Grounded Corporate Culture vs. Up In The Air Management

Over the holiday weekend we gorged on movies; Sherlock Holmes, Broken Embraces, a few others. One that got decidedly mixed reviews was Up In the Air. Personally, I liked it. The New Yorker explains it very well.

But you don’t have to agree with me for us to use the metaphor. George Clooney plays a globe-trotting firer-for-hire; an outsider hired by management to terminate people at arm’s length. (Never mind such jobs basically don’t exist, this is Hollywood). 

On a dozen levels, the movie deals with the issue of intimacy in business. Firing people by proxy; quitting a job by texting; romance in the friendly skies—or is it romance? And throughout it all, can we tell the difference?

Intimacy in Business

Also over the weekend, I had a cuppa with a client, a partner at a large global professional services firm. Call him Ishmael.

We talked about his business and mine, mine consisting in part of selling to his. Like many large firms, his has cut back virtually 100% on internal travel. 

Ishmael: A global business of collegial professionals can exist for a year without mixing with your partners. Maybe even a little longer. But at some point it begins to exact a toll. We’ve been webinared to death.   Worse, we only have two-dimensional, sensory-deprived images of each other. 

There’s only so much you can do to maintain a connection without the physical, breathing presence of each other. Avatars and holograms and con-calls don’t do it. Cultures don’t live by cloud-computing alone. To make a firm, you’ve got to drink beer together, play golf together, smell each other, laugh and cry in the same room at the same time. 

Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho? (Frank Zappa)

Up in the Air Management

What I liked about the movie was that the Clooney character actually does have the ability to be real: he shows it in a scene where he cuts through the cynical hatred of a terminated employee (the talented J.K. Simmons) to jarringly put him back in touch with his youthful dreams. And yet Clooney’s character is so practiced in the Plastic Ways that he ultimately can’t recognize when he’s lost touch with that ability.

The best movies are metaphors for life. There’s fodder enough here to rail against the twittering, ADD-ridden, thumb-dancing toys that threaten to reduce our attention to a tiny screen. But that’s not all.

Those new technologies are also metaphors in addition to being virtual reality centers. They are metaphors for other forms of anti-intimacy management tools–blind auctions; outsourcing; management by process; modular design; over-use of legal agreements; online employment search.

There’s nothing wrong per se with any of these tools. But taken uncritically, and at too great a strength, you end up with Clooney in the skies, aiming at what you think is real, but which ends up being just a pale reflection.  

…like a Sale sign in the window; you go in, and find it is only the sign that is for sale. (Soren Kierkegaard)

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