The Obscurer

Category: Business

Rah Rah For Randall

Last year I was going to write a post prompted by this Daily Telegraph article from Jeff Randall, the ex-Business Editor of the BBC, where he criticised his former employer for the profusion of useless timeservers at the corporation. Well he should know, I was going to say; how ironic that during his period at the BBC I found him to be such an utter waste of space. I could only imagine what talented journalists such as Evan Davis, Stephanie Flanders and Paul Mason must have thought working alongside someone so woeful. But with so much wrong in this world, and having already written one post slagging the man off, I decided a second was hardly required and so I binned it.

I’m still sure that decision was correct, but recently I have read a good number of posts and comments around the place that, when legitimately criticising the BBC’s business coverage, have spoken wistfully of the Jeff Randall era. Such instances are rare but still they haunt me (I’m easily spooked) and they are a disturbing development. For example take Guido (via Gracchii) who, in one of those posts that suggests he really should just stick to the gossip, criticises Newsnight and Stephanie Flanders because of what appears to be a simple transposing error when reporting the markets; he then finishes his post by pointedly noting that “Jeff Randall is on Sky…“, as is his style.

Well I read that as an invitation, so this week I decided to check out Jeff at his new televisual home, Jeff Randall Live on Sky News. Much water has gone under the bridge since I last clapped eyes on the fellow, and I wondered if perhaps I had been a bit harsh in my appraisal of his talents, that maybe Guido’s implication is right and that he and others have seen something I have not, and that Jeff is a far better journalist that I have hitherto given him credit for.

But oh dear no, it is all still there; Jeff still has the air of someone slightly puzzled, who is trying really hard but is not at all sure quite where he is. When he talks it seems less like he is speaking his brains than he is conducting someone else’s thoughts. Okay, but that’s just presentation, and while it doesn’t breed confidence or suggest Jeff has a mastery of his subject he may still know his stuff, even if he gives every impression that he doesn’t.

But there is more to it than that. In his BBC days Jeff’s role was to answer questions put to him by the presenter, whereupon he would typically appear clueless and flounder around for a bit, unquestioningly trotting out some received wisdom lacking in any supporting evidence, or drawing lazy and false conclusions; I particularly remember him trying to illustrate Leeds United’s financial problems by comparing its turnover against Manchester United’s, which is idiotic. Fortunately Jeff is now spared all that indignity, being both the presenter and interviewer for his own programme, and presumably fed his lines by autocue and earpiece; but still all is not well. He is a very poor interrogator for one thing, his technique apparantly being to lob the obvious and most contentious question first – the one the interviewee will be well rehearsed for – and to then fail to follow it up, plodding on to the next question regardless and making little attempt to react to and engage with whatever the other party has actually said. The result is that he allows the interviewee to speechify, to in effect be allowed to get away with delivering a PR monologue without any fear of being picked up on any of the specifics. In all it doesn’t feel like he is conducting an interview, he may as well be running through a questionnaire.

So yesterday we had David Greene of the law firm representing around 6000 of Northern Rock’s shareholders who reasoned that the government could recompense each shareholder to the value of £4 per share of their worthless stock, a statement that went entirely unchallenged by Jeff. His “interview” with Mike Turner of BAe Systems was even worse, allowing Turner to respond to the obligatory question about the company’s contentious links with Saudi Arabia by sighing, shrugging his shoulders and wondering aloud about what a cruel and unfair world we live in where people can’t just leave his great British company alone, as if concern about the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the Al Yamamah deal and the political interference that brought it to a halt was just an example of the tall poppy syndrome, sour grapes and a sadly regretable lack of patriotism. It was all pretty pathetic.

Now I have nothing against Jeff personally, he is only doing his best bless him, but had I read some of these recent criticisms of the BBC’s business coverage during his tenure I may have entirely agreed, but cited Jeff as a perfect example; so how can you explain his fine reputation among the same folk? Clearly I’ve not watched every report or read every article Jeff has ever produced, and it is possible, though barely plausible, that I have been uniquely unfortunate in my exposure to the bloke; this could merely be a difference of opinion between Jeff’s cheerleaders and myself and there’s no accounting for taste. Maybe it is all down to his supporters taking a dim view of Jeff’s replacement, Robert Peston, who is himself no great shakes; it may be a straightforward case of absence making the heart grow fonder. But just perhaps, could it be the very fact that Jeff has spent much of his post-BBC career regularly criticising the corporation he used to work for that has so endeared him to some? Not for me to say, but whatever the reason the solution is simple; should anyone praise Jeff’s journalistic abilities I will just point them in the direction of his Sky News show and leave it at that. Nothing more will be required, and I never need write about him again.

