Shamrock Organisations and the Present of Work

I’ve been (re)-reading a late 80s management book lately. It’s called The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy.

My friend said to me, “why are you reading a management book!?”. Because, I said, it helps me think through some of the changes in work and, importantly, the things that people are saying about changes in work.

The Age of Unreason is about changes that Handy saw happening in white-collar work in the late 80s and early 90s. One of the concepts that’s most often referenced from TAoU is the “Shamrock Organisation”. A Shamrock Organisation is comprised of three “leaves”. The British Library’s Management and Business Studies Portal has a good summary of the three leaves.

The first group is a core of qualified professional technicians and managers. They are essential to the continuity of the organisation, and have detailed knowledge of it, and of its aims, objectives and practices. They are rewarded with high salaries and associated benefits, in return for which they must be prepared to give commitment, to work hard and to work, if necessary, long hours.

The second group consists of contracted specialists who may be used, for example, for advertising, R&D, computing, catering and mailing services. They operate in an existential culture; and are rewarded with fees rather than with salaries or wages. Their contribution to the organisation is measured in output rather than in hours, in results rather than in time.

The third group – the third leaf of Handy’s shamrock – consists of a flexible labour force, discharging part-time, temporary and seasonal roles. They operate within a role culture; but Handy observes that while they may be employed on a casual basis they must be managed, not casually, but in a way which recognises their worth to the organisation.

I’ve found this a really good lens for thinking about how people talk about the new kinds of work that are “just around the corner”. Or for thinking about how people, for example casual lecturers (or adjuncts in the American sense) are effectively locked out of the sort of employment they aspire to. Or for thinking about why the kind of permanent positions experienced by people in my parent’s generation may never be available again.

For example, Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation is about people leaving the first leaf of the Shamrock, the professional core, for the second leaf, the contracted professionals. (Pink briefly refers to TAoU in FAN.) FAN is pretty positive about the changes in employment status of the people who make up the case studies in the book.

One thing that Handy notes is that the Shamrock organisation is compelled to always try to reduce the size of the core. So, if you’re in the core and you choose to leave for the second leaf, that benefits the organisation. But, what this also means is that getting in to the core is pretty difficult and that even if you’re in the core, the organisation is incentivised to push you into another leaf.

Handy thought that people would be pretty happy to forego the dedication to the organisation required by the core for the freedom offered by the second leaf. He thought that the lack of security experienced by people in the second leaf would be balanced by the “Portfolio Careers” they’d develop. Many of Handy’s examples of these Portfolio Workers are of people like him: mature upper-middle class professionals who’ve already had well developed “core” careers. It’s not clear how someone starting out would develop the expertise needed to build a suite of careers, rather than (just) one.

It helps to remember that TAoU was written at the height of the boom in the UK. For a certain type of person, in a fairly narrow sort of career, everything that Handy was talking about came to pass. And it was awesome. These days, not so much. Right?

In an age of austerity, and in a highly service-oriented economy, the Shamrock Organisation takes a darker turn. The pressures to reduce the core are the same but now there are fewer opportunities in the other leaves — fewer opportunities to develop expertise and fewer opportunities to move between leaves as time and circumstances require.

Handy said that the core embody the culture of the organisation. But the constant pressure to reduce the size of the core seems like it would have two effects on the organisational culture — it would encourage overt displays of loyalty and it would compel moves to downsizing the outsourcing. This is apparent in Universities with the well known situation of the casualisation of teaching and the contract-isation of research positions.

If you’re in the contract leaf or the project-work leaf, things like the casualisation of employment are a problem. Labour rules are set up for core workers. Back when most people were core workers, that was a good idea.

But, if you’re in the core and your job is to shrink the core and keep it small, the casualisation of employment is brilliant! Instead of the organisation carrying all those core workers and, thanks to labour laws that were set up for core workers, all the liabilities associated with their entitlements (you know that simply having your annual leave on the books costs your employer money, right?) you’ve now got a far more focusable and flexible workforce, able to take advantage of new strategic opportunities that arise.

Overall, what this means is that there’s no going back to the long term job of old. It just can’t be done because the organisations where the jobs are don’t want to return to that time.

It’s a bit gloomy but that’s why I read old management texts. Come back next week when I go through Handy’s fascinating/terrifying (and possibly already in progress) vision for the future of education.


One thought on “Shamrock Organisations and the Present of Work

  1. Pingback: Further thoughts on “portfolio” careers | Not Easily Obvious

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