Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Way Back Then

I thought all the nonsense that goes with "management" - the away days with butcher's paper, the quarterly upward and downward assessments, the initiatives and restructures and workflow changes and team building - began in the 1970s, but reading Malcolm Bradbury's first novel, Eating People is Wrong, which was written in the 1950s, I came across this passage, in which a sociology academic called Jenkins explains his new academic interest to an English literature professor called Treece:

"'Let me tell you about Group Dynamics' [Jenkins said] ... 'It's a study of the social abrasions that are in-built into every group situation. You know how you feel uncomfortable at parties if you've forgotten to fasten your flies? Well, that's Group Dynamics. It's a new field. At Chicago we were doing experiments to show that the physical constitution of rooms had a big effect on the people who used them. We were doing some experiments with conferences for the Pentagon. You know how at conferences it's usual to use two tables set in a T shape? Well, we were able to prove that certain seats at the table were actually dead seats and that because of various factors - not being able to see the chairman's face in order to observe his reaction, and so on - the people sitting in them were virtually excluded from useful participation in the conference. A similar problem arose with the entry of people into the room; we found that some had to come in first and others last .. well, we knew that, of course; but we found that this tended to dramatise latent status problems. That is, people uncertain about their status in relation to others present were made aware of the quandary when it came to the problem of whether to enter the room first, or in the middle, or last. So, you see, we were able to make some useful recommendations; but the feeling that's left is that if only social engineering can get around to enough things, life will be a bowl of cherries.'

Treece said: 'I hope you don't mind my asking this, but what were the recommendations you made?'

'The recommendations?' asked Jenkins. 'Well, actually what we recommended was that conferences should use a circular table, and a circular room, and a separate door in the wall for each participant. I don't know whether the Pentagon are actually using this yet, but I fancy they will.'

'I see,', said Treece. 'I see.' He turned and looked around the room, with a mystified and oddly tired eye; if all the chairs had been filled with horses, instead of with lecturers and professors taking coffee in their latitudinal quiet, it would have seemed no odder to him than the conversation from which he had just emerged, as from some long black tunnel. Are there then, he asked with a mind that seemed over the last few minutes to have grown quaintly old-fashioned, in the cast of some barbarian confronted with Athens at its heyday, are there then people who do that and call it thought?"

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