An Intelligent Way of Working: People Know How by Alex Dunedin
Ive been working with Glenn Liddall and People Know How for a little over a year now, and I have been impressed at the way he, and they, are working. When Glenn approached me originally with ideas for collaboration and a new way of working towards goals which made a positive difference to various stakeholders (rather than a single group), I was interested to see what he meant and what the realities were.
Glenn was speaking about an integrated way of working which identified and valued the qualities which people have, and then taking them into a setting whereby they developed skills around a real life framework to tackle various socially pertinent issues.
We have all become aware of the increasing use of buzz words, and inventive ideas on paper, but it is in the practice that we find everything which was not on the drawing board. Running events over the last six years on a voluntary basis and trying to forge good relationships with many different people and organisations interested in learning, has led me to understand that there are really problematic structural issues which our modernly administrated lives are faced with.
Buzz words and phrases like community, isolation, ‘hard to reach groups’, social capital, ‘digital divide’, innovation, leadership, inclusive, all get banded about in the world of paperwork, yet in practice the ways we try and tackle problems like learning and community building are dictated by specious logistical systems which are frankly simplistic. Often the complex is moved away from because it makes demands which insist on our working in different ways; ways which are more reflective, reflexive and commital.
I think that many of the problems we face in trying getting some of the most basic things done in the public realm can get complicated very quickly. This is particularly so when you have a number of different people working in formal process driven cultures. Take for example loneliness and isolation; we know that people want company, but a typical deficiency of many projects which attempt to tackle such issues are that the type of company which is needed is actually based in reciprocal relationships rather than ‘time spent with other people’.
Too many times have I come across ‘cram-them-in’ type events where slightly bewildered people have been shoehorned into a space to get an outcome so to get the funding that the project needs to continue its work. Too many times have I observed over the years boom and bust initiatives which are great ideas but which either close because they are doing the right thing in practice but the wrong thing on paper – or the wrong thing in practice but the right thing on paper. The tail wags the dog…
In the community context, the idea of freedom is often proffered with the big top-down initiatives: The computer says “you have freedom to choose between the two options available”.
When the options are not engaged with, then the community is written off as apathetic and impetus to do something which addresses the needs of a community wanes and moves on to an even more simplistic approach.
There is no replacement for being a part of the community to strengthen a community – this does not involve 9-to-5 working and then clocking off to return to another neighbourhood; it does not involve commuting some enfranchised person (in the scheme of things) who has little lived experience of poverty, ill health or lack of agency; it does not involve some corporation parachuting hamstrung employees on a ‘voluntary scheme’ into an area to with their corporate branding and press photographs only to evaporate as quickly as they arrived; it involves real life people leading from the front – actually living, sharing their life and being committed to being there in soul not career.
I believe that we have a great deal to learn from the field of international development. The jury is coming back on a great deal of clumsy efforts to help “those in need” to some scandalous failures of expenditure and management. The field of international development is necessarily very reflective and reflexive due to what is at stake, and also due to the overt nature of the effects of initiatives.
International development is often percieved as being focused on so called ‘third world’ countries, at least the common perception is cast away from our shores in the UK. When we take a closer look at our own front door step there are vivid discoveries to be made in the fact that in some of the most wealthy places in the UK we also find levels of poverty which are jaw dropping. Take for example, the case of Tower Hamlets in London:
Why am I talking about the lessons learned in the field of international development ? Well, I think that Glenn Liddall embodies these hard won lessons intuitively and has mustered all his life experience to manifest a charity which behaves in a complex and humane way; one where everyone – all the stakeholders – are approached in a joined up way, listened to, and allowed to interweave themselves as they identify the needs they want to tackle.
Certainly personally I have encountered his approach as one where I recognise that I am dealing with a human being and not a static policy. Running Ragged University as an ‘informal education project’ is a major issue for most organisations and many people. Our world has become rigid to anything which is not crystallised out into mainstream terms. My point here is that the mainstream ways of doing things create the world as we currently know it. This is not bad, but it does identify where the deficits are. When you only have a hammer, the danger is you see everything as a nail.
