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The Elephant and the Flea – Review

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Title: The Elephant and the Flea: Looking backwards to the future
Author: Charles Handy
Publisher: Hutchinson, 2001
ISBN: 0091793637
Price: £17.99

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My study contain several of Charles Handy's books collected and read over the years, each adding new ideas and fresh perspectives to my understanding of work, motivation, and the way we organise our lives. Like so much of his earlier work, this new book is an engaging and stimulating discussion about the problems and dilemmas we face. Handy has a remarkable ability to examine issues from fresh angles, bringing new insights often from unexpected analogies and overheard remarks.

Part autobiography, part management text, part organisational history, and part polemical debate – this is a book which defies easy categorisation. Twenty years after he first started to put into practice some of the work management ideas he had been exploring as a teacher, author and broadcaster, Handy uses the book to reflect and comment on his own evolving ideas. Never afraid to admit where he got things wrong, the result is a book full of engaging insights and surprising observations which help to place our own ideas and experiences into context.

At the core of the book is Handy's own move from the secure working environment of the large corporate elephants (in his case, Shell Oil followed by the London Business School), to the self-supporting and independent life of the flea, providing services to the larger organisations on a contracted-out or freelance basis. Over twenty years, he discovers that "fleadom" is not quite how he had envisaged it. Along the route, he makes some entertaining observations about the nature of capitalism, the role of spirituality, and even the contribution of the Internet. Let me highlight just two examples of the fascinating threads which pepper the pages of this book.

In exploring the elements which constitute real value for both organisations and individuals today, Handy points his finger at intellectual property – the ideas, skills and knowledge that drive both companies and fleas. But intellectual property is not plant, nor equipment, nor production, nor inventory, nor money. He cites the example of Nike, who own merely the brand name and the marketing rights yet are still worth a fortune. He could equally have cited today's rail operating companies who don't own the track, stations, trains, signalling, but merely the right to operate the services. Drawing on an earlier book, he explores the role of alchemists in creating this intellectual property, and presents those of us who make a living by selling our services to others to define more clearly the nature of our own exclusive intellectual property.

In another example of re-working earlier ideas on portfolio living, Handy describes his approach to 'chunking' his work by allocating proportions of his time to paid work, home work, gift work and study work. He goes on to explore the concept of 'chunking' his life, creating new arrangements in his life where time priorities are held for different activities or locations – and in the process forming new and supportive relationship patterns with his wife.

Charles Handy writes with an easy, fluid style. He says this is derived from the older habits of telling stories and talking aloud; if you write in a conversational style, people will grasp your message easily. This has certainly been a characteristic throughout his writing and helps to make this reflective book so engaging. Almost every page offers an insight or an idea relevant to the way we frame the thinking about our lives and our work. This is a book to take on holiday, to read at leisure, in which to write notes in the margin, and to return to when seeking creativity and inspiration.

Tim Pickles,
Founder, TrainingZONE

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