Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference

Slí Eile: Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference: Innovation, Learning and Sense of Place in a Globalising Ireland

Difference is the key. The key argument behind this book by Finbarr Bradley and James Kennelly – published in November 2008 – is that Ireland can compete on cultural difference making use of its unique culture, talent, language and knowledge rooted in people and place. It draws on a wide literature as well as intuition in arguing the case for the importance of ‘soft’ resources inherent in networks of knowledge. The argument draws on the experience of Ireland a century ago prior to independence when various political, cultural and social movements coalesced to effect an economic and civic revival at the turn of the century. The authors set out a vision of Ireland in 2022 – 100 years after independence for the 26 counties. To look to the future we must also look to the past and see what value can be drawn from out from it. Embedded in the history of cultural and national renewal at the turn of the 20th Century was ‘the Cause of Labour’. The renewal was as much moral as ideological and nationalistic.

The key message is possibly best summed up by the authors themselves in the following terms (p17):
This book holds that to achieve a successful learning society, public policy and its implementing institutions must be guided by a coherent approach founded on distinctiveness, difference, national identity, systems thinking and environmental sustainability.

The argument is well presented, convincing and relevant. It challenges, implicitly, the ideological bias of orthodox economics in its world of assumed perfect competition, clearing markets, standardised products and inputs, measurability and predictability. The idiosyncratic, the local, the culturally bound are neglected in mainstream analysis. Add to that a relative neglect in traditional neo-classical analysis of the role of institutions, the State and the mediating role of social class, social networks, gender, race and other groupings.

Written before the onslaught of the recent Great Recession (although the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 has clearly been inserted or re-written to reflect the new economic realities), the Book reflects many of the concerns of the Celtic Tiger – are we forgetting something? What about quality of life, culture, environment, social justice? The extent of the harsh pay-back of 2008-09 had not yet struck home at the time the book was published. It is amazing to read (p17):
The ‘bad old days’ have largely evaporated, the national inferiority complex seems to have dissipated and there is a palpable sense that anything is possible.


The shift from quantity of production to quality of life and how economic and measurable production contribute to it was already a feature of the thinking of AE (George Russell) (p54)
There is a hint of nostalgia throughout where the successes of the past Revival movement are invoked as sources of inspiration for a new Revival. Rising crime is mentioned as a topic of concern and indicative of weakening social ties. They write:
Clearly, this is not the Ireland of the old where violent crime was almost unknown and firearms only known through watching American westerns and gangster films.
Is this true? An examination of crime statistics over a very long period might show higher levels of homicide and theft in the past – aside from reporting and data quality issues. See

In Chapter 4 (Developing Learning Organisations), the authors have some veryprovocative (and true) things to say about public service management as well as training in Business Schools. Accountancy, procedure, objective analysis and measurability are the trademarks of bureaucratic and large-scale systems. Alternatively, thinking outside the box, use of dialogue, relationships, feedback and letting go can generate new ideas and practices. The implications of what they say about public service management are worth thinking about. It is worth quoting, in full, the following:
After independence, Ireland inherited the old British imperial civil service model structured around secrecy with little regard for political and public inquiry, and with structures so complex it was impossible to isolate responsibility. Such rigidities have largely been untouched by public sector reforms carried out to date. Innovators often go unrewarded and are sidelined with many parts still working within grade-based hierarchies and structures that originate in the nineteenth century; there is little interchange of personnel between different parts of the public service and between the public and private sectors.
Bradley and Kennelly comment on the impact of huge pay increases to the top echelons of the civil and public service – based on the idea that salaries should match those in comparable positions in the private sector. The idea of public vocation and service is demeaned by such assumptions. The ‘New Public Management’ model (NPM) is of questionable value especially when it tends to operate on the notion of extrinsic reward, motivation and control of performance through narrow metrics. The model is all the more problematic when, in practice, is not accompanied by any real loosening and opening up of work practices and management culture. A top-down bureaucratic model allied to elements of private sector ethos and narrow ‘bottom-line’ focus can be a lethal cocktail.

In my next post I will focus on what they have to say about education.

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