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Organisations failing as sense makers

By Malcolm King - posted Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Organisations play a central part in the narrative of our lives but in the last quarter of the 20th century, ambivalence, ambiguity and fragmentation have leached the 'spiritual mortar' out of them.

What we are witnessing is a spiritual revolt against fakery, tedium and inauthenticity. It is the hunt for a meaningful life rather than a Grail-like quest for the meaning of life.

Within the next 25 years, many large organisations will face two major crises. The first will be an existential evacuation from large organisations. The best and brightest staff will move from the 'nihilistic pyramids of inaction' towards communities of practice that place primacy on productiveness, wellness and ethics over Sisyphean workloads and deadline tyranny.


In Australia, the second factor is the migration of almost six million Boomers to retirement. They are already beginning to disengage from the workplace and move to a Grey Nomadic life, P&O Cruiser or spiritual adventurer. And there will be many more like me, who will have to work.

As Jung said "Many – far too many – aspects of life, which should also have been experienced, lie in the lumber room among dusty memories; but sometimes too, they are glowing coals under gray ashes." The Boomers are about to blow on those embers.

The 'Organisational Boomer' too is looking for a life after a working life. Do HR managers have the will or skills to entice some of them to keep working? What are the chances organisations will change to accommodate them? I suggest they will change but slowly.

Some HR managers can't even get head counts right let alone understand the demographic profile and the creative natures of their business groups. HR functionalist theories don't apply in the face of a radical qualitative revolt against old-fashioned organisations that pay lip service to change yet don't produce the goods.

The Marxist scholar Marshall Berman said: "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are."

Marx was wrong but Berman is right. Today, organisations reflect the zeitgeist - a fixation on form over content, expediency over ethics, fashion over intelligence and entertainment over news.


More and more we 'live in' organisations. We spend up to 10 hours a day in them and like a psychic prison, think about them when not at work. The walls between organisation and us are porous. Organisations now live in 'our heads'.

Organisational man and woman in the 1950s would not have understood this. There was work and then there was everything else. Work was a subset of society. Today the two worlds have merged creating a world of organisational work.

Organisations have replaced the church and social clubs as places to find meaning and solace, yet they offer little of either. There have been numerous articles and books on this topic with the most famous being Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. People are using organisations as 'conduits of need' in which, to paraphrase T.S Eliot, they can hear the sound of cool water but find none.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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