Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nelson - his life and tradition, Part 1

The name Nelson - Horatio Nelson, is easily and unambiguously recognizable as the great British Admiral and victor of Trafalgar. It is amazing that he is still remembered, given that he lived more than 200 years ago, but then, he was, and I believe still is, hailed as Britain's greatest Naval hero.

Nelson's fame and exploits are well documented, but this is the first time I have read a full biography of the Naval hero. "Nelson - A dream of glory, 1758 - 1797", by John Sugden, is obviously a well researched tome. It weighs in at 794 pages, with a further 112 pages of notes and citations. My only complaint is that the book is so very heavy that bringing it around with me wherever I go was a non-starter. But don't let this scare you off. Although a scholarly work, it is highly readable.

In relating the subject of his book, Sugden looks at both the man's strength and weaknesses, neither glossing over one nor lingering over the other. Nelson's strength was in his competence, bravery and conscientiousness. Above all, according to Sugden, he was a driven man - a quality that allowed him, no, constrained him, to reach ever higher levels of achievements and fame in a Navy that he loved so much.

Nelson's leadership comes out very strongly in this biography. His was a lead-from-the-front type of leadership - a style that won him many faithful followers and many battles over the years, but also resulted in him losing his right arm and right eye before 1797 was out. One other quality in Nelson that students of leadership should take note of, is that he looks after the well-being of his subordinates and took every available opportunity to try to elevate the deserving ones.

What are the weaknesses of this hero of Trafalgar and Britain's greatest Naval Commander? Proneness to flattery, boastfulness and self-advertisement are cited as examples. His neglect of his wife is another. But having read the book, considering the times he lived in, and the betrayals he encountered, he can perhaps be forgiven for all except the last.

I have gained a new perspective on the history and traditions of the Royal Navy that goes back so many years. Though never a sailor nor a British, I once lived among the Royal Navy based in Singapore. I remember how children, including myself, ran across my school field to gawk at the helicopter that ferried the Admiral to and from his house just across from my school in the Naval Base. The Admiralty House, as it used to be called, and continues to be called, is still there, albeit used for a different purpose today. My school grounds, on the other hand, have disappeared.

Reading this book is time well spent, and this is only part 1 of of the narrative of Nelson's life. Sugden is following up with part 2, which dwells on Nelson's greatest victory yet - Trafalgar.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Non-profit Innovation

Some not a very long time ago, Singapore was rocked by a scandal in one of its most successful charity organization. The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) had broken new ground (at least for this part of the world) through its innovative methods of raising cash for its cause. It became the richest charity in Singapore, with reserves in excess of S$200 million.

Unfortunately, in the process of becoming successful, it engaged in certain practices which, while not illegal, were questionable from the standpoint of a charity. This has been covered in one of my other blogs.

At the end of the day, its really about good corporate governance - how a charity manages and uses money in the cause for which it was given in the first place. Now, another charity is in trouble - the Singapore Assocication for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH). It has had its annual grant of $1.4 million taken away after problems at the SAVH became public

While good corporate governance, especially in charities which do not readily face 'market discipline', is important, it can also be a bane because it stifles innovation in these organizations. And innovation is important in the Voluntary Sector. In fact, the very existence of a particular non-government organization (NGO), charity, institution of public character (IPG), or whatever name it goes by, is a result of an innovation in itself. This point is made by Storey, et al. in their book, "Managers of Innovation - Insight into making innovation happen" (2005). NGOs takes on a life of their own in order to "fulfil unmet social needs" and the way its does so tends to be something new and unique. Storey looked at 2 NGOs in the chapter on the Voluntary sector - Oxfam and the less well know Age Concern which is based in the UK. His analysis of the situation in Age Concern is particularly interesting because the twin forces of strict governance / control and innovation spiritedness are often incompatible. But in NGOs, you cannot do without both, as the NKF and SAVH cases have shown. How Oxfam and Age Concern faced this issue and resolved it makes for interesting reading.

Now that Singapore's National Council of Social Services (NCSS) is in corporate governance gear, one wonders if it may snuff out the innovative spirit of the erstwhile voluntary organisations, and even stop new ones from forming. Time will tell.

Beyond charity, Storey, et al., in the same book, have written other case studies of organizations in the Telecoms sector (GPT of GEC and Nortel), the Engineered Manufactured Goods sector (HP and GDA of GEC) as well as about the Creative workers in Zeneca, a pharmaceutical company and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). This covers quite a broad spectrum of industries and organizations. In other words, there's something in this book for everyone who is interested in the subject of innovation and how it is managed in different businesses and contexts . These case studies are also fairly recent - the book was published only this year (2005).

For the serious student of Innovation, this is a must read.