Undertaking

A morning spent fruitlessly trawling through a large tin of Celebrations attempting to locate just one last Snickers must mean conclusively that the Christmas period is finally over, so perhaps I should dust off this old blog and write something down here; but what?

Well some old things don’t change with the New Year; for one thing Inside Track are still mithering me. Once again I have received a mailing from them inviting me to attend one of their workshops where I can learn all about investing in property so that they I can profit to the tune of a tidy sum. Since having a chuckle while reading their first letter to me a few years back, I’ve always thrown their post straight in the recycling; for an organisation that proclaims that spaces on their seminars are limited and rapidly snapped up I can’t understand why they insist on sending unsolicited invitations to someone who has ended up on their mailing list for no good reason at all. But still the letters come.

However, they seem to have changed tack with their most recent mailshot; just take a look at their latest envelope.

Yes, Inside Track was responsible for making 200 people millionaires last year; now they want me – yes, me – to swell their number and become the 201st. Clearly for Inside Track the arrival of 2008 is no reason to rest on their laurels for 2007; oh no, not only do they want to make me rich, but they want me to join their rich list for last year, so boosting their already impressive statistic of 200 success stories. I can only assume that they don’t simply want to make me a millionaire, they also want to help me to travel back in time, to have become rich some months back; or at the very least they are going to backdate my windfall.

Perhaps I should be flattered by Inside Track’s continued interest in me, but why do I get the nagging feeling that their target audience is not the financially astute, but rather the gullible? Certainly they have hitherto been wasting their time with me, unwilling as I am to get roped into something that exhibits all the signs of financial charlatanry; but time travel? Well, that changes everything. Rather than wasting my time as I had assumed, will an Inside Track seminar instead afford me all the time in the world? Even the mere possibility of it excites me; perhaps I have been far too dismissive of the dubious clots.

Selling England By The Pound

At times it seems as if it is open season on the supermarkets, and especially Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer. In the same way that Barclays – by virtue of its dominant position in the banking sector – is the first to be attacked for closing branches, outsourcing and imposing punitive bank charges, so disquiet about supermarket practices in general often becomes condensed into specific complaints about Tesco in particular.

Last week’s BBC1 programme Shopping The Supermarkets, and Monday’s Dispatches programme The Supermarket That’s Eating Britain on Channel 4, are recent examples covering familiar territory. Local councils, like mine in Stockport, are bullied in the planning stage and Tesco builds stores that breach planning permission; they hold “land banks” that reduce competition by blocking other retailers from developing sites; they squeeze suppliers into bankruptcy from their powerful oligopsonistic position; they exploit numerous tax loopholes whilst cosying up to government; and they have really, really irritating adverts (sorry, that last one wasn’t on Dispatches list, it’s just one of my bugbears).

Dispatches also highlighted the Clubcard scheme whereby customers’ purchases are monitored and scrutinised, providing a wealth of information ascribed to each individual so that discount vouchers can be posted out tailored to our disparate needs, so that our every whim can be twisted, teased and coerced into profit. Such data mining raises some privacy concerns, and it is this matter that forms the subject of this post, and which has determined why I feel Tesco and its cohorts must be engaged in battle and defeated.

For instance; take a look at this section from my Clubcard statement that arrived this morning. Ignoring the general voucher for the princely sum of £2 which I can spend as I like, we see below the unique, targeted vouchers for my use as prescribed by that infamous, omnipotent database. So, drawing on my many years as a Tesco customer, following the trends as I turned from callow youth into a callow father-of-two, let’s see what they make of me.

You may not be able to empathise, but reading the coupons I feel a distinctly eerie feeling, like someone has just walked over my grave. How do they do it? What witchcraft is this? How could they possibly know that I drink milk? And eat bread, fruit and vegetables? That my wife uses cleaning products? Or that I take all my goods home in a bag? Truly the power of Tesco is mighty, other worldly. I feel invaded, violated, as if someone has been dipping around in my brain, has delved into the depths of my very soul.

Join me. Help me to fight this menace, before Tesco discover other secrets about me – that I wear clothes, shoes – and send me unsolicited vouchers for them too. They must be allowed to go no further. This must end here. Now.

