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Office gurus

Jude Simpson

I recently took part in a conference for the HR staff of a large organisation. As the director made his keynote speech - 'Implementing our new Change Programme' - his points were illustrated on the screen behind by a succession of photographs (mountain peaks, mostly) and quotes evidently designed to be motivational (a word almost impossible to say without the use of gestured quotation marks.)

At one point, the quote read, 'Be the change you want to see in the world - Mahatma Gandhi.' Ah yes, I thought, sensible advice. Behave in the way you would like others to behave. Engender change, don't force it. Excellent.
And then I thought, hang on a minute. Gandhi? At an HR conference? A man who dedicated his life to simplicity, truth and peaceful disobedience now used to illustrate the need for corporate adherence to the five workstrands of a new performance management process? Is it me, or has someone had a sense of perspective failure?

Gandhi would be an absolute nightmare leading an HR Department. He wouldn't care who filled in their sick leave returns on time. He'd just campaign for a vegetarian staff restaurant. His talent management strategy would centre on who could spin their own cloth most effectively. On 'back to the floor' days he'd provoke a Health and Safety meltdown, walking around the factory in flip-flops, his robes trailing precariously.

I mean, did Gandhi really sit down in the 1920s and think, 'I know what, I'll write some of this stuff down, because as well as being relevant to my people's struggle against an oppressive colonial power, it might prove useful to project managers of customer-facing corporate services teams in the early 21st century'?

More to the point, would any well-paid executive be prepared to go to prison rather than denounce his workforce planning principles? And how many people, on the departure of their HR Director would say, 'the light has gone out of our lives?'

If we are equating good practice in the office with humanity's own struggles for peace and self-determination no wonder we're working ourselves to a quiet death. Don't get me wrong - I believe in good HR policies. But I also believe in not kidding ourselves about the weightiness of some of our daily activities. That might leave us time to do something truly worthwhile. Like pausing to think before citing someone who sacrificed his life for peace as part of the inspiration for a programme of organisational change. Didn't someone say something about gnats and camels?

So, next week I'm hoping to observe a training session for staff working at a large insurance company's call centre. No doubt they'll be using Mother Theresa as a case study. 'Hello, I wonder if you could better my insurance quote?' 'No, I'm afraid I can't, but I can offer you some human dignity and spiritual companionship in your suffering?' 'Er, no. Thanks all the same.'