Goals and strategy

The week began with an enlightening lecture by Geert Hofstede, who returned to deliver a message on business goals for the 21st century to a packed out lecture hall of around 600 students and staff – at least 100 people were turned away. I went hoping to be inspired – I had a course to deliver to a group of Ghanaian doctoral students the following two days, and I knew that my existing material might prove less useful. I needed a spark.

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede told us about a partly serendipitous moment back in the late 1990s when he asked a group of part-time MBA students in Hong Kong about the business goals they perceived as driving their business leaders. Hofstede commented that it was pointless asking business leaders themselves as you would get largely self-serving answers. His students derived a list of fifteen goals, which subsequently were taken up by colleagues in business schools elsewhere in the world. It enabled Hofstede to compare the perception of business goals across 17 countries from his sample of 1900 rankings. It was fascinating to observe that the USA and Germany came out as polar opposites. (Watch the video.)

The inspiration? Try out the same items on my Ghanaian students: no African country had been included in Hofstede’s analysis. Perhaps I would not follow exactly the same methodology as Hofstede’s colleagues did, but it would be near enough. The students were after all working in organizations, and doing their doctoral studies in addition. So they would match the part-time MBAs to some extent; the big difference, though, was that they were mainly in education, not in business. Nevertheless I look forward to the outcome of the analysis.

Business goals are linked to strategy. Firms and educational organization establish strategies to consider how they might achieve their goals. I have often wondered how strategies tend to get forgotten as events overtake them. Universities may set up strategic plans for a five-year period. How are they going to evolve in this period? What are the principle factors of influence? What directions do they want to choose? And so on.

Lawrence Freedman's Strategy

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy

So the week ended equally appropriately, with a review of Lawrence Freedman’s massive tome Strategy: A History in The Economist. I can’t claim to have read the 751 pages. However, the review contained some striking phrases, apart from the obvious in its title “Why a strategy is not a plan”. Let me quote two: “A strategy that starts with objectives and works backwards is one that is likely to fail.” And: “The climax that concludes a normal drama is denied the strategist, who is more like the writer of a long-running soap opera, with its myriad twists and turns.”

Perhaps we need to elevate JR to the levels of Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machievelli after all.

Posted in Society, Teaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Migration irony

This week (rather last week – posting get a little delayed) my work involved reviewing an interesting text: the new Dutch Immigration Law. The rules and regulations applying to non-Dutch citizens residing in the Netherlands are getting tighter. This can have serious consequences for a university where close to half the people are non-Dutch, i.e. aliens. Employers have to check all kinds of details of anyone they employ and report these details to national immigration service. So presumably the university now has to send reports on its thousands of alien students and staff. A change in someone’s work status could mean that they no longer meet the criteria for remaining in the country. This could apply for example if you had a high-skilled job and switched to a lesser job, perhaps because of impairment. If someone switches from work to study, they would have to reapply to remain in the country, and perhaps they become undesirable then.

barbed wire birdI was quite shocked at how draconian the law has now become in a country that until recently prided itself on its respect for human rights everywhere. But in recent years things have gone awry: is this an unintended consequence of Srebrenica?

Coping with discriminatory regulations against migrants is something I’ve met before. As a graduate student welfare officer in Edinburgh years ago, we had to deal with a spree of cases of foreign PhD students who would travel to other European countries for their studies or simply for a short break. They would then find that they would not be allowed back into the UK. The immigration authorities would say that they only held a single entry right, even though such a stipulation was nowhere to be found. The poor PhD students would be held in limbo at some port or airport under threat of immediate deportation. Many of the PhD students were also being funded by other arms of the British government. The university had to work hard to recover its impounded PhD students.

And the irony? Well, this same week I was reading the life of Irène Némirovsky (author of Suite Française, and David Golder) – I had reached the part where in the late 1930s increasingly draconian laws and decrees were being introduced in France against foreigners and other undesirables, especially Jews from Eastern Europe, many of whom had fled the pogroms or who were children of parents who had fled them. Even to the extent of withdrawing French nationality that had been granted. Irène Némirovsky herself was never granted citizenship, setting her up for deportation to Auschwitz and death.

At times of difficulty once reasonable people take refuge in excluding those who are most not like them. We are better, we don’t want to contaminate our community. What will the next version of Dutch immigration law bring?

Posted in Society, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


It was a usual hectic time-starved week: preparing classes, marking and grading papers, managing classes, while at the same time preparing the materials for the next teaching period. Here I find I am dependent on others delivering their components in time. If they’re late, I end up getting delayed, which has a knock-on effect on other planning. Yeah, that happened in the last week. So I ended up frustratingly behind in my own work schedule. Not a serious problem, but it will have a significant knock-on effect on the next week. At moments like this I realize that my own planning does not allow much leeway for the unexpected. I rely on things outside my control being ready on time. And likewise others presumably rely on me getting things ready on time. It’s a just-in-time system, with all the risks and hazards that entails.

