BOOK REVIEW / The dilemma of not being where we hoped: 'The Empty Raincoat' - Charles Handy: Hutchinson, 12.99

Peter Beddowes
Wednesday 23 February 1994 00:02 GMT

As we become more familiar with the shape and character of this decade, the profound issues of our time come into clearer focus. There is no more difficult nor central issue than the apparently growing divergence between the needs of business and that of society at large.

The business imperative is most eloquently expressed in the equation 1 2 x 2 x 3 = P', stark shorthand for the current business trend: if you employ half the workforce and pay them twice as much, they will become three times more productive. The leaner faster, flexible organisation is seen as the key to survival and success in an era of cut-throat international competition.

On the other hand, the need to create more, and better-quality, employment and a more equal distribution of wealth and of educational opportunities has never been greater if our society is to be sustained in a healthy manner.

With these conflicting pressures in mind, it is refreshing to read Charles Handy's eagerly awaited new book, The Empty Raincoat. Professor Handy, an Irish-born intellectual living in England, is one of a small elite who successfully brings together the worlds of pragmatic management, management academia and the media, communicating his message on a truly global stage.

In The Empty Raincoat, Handy readily acknowledges a more realistic tone than his pioneering The Age of Unreason which dealt with the revolutionary changes taking place in the nature of work and the shape of organisations in the late 1980s. As he now admits, the analysis was too optimistic, failing to recognise the painful paradoxes inherent in the interaction between the driving forces that underpin the market economy and our personal needs as emotional and spiritual beings - let alone the wider considerations of creating well-being in society at large.

The dilemmas we face are brilliantly summarised in the first chapter of the new book: 'We are not where we hoped to be.' Unfortunately, it raises expectations that later chapters will point to solutions, which the book cannot and does not really set out to do.

Handy's analysis is intelligent and articulate. His prognosis, focusing on the management of paradox, is a realistic, useful and honest attempt to help people find a way of handling the dynamic uncertainties with which they live. But one cannot help feeling a sense of 'aloneness' by the end of the book. The author effectively illustrates the paradoxes with which we must all come to terms, and I fully believe his message that each individual needs to find his or her own sense of balance and perspective to deal with these.

For most, this means finding fulfilment in our lives as human beings by balancing our different needs. The alternative is his notion of 'the empty raincoat' - maximising economic performance, but to what end?

So while the book is a fascinating think-piece for the intelligent business reader, it leaves a few unanswered questions. Do we believe that out of today's chaos, creativity is born? And from this creative energy can our society sufficiently adapt and sustain itself?

In the age of unreason it is unrealistic to hark back to dangerously seductive but unworkable planning approaches. Nevertheless, we surely need more than increased self-awareness and personal maturity among a small but growing proportion of the population for a significant impact to be registered How are we to tackle structural unemployment, the emerging under-class and growing intolerance without a concerted effort to combine all segments of our society and economy?

Handy sprinkles his book with examples of business people who succeed because they are passionate about their work beyond the mere profit motive. They have a passion for a cause, whether it is excellence, creativity or pride and whether they are Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, or senior executives of McDonald's, Disney, Virgin or CNN. In essence, they are determined to have a real and substantial impact on people's lives. Paradoxically, it seems the most successful entrepreneurs are after all - even if only indirectly - engaged in social re-engineering and not just obsessed with profit.

The Empty Raincoat is an easily read and relevant book that leaves you having to think much harder and more painfully about your own approach to managing and surviving the paradoxes of our society. It strikes a particular nerve in Britain today as we strive to find a positive theme to replace the blind optimism of the Thatcher years. And its relevance is global.

It is intriguing and ironic that two of the most successful economies and societies of the past 40 years - Germany and Japan - increasingly look with envy at the economic successes of Britain in the 1980s era of pragmatic entrepreneurialism. While there are lessons to be learned from the British experiences, it is sad to think that these societies are prepared to jettison their painfully earned and immeasurably valuable social consensus merely to preserve current levels of personal affluence. It is simply too high a price to pay.

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