Finding models like People Know How stewarded by people who have a wealth of experience like Glenn Liddall is critical if we are going to do make an impact on issues which remain an issue. It requires the courage and dedication of the likes of Glenn who does what it takes to ensure that things happen, whilst doing that most mysterious of tasks – pleasing the bureaucrats who hold the purse strings, who each insist on a different set of criteria for engagement, who demand a pedigree from the people who they engage with.
I find talking in personal terms more connected with reality, and should someone not be able to step beyond their role I always worry that I am working with a robot who may not be able to process a critical understanding of the complex and ever changing environment we live and work in. Glenn is a rare catalyst who can speak with all people, bring them together and make sure that the pragmatic is served in view of the ideals. I am sure that he could deal with Rumplestiltskin and through working with him have learned a great deal.
We Need To Learn From Gaining Experience
In short, we need to find new ways of working which are more participatory and value the communities which most need the opportunities to develop. In particular, we need people who have the vision and experience to work with the complexity that is inherent in life situations. For me, People Know How is a pioneering initiative which works dynamically to join dots and build bridges where they currently do not exist. It is living to gain the experience it needs to live…
I have been taking time to see him express his vision of a Social Innovation Academy, as this cannot be pre-empted by my imagination; a level of faith has been needed to allow the right things to evolve. If we are looking for something new, it will not look obviously like what is already in the landscape; it is emergent and reactive to the context it is rooted in. It is connected with the process of experiment and creativity. The process is participatory and has its compass bearing without a clear idea of what or where it requires to succeed – only a knowledge that it must and a commitment to see that it will. It is a process of searching for success without knowing what it looks like.
This kind of thinking is problematic for our time when academics and researchers (for example) are being asked about how there work will impact the economy in ten and fifty years time (absurd in the main part). This kind of thinking acknowledges the messy and unpredictable of life – but on paper it screams ‘risk’ to bureaucrats who live and work far from the places and issues they govern.
This form of thinking does not conveniently fit a box or mold or process sheet as it necessarily takes in the outlying factors which are key to a representative way of acting. A SMART plan is not smart – Prince2 is not so royal. This kind of approach is inately human and requires a human to drive it forward, it incorporates aspects of functional leadership which are malleable. It cannot be reduced to a crystallised process chart or policy book, it needs someone to live a commitment to the creativity that is the engine of discovery.
People Know How charity, represents to me an initiative which draws on aspects of particpatory action research which is being stewarded by someone who has a genuine curiosity and enjoyment of people. Bradbury and Reason in their put it the Sage Handbook of Action Research:
“Action Research is emancipatory, it leads not just to new practical knowledge, but to new abilities to create knowledge. In Action Research, knowledge is a living, evolving process of ‘coming to know’ rooted in everyday experience; it is a verb rather than a noun. This means Action Research cannot be programmatic and cannot be defined in terms of hard and fast methods, but is, in Lyotard’s (1979) sense, a work of art.”
[Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.). (2008). Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications, pp 1 – 19]
Lyotard provided an important description to the post modern paradigm which enables understandings in terms of working methodologies in the human sphere:
“A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining Judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event”
[Lyotard, Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism? Translated by Regis Durand, From Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis; University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 71-82.].
Thus, in many ways, like a doctor, Glenn is practicing in the juncture of art and science. I have enjoyed watching him work seemlessly between various people coming from a variety of backgrounds and understandings. What is unusual is his explorative style, where I see him identify qualities and skills in people before working with the other people to develop an appropriate project which they have co-constructed.
He is valuing a series of people and setting up the circumstances for them to florish through working together on real life problems. From these situations of working on real life problems, he is aligning ‘learning through doing’ with the desires/needs of community, colleges, universities and others. The nice thing is that everyone has agency within the network to do what they feel will add value or move further towards a constructive outcome for all. This is rare. This is damn rare. It takes someone who really does believe in people to realise this without it decaying into a managerial or mechanical exercise.
So, I am looking forward to working with Glenn and all those in People Know How so that I may learn, share what I know, explore ideas and develop projects without becoming depersonalised. Watch that space ! I recommend that you check out People Know How online, but even more, in person.