have seen only from our introspection. At least, deductively, this is what out to be so and what we may then investigate.

The 1st principle

The 2nd principle

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I have, in common with many others, been inculcated to accept an assumption that education is the process of preparation for being something else, that it is a means to the arrival at a desirable destination. The problem, however, is that you never quite get there. When you get through one round of education you discover that somehow the target has moved and in fact you have only got through to another level of preparation for another ‘something’ or another ‘somewhere else’.

This assumption is necessarily built on another – i.e. that you are not “fully cooked”. Education, it turns out, is a sort of perpetual game of “jam tomorrow”, an insoluble problem of identity formation. What if we have this idea about our education system back to front? What if we assumed instead that everyone who came to education was already “there”? In other words, and to paraphrase (crudely) Alan Watts, how would things change if we were to assume that education is not so much about being on probation for when you ‘really’ start being a proper person, in a future that is separate and remote from now? What if its function were to wake you up to the idea that all those distinctions between past, present and future identities are false? Here, the assumption becomes “It only ever happens in the now”.

I suspect that very few managers who come back to school for their MBA would be happy with the idea that they were already there, even though that’s one of the things they might accept when, on reflection (you might say), it’s all over.

Just a thought while I reflect on the past few days here in Trinidad and wait for the car to the airport.

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The first principle of Personal Development that was outlined in an earlier post was “acknowledge, without judgement, things as they are.”

Although not in itself sufficient for PD, this is certainly a necessary pre-requisite mental attitude; a stance of genuine curiosity about (and a conceptual uncoupling from) things. It turns out that we are already in trouble when we assert that there such things as “things”, but until now we have had little choice because the English language tends to be steadfastly material in its assumptions of the world. The world of difference, however, is notable for being immaterial.

So the second principle of Personal Development is an invitation to understand and then actively look for ‘difference’. This idea is perhaps the most elemental in Gregory Bateson’s relational view of the world and one that I have blogged about several times over the years. However, as a very brief resume, in a world of almost limitless potential bits of information which our senses detect, a difference is that bit of information that makes a difference. In other words it is an “elemental idea” whereby we become aware of the boundaries between one thing and another thing. In noting difference we must make some of sort comparison, but our comparison literally carries no weight, occupies no space, and is non-dimensional. A difference, in short, is a no-thing. Crucially, it is also not a property of any of the things we are comparing. Bateson went on to note that differences travel in recursive circuits of cause and effect in systems, and that they are transformed successively over time and are at the heart of what make living systems different, so to speak, from non-living ones.

But what does this have to do with PD and what does it mean in practice?

1. Without the relationship between ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’ it would be impossible to have any notion of “things as they are”, the first PD principle. 

2. Meaning is achieved by the ever-present question “compared to what?” (a question that is almost always an implicit or unconscious one).

3. Every notion implies its opposite, its negation.

4. Development implies learning, learning implies change of one sort or another, and change implies some sort of novelty which would be impossible if the world were a closed system.

An example, perhaps. I recently found out that I have had a development paper accepted to a management conference in September. The paper’s purpose is just to stimulate discussion, in  contribution to a given subject area (in this case ‘knowledge and learning’) and partly in order to give me some developmental feedback in peer review. The acceptance process involved some blind peer reviews, which I got to see. Two of the reviews were largely positive and quite supportive, but the third was a lot more critical. My first reaction was to accept the compliments and look for comforting support from their gentle suggestions for improvement. I dismissed the less complimentary review as being irrelevant, its author too far from my position to be of any use to me. On reflection it may be that the reviewer I didn’t  agree with that will help me understand my own thinking for what it is as it exposes it to its antithesis.  My job is first to note that this is the situation (acknowledge it) and note too how I feel about it, and then get curious about how such a different view clarifies my thinking. To to that, I’d need to understand that alternative argument.

In summary, in their daily working lives managers constantly (if unknowingly) make sense of what’s going on by embracing or ignoring the concept of difference and the world is an open system which operates according to an underlying pattern (or law?), regardless of our awareness of this being the case. Incidentally, because it is a property of the relationship between things and not of things themselves, the nature of “difference” is a very curious one to explore. In short, the difference between one thing and another is at a higher logical level than either of the things themselves. Bateson spent much of his life playing with the consequence of this, i.e. that ideas operate in a pattern, a hierarchy of  logical levels which are immanent in social structures and systems.

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I have just experienced my first visit to Japan, specifically to Tokyo. I really hope it won’t be my last as I’ve already fallen in love with the place. I had been forewarned by others to expect the place to be different, and it was, and I did very much feel like an outsider. Yet it was also incredibly welcoming and open, with the sense that you could take as much time as you wanted to try to observe and understand. Japan allows a person personal space.

After all, for all the western obsession with pointing out how everything in Japan is done differently, you have to remember that “different” is a relative term. Life in Japan, for the Japanese, is perfectly normal.

I really appreciated the level of organisation, politeness and cleanliness (three things which the Japanese have combined into one art when it comes to toilets), and the effortless stylishness of so many of Tokyo’s inhabitants. Honestly, most of the time I felt like a scruff, and not just because I’m a bit of a scruff.

So, in conclusion, Japan and I have unfinished business. I only scratched the surface and my wife and I have decided that we definitely want to go back for a longer visit.

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This post details the first of my Six Principles of Personal Development that every manager should know, which is:

1. Acknowledge things, without judgement, as they are

You are exactly where you have chosen to be.

Through many years of working with (pretty experienced) managers, mostly on MBA programmes, I am convinced that this is the most fundamental PD principle of them all. My conviction stems from the observation of  both how (for all sorts of good reasons) un-self-aware many mid-career managers are, and of how radical the “ah-ha” can be when they wake up.

This principle asks just that you acknowledge the truth of your own present, of where you are, of who you are and how you are. That’s all, no opinions on whether or how you construe the past and the future. And what’s more to do all of this with a challenging and genuinely curious frame of mind, without prejudice or censorship.

Some people are driven to Management Education and development by their sense of being “trapped” in their past. Others are obsessed by something in the future that, necessarily, must always appear just beyond their reach. They seem always to be in pursuit of something they don’t have. The symptons of this malaise are beautifully and poetically illustrated in the following Tom Waits lyrics, from his song ‘Foreign Affair’ :

‘most vagabonds I knowed don’t ever want to find the culprit
that remains the object of their long relentless quest
the obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending
the pursuit you see and never the arrest’

Where are our heads? At first glance, a lot of us appear to prefer to occupy a prison of the past or an artist’s impression of the future. Closer inspection (or introspection, in fact) should reveal that both of  these concepts are existent only and entirely in the present. The past is no more a cause of the present than the ship’s wake (to borrow an analogy used by Alan Watts) is the cause of the present position of the ship. That’s not to say that the idea of the past does not have use. Without it, “here” would have no meaning’, we would not know that there is such as thing as the present. Nor would we be able to construct the idea of a future. Our sense of agency, of acting in the world, is reliant on the coming together of these three ideas?

Acknowledging ‘what is’ is a principle that runs through all other, or further, aspects of PD, and represents a fundamental commitment to mindfulness of practice. Notice, suspend judgement and… let go.

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