Over the past year or so, what appears to be a fairly mundane and inoffensive question has become the question of choice for Select Committee members; Public Inquiry chairmen and their QCs; Opposition MPs in the Commons; and, at the front of the queue, BBC presenters.
Those subjected to the interrogation are invariably senior members of Government, public institutions or private companies, summoned to account for themselves in the wake of the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of issues of public concern. In the firing line yesterday were the CEO of security firm G4S and the Governor of the Bank of England. The former had been charged to attend the Home Affairs Select Committee, to explain the failure of his company to provide the contracted numbers of people to secure various Olympic venues. Meanwhile, the Bank of England chief was being quizzed on the banking crisis in general and the manipulation of the inter-bank lending rate in particular. Other recent examples include inquiries into the take-over bid for BSkyB, and the phone-hacking scandal.
In all of these cases and others, "When did you know?" has been used relentlessly, and with accusatory zeal, in an effort to 'prove' the incompetence or, worse still, dishonesty of those on the receiving end of the question.
"When did you know?" works very much along the lines of the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If the respondent replies in a way that suggests that they were amongst the first to know - but didn't make this knowledge public - then they must have been complicit in the presumed deception. On the other hand, if they didn't know until later on in the process, they must be incompetent. Heads, I win. Tails you lose.
The myth of control and predictability
All of this is based, though, on the false premise that managers are able to control their organizations in ways that guarantee particular outcomes. But, as I've argued throughout this blog, the world is not like that. Organizations don’t operate in the neatly packaged and easily controllable ways that conventional management 'wisdom' suggests that they do. Anyone who has worked in an organization - any organization - knows this. The everyday lived reality is much messier than the formal strategies, structures and processes suggest.
Also, as I argued elsewhere, facts never speak for themselves. They always require interpretation. Meaning is the currency of organization, not facts. So 'knowing' something in a factual sense does not mean that it merits comment or reporting more widely. It all depends on what meaning people take from such facts - at that time, by those people, in that situation. As Duncan Watts says in his recent book of the same title, "Everything is obvious when you know the answer." (See recent post).
From hero to zero
This is not to suggest that those called to account have nothing to answer - although when, how and to whom is not so obvious. And, of course, some of those who have been questioned on these various issues might well have set out to engineer things solely to further their own self-interest, have behaved dishonestly, or indeed been incompetent. But I'm inclined to agree with Yiannis Gabriel, when he argues,
“We must recognize that, like the rest of us, managers are most of the time confused, erratic and irrational – they deserve neither exorbitant praise for success nor total vilification for failure. Their successes are more likely to be due to good fortune, adroit handling or good
judgement rather than the application of quasi-scientific theories and propositions.”
If we insist on seeing leaders of successful organizations as all-seeing and all-conquering 'heroes', then I guess that we're always likely to want to pin the blame on them when things go wrong - if only to preserve the anxiety-reducing myth that the rest of life is progressing in a controllable and predictable way. And, as a blame-seeking missile, "When did you know?" has been shown to work very well in 'locking onto' its intended target.
The knowing-saying gap
As a final thought, it is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous for those doing the interrogating to pretend that life operates in the 'Meccano-like' way that this line of questioning implies. There will always be a gap between when people 'know' things and when they choose to say something to others about whatever it is that they know. Savvy political behaviour (i.e. life!) demands it. The interrogators would not have risen to the senior positions that they currently enjoy if they had not applied this principle in their own lives. It is what enables people to go on together in spite of the inevitable differences in interests and perspectives that exist and the ever-present uncertanties.
Embedded in the "When did you know?" question is the implication that the subject failed to act ethically in relation to the issue at hand. Perhaps those doing the questioning should reflect on the ethics of their own behaviour, in demanding that others should answer for their inability to predict and control outcomes (and also that they should act with political naïvety), when these conditions don't match the lived reality of their own lives.