Into white spaces

‘Black people need to be able to get into white spaces.  … Otherwise another four years comes and everyone’s doing another protest.’ (Aba Amoah, quoted in What next?’).

Reading this statement, reminded me of a book I read years ago by Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart.   The blurb reads, ‘This was the book that first detailed an approach that bridged the gaps between organization strategy, work processes and individual performance.’

Two decades later came an updated version White Space Revisited: Creating Value Through Process.  This edition ‘goes beyond a mere revision of that [first] ground breaking book and refocuses on the ultimate purpose of organizations, which is to create and sustain value.’

The white spaces that Rummler and Brache discuss – organisation strategy, work process, and individual performance, can (and do) harbour racism, exclusion, and sustaining of value through exploitative or demeaning practices.

Neither book mentions or addresses these types of ‘white spaces’ that have come into even starker focus since 25 May when the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked on-going anti-racism protests in many countries.

Power is another of these white spaces and last week I wrote about sources of power in organisations, but did not mention it as a ‘white space’.  @EmRoseBaz commented on this as follows: ‘Hi Naomi, I love your work, but writing about power structures in organisations without talking about race and white supremacy is a big omission (whiteness confers power). See @georgeaye ‘s post on power in design (and every western org’s diversity stats!)’

It’s a good challenge. I hadn’t read George Aye’s article, and did so.  It’s a terrific and rich read with resources, ideas, and stories of Aye’s experience of the intersect of power,  organisation design and social justice.

He asks – ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  And answers, ‘Let’s start by understanding that power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. Let’s start with 3 simple sets of questions.’ The sets’ headings are ‘check your privilege (as a designer)’, ‘what’s your role (in transferring power)’ and ‘fire up your curiosity (by asking better questions)’, each set has three questions.

The links between organisational power – who holds the various types, how/where/when they deploy it – and racism are undeniable and yet, I feel racism is so complex and multifaceted, that looking at it only through this power lens won’t reveal other important aspects that organisation design could help address.

I’ve been mulling over and discussing this, not for the first time, with both organisation design and other colleagues – of various ethnicities, race and background – and with family members.

The conversations have covered power of various types, whether BAME (black, Asian and ethnic minorities) is a useful category, organisational language, recruitment and career progression, and performance management, societal treatment and day to day experiences.

The intersect between BLM and Covid-19 has also been part of the discussions.  That intersect offers a chilling illustration and some insights into black inequalities that organisation designers could/should consider.  For example, a 21 April 2020 New Scientist article notes that:

‘The most recent figures compiled by the UK’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggests that of nearly 5000 people critically ill with covid-19 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose ethnicity was known, 34 per cent were from BAME backgrounds. But people from such groups make up only 14 per cent of the population of England and Wales.’

The article suggests several factors for this, saying: ‘It’s not about people’s biological make-up. It’s about the conditions that are created due to racialised policies, and how that’s impacted communities over time. For example, poorer, more disadvantaged people – who are disproportionately from ethnic minorities – are more likely to have underlying health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity that put them at increased risk of covid-19’.

The article also cites racially biased algorithms and the types of jobs people do that may preclude social distancing. ‘In the UK, 18 per cent of black people work in caring, leisure and other services that are either essential or jobs that can’t easily be done from home. In the US, less than 20 per cent of black or African-American people can work from home.’

Additionally.  ‘Studies have found that people from BAME groups may be treated differently because of healthcare professionals’ unconscious bias … This creates a system of advantage based on race.  We have to take that into account when thinking about why we’re seeing differential impacts of covid-19.”

So, in this one article you can see:  racialised policies, implied access to types of work (and education that allows/limits that access), biased algorithms, unconscious bias, wage differentials and environmental conditions.  Reading the Public Health England report COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities  reveals more detailed info.

Back to Aye’s question,  ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  As I said, his article has excellent suggestions.   And beyond his, we can pick up on five questions (four of them discussed in the Economist article, The Great Awakening):

  • Where are the white spaces in our organisation? (This one is not in the article)
  • What is the evidence that blacks and other Asian and minority ethnicities are disadvantaged in our organisation?
  • How much can we do in our organisation to address this and how much do we have to encourage our organisational members to lobby in society as a whole
  • What impact does racial disadvantage, as reflected in our organisation, have on our organisation’s performance, credibility, and past/current/future reputation?
  • What can we do to improve matters?

As I reflect on these and continuing talking with colleagues on them, we will be working on our responses.  Meanwhile, this week I am reviewing the resource materials from a FutureLearn course I did last year Make Change Happen, considering again the tenth test of organisation design (the Equalities Test) that I proposed we introduce last year.  and listening to Afua Hirsch’s Audible podcasts We Need to Talk About the British Empire.

How will you answer the five questions above?  Let me know.

Image:  Business and race in America, The Economist