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The Age of Unreason – 30 years on

Charles Handy is one of the World’s pre-eminent management guru’s, was one of the first to see the flaws in the ‘jobs for life’ concept and wrote about the importance of ethical business practice years before it became mainstream. After reading a recent interview with him, it dawned on me that Handy’s excellent book ‘The Age of Unreason’ was first published 30 years ago (1989)!!

One of the concepts promoted in the book was that of the ‘shamrock’ organisation, where there would be ‘three leafs’ of worker consisting of, a core of permanent employees, independent contractors, and temporary workers.

Handy predicted that the intensity of competition and an increasingly unpredictable economic environment would result in the ‘shamrock’ approach becoming common place.

The insightfulness of Handy’s prediction is truly remarkable as 30 years on, many organisations are using the ‘three leaf’ approach to maintain a lean and competitive workforce. Handy referred to a “network of peripheral staff brought in to carry out specialist/project based work”, and these are the modern Interim managers of today, brought in to perform change management and other tasks.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 we have seen more flexibility in the work place than perhaps even Handy predicted, as workers have acted like butterflies, jumping from ‘leaf to leaf’. For instance, some employees made redundant have tried their hand at contracting, many millennials have joined the ‘gig economy’ and a number of very experienced interims have retired, some due to the frustration of the shortage of high-quality assignments or the pressure on day rates.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, an influx of new interims came onto the market and some clients seized the opportunity to engage rookie interims at day rates equal to 20%-40% less than the market rate for an experienced interim; with less than favourable results in many cases!!

Evidence has shown that rates have crept up over the past few years to 2019, as the low fees paid by some companies has been unsustainable, as the UK performed solidly post-recession and unemployment fell to a 40 year low in 2018. This represents a more orderly ‘shamrock’ as proposed by Handy.

Interestingly, Handy’s thesis that the UK workforce will need to develop 'portfolio' lives, a mix of different bits and pieces of work, some for money, some for fun, some for free, has shown to be correct with the ‘gig economy’ largely brought about by advances in technology and mass rollout of high-speed broadband.

By 2016, the number of freelance workers in Europe had increased by almost 50% in just three years, according to research by the European Forum of Independent Professionals and these are not all food delivery or taxi drivers. A 2017 London Business School (LBS) survey with strategy ?rm Eden McCallum showed that knowledge-intensive industries such as professional services are also fast-growing parts of the freelance economy.

With the 2017 LBS survey revealing that 92% of independent consultants are pretty satis?ed with their careers, it seems reasonable to suggest that the ‘gig economy’ is here to stay and meets most of the needs of a white-collar, ‘free agent’ nation. For further reading on this subject I would recommend Daniel H. Pink’s book, Free Agent Nation.

Sunday Sep 1, 2019