Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The lonely soldier.

Waving the flag for state owned enterprises in a hostile environment.

Five decades of exposure to companies through journalism, management consulting, and study in organisational theory exposes one to some weird consultant interventions and processes.

One of the more bizarre 'monthly flavours', the remnants of which I came across in one client, seemed to have structured its intervention on a war game. Senior managers were encouraged to read biographies of military figures; the battleground was the market; competition the enemy; workers the troops and management were various levels of ranks. To be fair, I experienced only a few remnants of this strange structural thinking, and more specifically in one highly placed executive, who cut a straight backed colonial figure, spoke with a clipped Oxford accent that barely masked his Yorkshire background and always referred to the work force as the “troops”. But it was not the first time that I had come across military jargon in companies.

So meet one of the modern day company troops. He is Daniel (not his real name). His rank is private. His speciality is telecommunications technician. His company (both in the analogous military and real business sense) is Telkom. Let’s imagine that Telkom is playing this war game, and views the market as its theatre, with customers as its conquests. To equip themselves for this game, its leaders have been studying the military exploits of Julius Caesar and Adolf Hitler.

The Romans had little if any competition in building their empire; perhaps because of their tactic to befriend their conquests and invite them to become citizens of mighty Rome. The Third Reich, on the other hand, had some very stiff competition. Yet Hitler saw his conquests as slaves, cannon fodder, some as vermin, and all as resources to feed his ego and the Reich’s coffers.

As an aside, Eskom is another of those SOEs -- or as we can now call them -- state owned empires. The ungrateful conquered subjects of any empire will always grumble, whether under benign Roman rule, or malevolent Reich subjugation.

So I was not surprised when, just after the recent power outages, and waiting to cross a robot-less Swellendam street, a fellow next to me loudly bellowed the most creative Overberg expletives I had ever heard -- and I’ve heard plenty since settling here! I’ve never fully understood why mothers become the targets for such tirades. His wrath was directed at a hapless Eskom “troopie” who was sitting in a marked company bakkie across the street.

My heart went out to him and my immediate thought was that if you want your troops to operate in a war zone, you shouldn’t place them in marked vehicles. This acrimony can sometimes literally become a battleground as Eskom discovered in violent protests in Soweto and elsewhere recently. There, the empire had 15 of their chariots torched.

But the indomitable Telkom Empire standard bearer, Daniel, would probably have held his ground. I met this courageous soldier after I became an unwilling subject of Telkom rule, and when I chose to live in an isolated area, with poor cell phone reception, no access to normal ADSL and a constantly failing landline. They discovered that the landline problems were caused by the increased height of peach trees in the grove where the overhead cable crossed. Not even the mighty Telkom can force a peach grower to cut down his source of income.

The problem was eventually solved when my empirical masters graciously installed a system called Wimax, which transmits data via a signal beamed from some tower, and linked a VOIP telephone to the system. So Daniel packed up his armour, took his standard and left.

Then, in early December last year, the whole thing crashed. With the empire having closed its barracks in Swellendam many months earlier, and lacking a landline and internet connection, we had to contact Telkom via a cell phone to the 10210 complaint line. Now, any subject who has tried this facility quickly discovers that its sole purpose is to discourage popular dissent and is as impenetrable as the ancient walls of Rome.

After spending some R300 on air time we had secured a precious reference number that somehow gave us an assurance that a centurion had the matter in hand. Then we received an SMS falsely claiming that the fault had been restored. In desperation we sought another provider, only to discover that it bought its data from the empire and relied on its infra-structure to transmit that to non-citizens.

We then discovered that the empire had an SMS facility and informed the office bearers there that indeed the system had never been restored. A few days later, Daniel arrived, his chariot groaning under the weight of steel ladders and from which he emerged carrying the weapons of his trade. So this lonely soldier set about clambering onto the roof; cutting off tree branches several meters from the ground; plugging and unplugging thingies into thingies, and spending hours trying to connect to the same 10210 line.

He left having achieved little, still singing the praises of the empire, but expressing huge frustration with his superior officers. He promised to return the next Monday.

He never did and we yet again received a message saying the fault had been restored. And so the whole process had to be repeated...and repeated! In the meantime we simply had to fall back on an erratic service from a local supplier. Daniel eventually returned, bringing with him two other legionaries, two extra chariots and a determination to solve the problem once and for all. They did, four months after the problem first occurred. When it happened again, we decided to finally escape the empire’s rule and settled for the erratic local offering. At least we now have an intermediary with the empire.

As so often is the case in subjugation, the conquered learn to love and respect those that have to apply empirical rule but get to hate the empire and Caesar, especially when it dawns on them that in the end, Caesar, his senate, and his commanders are interested in little else but the gathering of gold and silver.

It’s the sad tale of many organisations today, lonely soldiers desperately trying to find meaning in their day to day tasks and being of service to others, but in the end overwhelmed by contamination of short term self-gratification from the top.

And soon they become the same…rebelling against their masters for their own self gain, and also viewing subjugated citizens as little more than collateral.

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