My Mother Is A Fish

…and I am a Plant. But a few years ago I was a Monitor Evaluator. So has the world changed or have I changed?

I’m talking about Belbin’s Team Roles, and for the second time in my life I have filled out one of their self-perception questionnaires that in theory indicates where I should ideally fit into a company or organisation. In short the questionnaire is divided into seven sections (eg.“What I believe I can contribute to a team”) and for each section you are given several different options that could apply to you (eg. “Producing ideas is one of my natural assets”, “I can work well with a very wide range of people” etc.). You must allocate 10 points to the possible answers in each section; say 7 points to the option that you feel strongly applies to you, 3 point to an option that you feel is only partially appropriate, and no points to those options that you don’t feel are relevant at all. By following the matrix at the back of the questionnaire you can then discover your ideal role in a team, be it a Shaper, a Co-ordinator, a Resource Investigator, and so on.

So I am a Plant, which apparently meant that I am “creative, imaginative, unorthodox”. Plants “solve difficult problems”. On the other hand I “ignore incidentals” and I am “too pre-occupied to communicate effectively”. A few years ago, however, on the previous occasion that I completed the questionnaire, I was a Monitor Evaluator, which means I was “sober, strategic and discerning”, I would “see all options” and “judge accurately”, but I would also “lack the drive and ability to inspire others”. So which is the real me?

Perhaps I have changed over the intervening years; more likely I suspect that if I were to take the test several times I would each time provide some slightly different responses and so produce a slightly different result. I am not saying the test is total bollocks – I reckon I will never get the results that elevate me to the level of a Resource Investigator (extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative, explores opportunities, develops contacts) or a Shaper (challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure, the drive and courage to overcome obstacles), they don’t sound like me at all – but I reckon it is mainly bollocks, that’s all.

Because I just don’t know what the purpose of such a survey is, other than to make lots of money for Dr. Belbin. I know what it is meant to do; ideally the test should work out each individual’s attributes and where each employee fits into the team to assist management in arranging the right mix of talents, but does it? Shouldn’t managers be able to ascertain peoples’ abilities without relying on a test such as this? My boss gushed evangelically when she passed the test out, saying to each of us that when we discovered what our team role was we would be amazed at how closely it matched how we see ourselves; but this is hardly surprising when you consider it is a selfperception survey, and so you will be answering the questions as you think you are, which may or may not tally with reality. You may have zero leadership qualities, but if you think you are a great leader then you will answer the questions as if you are Alexander The Great; you will land yourself with a leadership team role according to Belbin, so confirming your own opinion of yourself. When you bear in mind that it is a self-perception survey it would be pretty weird if your Belbin role didn’t fit with your own self-image.

I am not casting aspersions upon Dr. Belbin’s credentials, I am sure he is eminently qualified, but what is to stop someone like myself without any training in the field coming up with my own test if I wanted to? I could create a management quiz where the answers people give would mean they are divided into, oh I don’t know, sheep, goats, wolves and aspidistras; but would it necessarily mean anything? In my case it would be about as scientific as one of those “Are you a chocoholic?” quizzes in Take A Break; but that needn’t prevent it being picked up by a certain type of manager and passed on to their undeserving staff.

And I am not saying that there is no role for management theory, there are probably nuggets of good advice in all management books, and from what I have read of Dr. Belbin he makes some pertinent points, but I think a lot of management is more about common sense than the burgeoning and lucrative management theory industry would like us to believe. Things are often much simpler than people would have us imagine; for example, when I worked in a call handing centre we underwent countless changes to our “opening salutation”, to the order and style in which we answered the calls according to the latest management fad. Ultimately, though, you can theorise to your heart’s content; the best way to provide a good service on the phone is to employ competent and polite people.

Everyone seems to want to build their part. When I was doing my economics degree I reckoned that here was a social science that fancied itself as being a natural science; then when I did a post-graduate diploma in marketing I was conscious that I was studying a management discipline that aspired to being a social science, like economics. The fact is that management is far more art than science; but I guess the arts don’t pay as well. You can’t really blame the likes of Dr. Belbin for trying; but you can question the people who lap up this sort of thing.