One student wrote a paper on conceptions of time, and how time itself is not constant. He proposed a mission to our nearest black hole via a time warp to demonstrate his theory. Curious. It looked mathematically plausible, but we might have to wait a few million (or billion) earth years to physically demonstrate his theory.

More easily, a critical glitch in our JIT system was exposed this weekend by the sudden illness of a key colleague. I was a time zone away in the UK, and a series of frantic text messages were needed. But we managed to solve the urgent problem and arrange emergency cover. A JIT system with sticking plaster. There’s a need for good forward planning, contingency planning. We do not plan for the almost certainty of sudden absence.

Kiplin Hall clock

Kiplin Hall clock

It was a JIT system of a different nature in the UK: a private weekend trip ending with a visit to Kiplin Hall, where my brother and his wife work as volunteers. A splendid Jacobean country house with 400 years of history – I would have loved to have had more time to view the paintings and furnishings at greater leisure, but there was a plane to catch. Needless to say, I was struck by the delightful chiming clock in the hall (which serves as the restaurant), a 21st birthday gift from the estate tenants to the daughter of the manor in 1897. It chimed so beautifully and softly that I failed to hear the hour chime. Time knocked on.

Posted in Family, Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment


The working week was rather nondescript: I can’t say that of the work anything stood out. The classes went as expected, with hardly any untoward events. It was not boring though. You cannot ‘get’ boring when you encounter topics ranging from black holes to turtle propagation, to fundamental cancer research, to legal issues surrounding the freedom of information. It’s total immersion in mental gymnastics to try to understand what students and others are doing. You can see the work as cognitive therapy: it’s supposed to stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Though what happens to my brain after retirement is uncertain: work-planning-in-progress at present.

The week had its highlights though: a delightful farewell dinner among some friends for a colleague. Excellent food in Portogatelo, a new Portuguese restaurant in Maastricht. And we discovered a seriously good Portuguese red wine. Unfortunately, we had too much to remember the name! It was even harder the next morning, trying to cope with urgent work.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Ziekenhuis, Amsterdam

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Ziekenhuis, Amsterdam

The week ended with a visit to the open day at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital/Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. This was where my wife Eva was treated extensively for cancer. The hospital and the Institute is celebrating its centenary this year. Nurses dressed in 1913 uniforms greeted visitors at the entrance. It was also a great pleasure to meet the doctors again who had treated Eva, including her ‘lead-doctor’.

Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest receiving standing ovation for Le Sacre du printemps

Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest receiving standing ovation for Le Sacre du printemps

1913 continued to feature at a spectacular concert later in the Concertgebouw. Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Prokofiev’s Piano concerto no. 3, with the excellent Behzod Abduraimov, and then Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), played by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, had its dramatic (near-riot) debut with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 29 May 1913. This was the third time I’ve heard it in its centenary year: each time more magnificent than the last, but this time we were so close to the orchestra as to be almost playing in the horn section. Wonderful.

La Prose du Transsibérien (extract)

La Prose du Transsibérien (extract)

Those who know me will know that 1913 has powerful memories for me: not that I was alive then! But I studied that artistic year in some detail when I lived in Paris. Apollinaire’s Alcools was published that year, as was one of the greatest influences on me, Blaise Cendrars’ La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jéhanne de France, a harmonica book – livre simultané – illustrated by Sonia Delaunay-Terk. Only about sixty copies ever printed. A beautiful facsimile adorns my wall.

And books remain important. A friend from Spain sent me the Goodreads.com’s link to an interview with Donna Tartt about her new novel The Goldfinch. One sentence rang out: “Basically I can learn almost anything from a library book.” Q.E.D.?

Posted in Health, Music, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Young talent

A week for getting to know young talent. First, there were the new, young colleagues, bubbling with enthusiasm, seeing opportunities where others would see challenges and barriers. Then the young students breathing science, pondering over how to test various hypotheses that they come up with. And young musical talent too: Nino Gvetadze playing Schubert’s Moment Musical in A flat major (D 780 no. 2) with such a silky touch that her hands seemed to move over the piano keys without touching and yet gave such melodic colour to the music.

Nino Gvetadze

Nino Gvetadze

Finally Veerle Sanders (soprano) and Rubèn Plantinga (baritone) from Opera Zuid, entertaining us at a dîner des jeunes talents, singing Schubert among others too. What an exciting future for these people!

And in between, “how do you feel about your retirement?” came the question. That took me aback momentarily, causing me to hesitate. Initially, I did not like the idea at all: the thought of ‘giving up’ was wrenching. It’s as though you are losing part of your identity. You identify yourself through your work, through your interaction with colleagues, with students, with the work community, and then … that will all go.

