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Big Society and fractured organisations—is HR part of the problem?

Robin Stafford, 31 January 2014

Our associate consultant Robin Stafford contributes the latest in our series on how working lives are changing, and what that means for society.

See also:

Beyond Jobs: what if employment policy caught up with labour market reality? Wingham Rowan

Freedom and security at work: can we have both? Brendan Martin

Unions and the precariat Guy Standing

The NHS tops the league table for workplace stress. Staff and patients deserve better Roger Kline


There has been much debate about the fragmentation and atomisation of society, not least with the Government’s claimed concerns for family and community, and their suggested aim of a ‘Big Society'.

But could it be that the changing shape and culture of today’s organisations, be they public or private, is contributing to social breakdown, and to all the psychological and emotional difficulties associated with that?

If there is an economic recovery happening it is one in which too many, perhaps most, of the jobs being ‘created’ are low income and insecure, being short-term, part time or even zero hours. This of course is not new, in that the ‘hollowing out’ of organisations in all sectors has been happening over at least 20 years. This also contributes to the rapid growth in inequality and reduced social mobility, as those jobs with increased incomes and security are no longer available.

Charles Handy wrote about this when he coined the phrase ‘Shamrock Organisation’ in his 1989 book The Age of Unreason. He described how organisations would have only a small core of full-time staff, well paid with secure employment.  Around them there would be self-employed consultants and experts who would be bought in as required – the second leaf on the shamrock.  A third leaf of lower paid contract and part time workers would do the unskilled or semi-skilled work.

Handy seemed then to view these developments through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles, anticipating the freedom that this would bring to people, rather as zero hours contracts are defended by some. However, he was much less clear about the darker sides.

Is this what most people really want?  Or do they value security and continuity more than the highest possible income?

And who is going to train these ‘experts’, skilled or even semi-skilled workers when all organisations are merely expecting to buy them in as required? Apprenticeships and management training schemes, which used to develop these skills, have declined. 

Meanwhile companies bemoan the lack of skills, be they technical or managerial, and complain that schools and universities are not producing people ready-trained for the world of work. Is training supposed stop at the end of school or university?

But there is another dimension. Politicians and commentators debate the fragmentation and atomisation of wider society, and the impact on families and communities.  Yet this has paralleled the break-up of organsations.

Corporations, companies and other organisations are communities to which people belong - or used to.  They have their cultures and norms, good and bad, and people build relationships that can last a lifetime.  They are - or have been - hugely important to people, not least because people spend most of their lives amongst them, for better and worse. 

Instability and insecurity in people's working lives has to have a huge impact on their personal lives, as psychologists and therapists have known for years.  Yet 'Big Society' ideas somehow suggest that we can compensate for insecure working lives with more robust families and communities, as though they can be somehow inversely correlated. 

I suspect that in fact they are very directly correlated, with stresses and strains in families and communities being directly linked to destructive and badly managed changes in organisations in which those people work.

It is no coincidence that people talk about some of the best organisations as being like families, that care for their employees’ wider interests, rather than seeing employment as just a narrow transactional relationship.

This is not an argument for an old fashioned paternalism, but we should recognize that there are real social costs from the fragmentation of organisations, and that they are being externalised just as environmental costs are so often externalised.

‘Big Society’ applies at work, not just in the home. That means that ‘human resource management’ should become part of the solution, instead of a big part of the problem.

  • Robin Stafford is an associate consultant with Public World and was formerly Group Head of Programmes with Standard Chartered Bank
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