The Beauty of Decay

Everything has a cycle. Everything. Some cycles are longer than others, and we tend to avoid the subject about ours – individually, collectively, and as organisations – in polite company.

We shouldn’t.

An oak tree grows for about three hundred years, then goes into a sort of maintenance mode for three hundred, and then takes around three hundred to decay. At every single point, it’s a contributing member of its ecosystem. During its decay phase, it acts as host for other life forms, returns its nutrients to the soil, tells the other oaks around it how it’s doing and whats going on via a complex mychorizzhal network.

It’s not difficult to draw a parallel with many of our current businesses and institutions (except for the dignified decay part). The timescales may be shorter, but the process is the same.

Hospitality was around long before it became an industry. It was provided at local level by people who were part of the community, and grew as the community prospered. As we became more connected, opportunities for acquistion and consolidation appeared, and on the back of that new business models, from chains to franchises appeared that could be financed in anticipation of further growth. As that developed, so further consolidation developed, as investors pursued efficiency gains. We went steadily from organic growth to acquisition led growth to maintenance of position, and from local connection and community to national and global brand marketing. It became a highly leveraged market absolutely dependent on growth for survival. It’s decay is a necessary part of returning hospitality to its roots as personal relationships.

Education has followed the same path. We have gone from local schools and Universities to Multi Academy Trusts and Global Education Brands, and in the process have monetised education. We have turned something beautiful into a commodity. In order to compete and attract funds, we have pursued scale and efficiency. As income became a matter of “bums on seats” we have maxed out on expensive adminstrators and proVC’s, developed more courses designed to attract students, and filled as many places as we could come what may.

The idea of rounded students – the “Universal” in University has played second fiddle to obsession with narrow specialist jobs. The trouble appears to be that in many cases, those specialist jobs are evolving faster than those institutions who design the courses. In the Games sector, one of the fastest growing sectors in the creative industries the indications are that Universities are not providing what the industry needs, so the industry is adapting accordingly and training their own.

As that happens, the overhead heavy traditional education sector was bound to fall prey to those who could deliver more, better, and more cost effectively via technology.

In other sectors, the overriding need is not for fixed skills but the curiosity and capability to meet the challenges of uncertainty. The decay of traditional education is well underway.

Consulting faces the same pressures. When levels of uncertainty rise to the levels they are doing, consultants know little more than anyone else. The ones who are learning are the ones with skin in the game who are doing.

Consulting is a little over one hundred years old from its start in the days of Arthur D. Little, and since then has made a fortune by servicing the maintenance phase of the industrial era. However, when it comes to where we are now, they know no more than anyone else – they just guess more expensively whilst administering palliative care to the large swathes of their client base that is decaying.

The same goes for many other areas and all this is both good and necessary, if painful for those who buy the idea of perpetual growth and who don’t believe in cycles.

I came across a privately owned Pub in Warwicksire which has been part of its community for many decades. When lockdown occurred, its first response was to understand what the community it served needed. What it needed was a general store of the sort that became defunct as supermarkets stole the show – somewhere local, convenient, and connected to its customers in the real world. Over a weekend, it became a general store with a bar, bringing together farm shops and othe local producers in a wonderful display of collaboration. A general store with a bar. What’s not to like? and all this, whilst the majors cried foul on the virus and begged for help from government. Elsewhere, I’ve seen Pubs offering “hot desks” to those in their community who don’t have room to work from home. It used to be that the pub, the church and the post office were the beating heart of a local community. Perhaps those seeds are sprouting.

In Education, a combination of cost and inappropriate offerings are seeing suasage machine education institutions replaced by more refined offerings at the same time as employers want more rounded, connected, people that can withstand the shocks we will continue to see. Businesses that understand efficiency is a relative, not an absolute term. Absolute efficiency in one domain leaves us nowhere to go when that domain finds itself suddenly surprised.

Businesses looking to navigate their way through uncertainty and harness the opportunities that are arising are increasingly turning away from fomulaic coaching and consulting, to each other through peer groups. Great facilitated dialogue with others facing the same pressures generates insight, understanding and levels of support that are materially different from bought in theory.

Where we are are is part of a natural cycle, and it’s happening on our watch. We should enable it, not fight it.

There is beauty in the decay of the old. It opens up opportunities for those that naturally follow, and who create a tomorrow much more attractive than an expensively maintained version of today.

We just need to be open to it, inconvenient though that may be.

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