Jeffrey, With One F, Jefrey

Jarndyce has gone into semi-retirement, again, and I know the feeling; but I don’t think I will ever follow suit because I will never stop shouting at the telly, I will always have something I want to get off my chest. I think this blog will just continue in its erratic and irregular nature, occasionally going quiet for weeks and perhaps even months at a time when inspiration and interest desert me. I won’t be going anywhere, but I may not be coming here regularly for all manner of reasons; this past week for example, I haven’t been blogging because I have been busy working, socialising and engaging in discussions with a two year old about why, although “please” is the magic word, it is not so magic that it will produce a biscuit when a) there are no biscuits in the house, and b) you have eaten eight biscuits already today and are subsequently in real danger of actually turning into a biscuit. Such things often crush the possibility that I can comment topically on a subject of interest, while I seem to have loads of time on my hands when nothing is happening in the world to get vexed about. And what is the point of writing a post today about something I heard on the radio nearly a week ago?

I don’t know, but here it is anyway.

I have never listened to Jeff Randall’s Weekend Business on Radio FiveLive before; in part because I have always been doing something else, but also I have never held Mr Randall in very high esteem. When he regularly popped up on the news as the BBC’s business editor he always struck me as a bit of a bumbling and incompetent buffoon; I even remember Andrew Neil ticking him off on The Daily Politics for not having any statistics with him to support his take on some business story or other. However, I recently read this article in The Observer where I learned that he is now the Daily Telegraph’s editor-in chief, and indeed that he has had a pretty successful career. The Observer summarises

Jeff Randall, 51, studied economics at Nottingham University and lectured briefly before switching to journalism. He worked on trade titles before joining the Sunday Telegraph as a business reporter in 1986. From 1989 to 1995 he was City editor of the Sunday Times, then briefly joined PR firm Financial Dynamics as chairman. He returned to the Sunday Times as assistant editor and sports editor in 1996 and was launch editor of the Barclay brothers’ Sunday Business in 1997.

So it seems that being a bumbling and incompetent buffoon needn’t be a barrier to success in the media. Perhaps I should make the switch.

Anyway, last Sunday I listened to his radio programme and it was actually quite interesting, and unintentionally amusing. A cast of business leaders were interviewed on the programme, all perfectly nice people I thought, but what was notable, if perhaps not exactly surprising, was how many of them spoke managerial English in rounded pseudo accents. Much of their talk was liberally peppered with the usual clichés about visions, journeys, environments and experiences, throughout which you could hear the faint echo of the public speaking course. I can only imagine that these people only ever move in circles where such speech is the norm, and that no one ever points out how we talk in the real world.

The most interesting part of the programme, however, was when they discussed this news story about an accountant who sued a management training company when she injured herself on a team building exercise where she had to walk over hot coals. Jeff questioned John Holden of Resource Development International, another training company, about the worth or otherwise of these courses. Jeff did alright I guess, questioning what fire-walking actually has to do with team building, how relevant it all is to the office or shop floor, and about the cost of these exercises, while John Holden trotted out the managerial speak; these courses are about personal developmental processes and journeys, they are about challenging self limiting beliefs and breaking down the barriers in your mind, that wise companies pay a lot of money for these courses because people are a scarce resource.

It is nice that the staff are valued so highly that firms are expected to waste money on this nonsense. The nearest I have been to this sort of thing was on one course where juggling was used at the start as an “ice breaker”. This was a particularly weird set up, as I went on this course with about fifteen people I knew from my office; we were then split up and put on different tables with staff from other offices and had to engage in this farce in order to get to know each other. If my office colleagues and I hadn’t been split up in the first case we could have dispensed with this ice breaker bollocks altogether and just cut to the chase; but then a two hour presentation wouldn’t get stretched out into a whole days training, and that would never do.

Anyway, some plastic balls were placed in the middle of each table and some trainers instructed us all on the basics of juggling; then it was our turn. The “point” of this charade was that we would learn that what had seemed impossible at the start of the lesson was actually far easier than we thought once we applied ourselves. Now in my case all I actually learnt was that I can’t juggle (or perhaps that I don’t apply myself) but even if I had succeeded in this pointless task just how was this seriously meant to affect me? When struggling at work, trying once more to match the quart of workload to the pint pot of resources, is it expected that I will think, “But hey, I can juggle! I can do this”? Probably, but I am never going to; that is never going to happen.

And that’s the real point; through all the talk of valuing teamwork and fostering self awareness there was no attempt on the part of John Holden to explain just how walking on hot coals, or juggling, has ever been of any actual practical assistance to people in their working lives, or if there is evidence of any tangible success for these courses. More interestingly, perhaps, Jeff Randall, a journalist with an impressive CV and an apparent extensive knowledge of business practices, didn’t think to ask.