How do I see it? Well, somewhat like culture shock, but in a way the diametrical opposite. At least for me. The initial reaction was not the enthusiasm of the newcomer to a new culture where everything seems exciting, interesting, and novel. Rather the thought of retirement is gut-wrenching: I could see myself as losing a part of myself, of being disharmonized, of feeling side-lined. So the initial reaction is the descent into the abyss – well, ok, yes, I’m exaggerating, sure – but it’s not pleasant. Retirement shock

Other people, especially those who ‘enjoyed’ an unsatisfying, soul-destroying job, presumably look at retirement differently, a relief from the tedium, from the erstwhile slow destruction of their identity. They can look forward to reconstituting themselves in retirement. But people who have had an enjoyable job, even a creative job, when they have to ‘take’ retirement, or rather ‘given’ retirement, they have to reconstruct themselves, but at the same time jettison what made them who they are.

But then after a while I begin to come to terms with retirement – and to be honest, I’ve been making plans for over a year. In contrast to the culture newcomer who then experiences deep shock at how the new culture throws up intangible barriers and unfathomable peculiarities – the newcomer finds it increasingly difficult to adjust, the mental framework isn’t there – in my case the retirement culture begins to become less of a negative. Yes, it’s a question of building a new identity. I realized it brutally the other day when I handed out my visiting card: “Oh, thanks, I don’t have cards,” he responded, “I’m retired.” The card is your work identity: you don’t need it if you don’t have work. You only need to be yourself.

So I’ve now reached the stage of coming to terms with the fact of retirement. In Piagetian terms, I’m beginning to assimilate it, but I haven’t yet accommodated to it. I need to generate the enthusiasm of the young; retirement has to be an opportunity. An opportunity to create identity.

Posted in Music, Teaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Tough week. Exhausting week. Fourth week of academic year. One in which I made mistakes. Not too serious ones, but mistakes that shouldn’t have happened. In one case I reacted to some students’ request to change a deadline, and because it made no difference to me, I changed it. But I didn’t consult fellow teachers, nor did I inform other students. Until later. Yeah, not too serious really, but a signal.

Then in a progress meeting I fail to check my data, but give the wrong information (negative) about one student. I wake up in the night, with something bugging me. I check my data. I was wrong. Fortunately I could send a correction in time to avoid potentially nasty consequences. But for another student I fail to notice the negative information, and don’t pass it on. The student admits failure to meet a deadline anyhow, so no damage is done. But I feel an idiot for not checking my data before the progress meeting.

And what about all the mistakes that I don’t remember?

Tough week, little sleep. Mistakes that are a sign of exhaustion. Probably a typical week for many teachers. Yet you can’t afford to make mistakes that could have educational consequences for the students concerned. Makes you feel like diving into the mosasaurus-filled pool painted on the Vrijthof.

I climbed the St Jan’s tower on Saturday morning: only from here do you get the perspective of the Vrijthof paintings. After so many decades of living here, I can say that at last I’ve done it.

Mosasaurus art

Mosasaurus art

It reminds me of my time in Golspie in the far north of Scotland. I always wanted to climb our local mountain Ben Bhraggie before school started: I only did it only my very last day, with a colleague and his sons, and the entire school knew it as soon as I arrived before 9 am.

Posted in Teaching | Leave a comment

“Last time” – week 38

“So this is your last time,” said the skills coordinator. I was attending the annual pre-course meeting in the School of Business and Economics. We usually discuss how things went the previous year, review agreements for the implementation in the new year, and raise any interesting issues. I was a bit surprised to be greeted thus at what would be my final such meeting. But it was true. I would not be doing this again. Surprising that even little incidents bring home the reality that I have to quit.

We did not review the previous year, but briefly looked back at all the years I had been providing some training and support at the School. Indeed, it’s where I began to become affiliated to the university when I was asked to provide some help back in 1984. All kinds of memories came briefly back: that first writing course for staff almost directly below where we now sat; the long-lasting work with Geert Hofstede, a friendship that endures; the beginnings of the current programme when the Bologna Declaration was implemented in Dutch universities in 2002.

Later in the week “the last time” came up again when my director and I were discussing various courses. “How will you plan for the transfer of the Open University courses?” he asked. He has his ideas, but I have my doubts. I again offer my willingness to continue if he cannot set up a replacement. I detect tension. I wonder if managers ever give enough thought to transitions – at least long enough in advance, when processes should be set in place. When I have planned a conference, generally I’ve planned two years ahead, but I get the impression that human resources planning is constantly late or simply not done at all, because it isn’t urgent right now. Is this something peculiar to my institution? Or does it exist elsewhere too?

So ended the third week of my last year: not exactly very eventful, indeed a relatively “boring” week, but “boring” is probably a positive characteristic in this context. However, there was a sparkling concert by the Kamerkoor Aquarius, under Marc Michael de Smet, singing Arvo Pärt’s “Kanon Pokajanen” in the Lambertuskerk in Maastricht. A very moving performance as part of the Musica Sacra Maastricht festival. Arvo_Pärt

Posted in Music, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment