Come in Spinner: There’s something about Louise

When Kevin Rudd introduced a new system for ABC board appointments Margaret Simons wrote a Crikey piece speculating on possible candidates.

One name she canvassed was Louise Adler, currently involved in a controversy over the dismissal of the Principal at a leading Melbourne private school – MLC. Simons was stunned by the polarised reaction to her suggestion with a great number of people contacting her to suggest that it was either the most inspired or the most appalling suggestion she had ever made. The author doesn’t know Louise Adler (having only met her once briefly to discuss a trade publishing project with Melbourne University Press which the organisation I was representing decided to take to another publisher) but everyone in Melbourne’s chattering circles seems to have an opinion of her. The supporters talk about her energy and creativity and role as a public intellectual. Tony Abbott (she is his publisher) must be firmly in this camp having just shown some ill-discipline of his own by jumping into the MLC controversy to support her and the MLC Board. Given what Liberal Party research is showing about Victorian attitudes to Tony Abbott it was probably support she didn’t need. The other side point to a history of moving into jobs, sacking people and then moving on. In Melbourne there is now even a term, ‘Adlerised’, to describe what some people claim is the distinctive Adler management style.

She has now been at MUP for some time although staff sackings and some publishing decisions, such as a book about Melbourne identity Mick Gatto, have caused comment. The publisher has also done very well out of some books, the Latham Diaries for instance, while also making substantial losses in other years which require large subsidies from the university. Recently she was claimed to have passed up a Royal Society of Victoria book on the scientific work of the Burke and Wills expedition (which would strike many as a bit of an oxymoron even if less bizarre than a book on Gatto) but which became one of the CSIRO’s best-selling books of all time and is now in its third edition since being published late in 2011. Whatever individual publishing decisions MUP has made, however, conditions for university publishing as a whole are very difficult to say the least, and even more complex than the range sort of emotions Ms Adler provokes. Indeed, how any but the oldest and biggest academic publishers manage to balance the need to bring out works of substantial academic benefit while minimising the subsidies involved is a bit of mystery? In Australia University of New South Wales press seems to be coping reasonably well but the survival of scholarly publishers around the world is a major problem for universities.

But what is really interesting about Ms Adler and the current controversy is not publishing and polarisation but rather what it says about Melbourne and modern management. First, Melbourne. One of Melbourne’s great charms is that it is one of the world’s great provincial cities. Victorian politicians hate that being said, preferring to regard the place as ‘world class’ whatever that means. But like all great provincial cities it is large enough to offer diverse attractions, has a great lifestyle unfortunately balanced by being small enough for senior peoples in any given area – from culture to business and academia to retailing – to be aware of each other and to experience significant overlap between the various areas. Sometimes six degrees of separation feels like three in a provincial city. So when there is controversy many people know something or other, or think they know something or other, about the participants and their motives and many of them have multiple links. For instance, within the MLC controversy the dismissed Principal is a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the university to which Ms Adler’s employer, MUP, belongs. (Note the author was, through an accident of history and happenstance, very briefly on the University of Melbourne Council.)

Second, modern management. Change and renewal are important to all organisations which want to avoid ossifying or dying. The idea is not new. In 48 CE, according to Tacitus and the Tabula Claudiana, the Emperor Claudius told the Roman Senate that it needed change and renewal. Significantly Claudius, in a rather misunderstood and under-estimated speech, drew on the past to indicate the sort of change which might occur. Today, however, it is less the past that justifies change and more assertions about what the future might bring when significant changes are implemented.

As a result of this desperate desire for change, tenure of CEOs and managers of private and public sector organisations is getting shorter and shorter. Particularly in the public sector new managers move in, turn organisations upside down and then move on. This whole process has spawned a lucrative public relations specialisation – change management communications – in which PR people justify the changes to staff and the outside world and then move on to do the same on yet another project.

What is moot is the extent to which these changes actually make organisations better. In the current debates about productivity the business community, its organisations and its mouthpieces in The Australian and AFR place huge emphasis on the role of industrial relations and taxation in raising productivity but shy away from accepting that management problems are also having an impact on the problem. It is, in fact, easy to imagine that a never-ending upheaval of organisations, sackings and changing goals which seem to have little empirical foundation might be hindering the productiveness of organisations.

Now we are not suggesting in any way that any changes Ms Adler has introduced have led to reduced productivity or negatively impacted on an organisations’ success, nor that she is unique in Melbourne’s milieu or management. Indeed, rather than her being unique, the discussions about her role in this latest saga say much more about what is unique about Melbourne and management than they do about Ms Adler.

And, as for whether what is unique about Melbourne and modern management needs change or not? That’s another question altogether.