Wednesday, February 21, 2007

News that IS Fit, not News that Fits!

Why has Al Jazeera English become my preferred RSS feed for general news of the world? Is it just because it is at the top of the list in Google Reader's alphabetic ordering of my selected feeds? Is it a contentious reaction to the reception they received when they first launched, when the consensus seemed to be that, while it was important to recognize their coverage of news from the Middle East, they were not yet up to the speed of either the BBC or CNN in managing the full breadth of global coverage (otherwise known as the circle-the-wagons reaction)? If there was any validity to that consensus at all, Al Jazeera seems to have dealt with it by January 12, which is the first time I read a story they had released about the House of Representatives. So is it really the case that the main reason I keep finding the good stuff at Al Jazeera English is just because of their alphabetic advantage? I decided to try a test.

I am writing this less that half an hour after Google Reader fed me an Al Jazeera article about an investigation into three employee suicides at Renault. This has not yet surfaced on my other major feeds: Reuters: International,, SPIEGEL ONLINE, and Times Online (which has actually been very quiet for at least a week). I then went over to the BBC site and did a search on "Renault." My primary hits involved either racing news or consumer reports! Finally, I decided to try Google with "Renault" and "suicide" as my only search terms. The Google Web search was not particularly helpful, but the News search turned up the Al Jazeera article and only two other reports, one from the British, which requires a subscription, and the other from TV3 News in New Zealand!

So why did I go to all this trouble for this particular story? I think the primary reason is that I have been nursing an intuition that workplaces in just about any sector are getting more and more alienating (as in Robert Blauner's classic study, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry). Whatever pundits like Tom Friedman may be preaching, the "world that the Internet has made" is turning out to be a really ugly place, where those who benefit are in an almost microscopic minority compared to those who suffer. So, without trying to present these three Renault employees as candidates for martyrdom, I figured that a bit of text analysis on the wire sources that Al Jazeera used might teach us all a thing or two about the contemporary workplace. Here goes:

French authorities are investigating working conditions at carmaker Renault following the suicide of three employees in four months at one of its plants near Paris.

One 38-year-old worker hanged himself in his home in the town of Saint-Cyr-l'Ecole west of Paris on Friday after leaving a note in which he complained of problems at work.

The first step in reporting this story was to establish that the metanarrative behind the events of the suicide is likely to have something to do with problematic working conditions at one of the world's major automobile corporations.

All three employees worked in the main building of the complex known as "The Beehive" where new car designs are developed.

Next, to build on Blauner's legacy, this is not a story about factory life and its associated conditions; to draw on a piece of jargon that has polluted our conception of work in more ways than can be enumerated, we are dealing with people whose "work" is "innovation."

Renault management said the latest death "has left us with many questions and each one of us must reflect on our share of responsibility".

In other words every one needs to get their ass covered before anyone gets smart enough to start asking the right questions!

Investigators have opened a criminal investigation into work conditions at the Technocentre in Guyancourt, outside Paris where the three employees worked.

Silent march

The prosecutor's office in Versailles said they intended to look into offences such as harassment, which may be linked to the death.

We now come to the first really loaded word in the report: harassment. How do you manage someone whose job is to innovate? What criteria of achievement and accountability can you invoke? Can it ever involve anything more than "give me stuff I like;" and, if so, what happens to the relationship when the manager doesn't like the "stuff?" Something has got to give; and most of the time that "something" is the psyche!

Three weeks earlier, plant employees held a silent march in memory of two colleagues who had committed suicide in October and January in Guyancourt.

In other words we all know what is really going on, so we better show our sympathy before more of the same comes down on us!

One of the employees threw himself from the fifth floor of a building at the plant.

Jean Hotebourg, a union official, said that another employee drowned in a nearby pond after leaving his computer screen displaying an account of a bitter exchange with management representatives.

Harassment claims

Hotebourg accused management officials of "harassing" employees, saying they had been humiliated when their boss criticised them in front of colleagues.

We now get an answer to the question I posed above: What do managers do when they do not like what the innovators are innovating?

Renault said in a statement that "there was no correlation, for the time being, between work conditions" and the three suicides.

The next management strategy is to hide behind the gospel according to Management Science 101: Reduce everything to the abstractions of a mathematical model. If the model doesn't indicate anything, then there is "no correlation." If any important bits of context never made it into the model, then they must have been too complicated to be included.

"We have impassioned engineers who conceive vehicles and it is very difficult to draw a link between the workload and the Renault contracts for 2009," said a management statement.

Renault has announced plans to roll out 26 models including 12 new ones by 2009.

This is almost (but not quite) the usual Bush rhetorical device ("you have got to understand"). The story that management wants to tell is that everyone is under the gun. (If it were Clinton instead of Bush, it would be "we all feel the pain.") This would be the point at which someone like Rice would probably start using "systemic" in every other sentence out of her mouth. Well, it probably is the case that Renault is operating under one or more policy decisions that may very well be driving everyone in the organization crazy! It may even be the case that things have gotten so crazy that no one in the organization as a clue about how to get out of the mess. By all rights this should be the time when the external perspective of a Board of Directors could step in and tell the management that this insanity must cease. So we may find ourselves in the beginnings of an even more interesting metanarrative about the Board and whether they attach more priority to the people who work for their company or the people who hold stock in that company! It could be very interesting to see where this investigation leads!

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