My biggest mistake: Colin Coulson-Thomas: The leader of Cobra, the largest study ever of business process re-engineering in Europe, is also Dean of the Faculty of Management and Wilmot-Dixon Professor of Corporate Transformation at the University of Luton

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The Independent Online
IT HAS BEEN stimulating to work so closely with companies and consultants across Europe as head of the European Commission's Cobra initiative. It has also brought home a big mistake earlier in my life.

When I was young I wanted to become involved in international affairs (my subject as a student at LSE), but found myself drawn more and more into pursuing narrower national interests.

Having trained as a chartered accountant in the early 1970s, I spent the following two years at the London Business School and had chances to pursue international interests. I took part in an exchange programme with the University of Chicago and spent a year in South America as a Brazilian Government Scholar. But I returned and became interested in local and national politics, standing as a candidate for Parliament and becoming a councillor in the London borough of Greenwich and chairman of the Bow Group.

During this period I became increasingly focused upon national issues and assumed a variety of roles in traditional commercial and professional organisations. When you are young you tend to think mostly in terms of jobs and offices. Yet I continued to have this underlying urge to be more involved in international affairs. I was born and brought up in Cornwall, where people tend to move all over the world, but Celts also like to be in control of their lives, working in ways that suit them and really doing what they are good at.

Forming my own company, Adaptation, was my first step towards independence, together with a number of part-time public and academic appointments, and writing books. Breaking free of traditional organisations has allowed me to develop network relationships with people around the world who share my interests. Most are only seconds away by telephone, fax or electronic mail.

Two recent developments have re-awakened my interest in international affairs: they are the Cobra project and more involvement with the University of Luton. Our Cobra study is revealing the extent to which 'virtual' and network organisations are rapidly becoming a reality.

The creative use of communications technology can enable people to overcome barriers of culture and timed function at a distance - to work in ways that enable them to give of their best. No generation in history has had such a wide range of choice of when, where and with whom to work.

Interestingly, one of the most innovative learning networks to emerge from the Cobra exercise has been Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge Ltd, of which I am chairman. One of its strengths has been the provision of a working culture and environment that enables people to work and learn in ways that allow them to be creative and imaginative.

In contrast, our Cobra findings suggest that most 're-engineering' programmes are obliged to squeeze more out of people - that is, getting them to work harder rather than smarter.

Which brings me to Luton and the fact that I now have a core group of colleagues who share my drive to improve the quality of working life by encouraging people to adopt more imaginative ways of working and learning. I also have a growing network of people who are committed to introducing more strategic, balanced, holistic and people- centred approaches to corporate transformation.

Inevitably, such a network transcends national borders and brings together a community of people with shared interests, visions, goals and values. Where, one wonders, does all this lead the nation state? When information, money, ideas, interests and commitments flow so easily across national borders, the very concept of the nation state is brought into question.

My mistake was seeking to influence policy within organisations and institutions that are ceasing to be relevant to what really matters to so many people. Thankfully, the models of organisations and communities of interest which are now emerging will better enable us to be true to ourselves and to deliver value to others.

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