This week’s letters
Al Qaeda comment sparks reader debate
Last week’s comment by CIPD chief economist John Philpott sparked a massive
response from readers. Many questioned the examination of Al Qaeda’s
I have just read the comment by John Philpott (Comment, 6 November 2001),
claiming that the Al Qaeda network performs better than many UK firms.
In my role as personnel executive for a leading knitwear manufacturer and as
a member of the CIPD I find this comparison highly offensive. This terrorist
network is made up of extremists who only live for the cause. Of course they
will have highly clarified goals and objectives.
UK businesses have to communicate their vision to a free and liberated
workforce who think for themselves and are not fanatical about their work,
merely loyal and committed. It is a much more difficult task.
Philpott claims that Osama Bin Laden acts more like the guiding conductor of
an orchestra than a controlling military commander, but this is seeing
terrorism through rose-tinted specs. If you go back a few decades, I’m sure the
UK was on a par in controlling its workforces in much the same way.
I appreciate that there may be many UK businesses falling short of their
potential, but let’s encourage them, not tell them that the world’s most wanted
man runs his team better.
It may or may not be the case that Osama Bin Laden applied management theory
and economics in organising the Al Qaeda terrorist network. We would have to
Comparing his network to a "high performance" organisation is a
fair point to make but it needs putting in historical context.
For the first three centuries of the Common Era the persecuted Christian
minority defaulted to what is now described as a Segmented Pluralistic
Integrated Network (SPIN) structure.
It was segmented in that its cell groups were relatively autonomous and,
even if discovered and its members killed, the organisation would continue. It
was pluralistic in that it adapted itself to local conditions, including
culture and politics. It was integrated in the way personnel could move between
local groups and carry various communications from local leaders around the
And, it was a network in that all sorts of connections could be set up and
dismantled as local conditions and objectives required, and resources and
A centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation, such as the Roman
Empire, found this structure extremely difficult to deal with as there was no
centralised leadership or command centre to attack.
This SPIN organisation enabled the Christian minority to survive everything
the Roman Empire could throw at it for nearly 300 years.
Let’s hope that modern terrorist networks prove less resistant.
Senior customer support consultant
Computer Sciences Corporation
I am appalled at John Philpott’s insensitive comment piece, and the tactless
and trite headline for the piece on the front page.
There have been many ludicrous management analogies made over the years,
such as comparisons with football teams, but now Philpott proposes UK
organisations can learn something about "high performance" from a
Are we to take it that we can also learn how to run our organisations by a
deeper study of Nazi Germany – the SS perhaps?
His assertions are contemptible and offensive to anyone who lost relatives
or witnessed those terrible events on 11 September.
He surely must realise that the reason why none of the management gurus at
the CIPD conference took the opportunity to "draw on the deeper
lessons" is because they have the humility and judgement not to approach
the tragedy from such a distressing angle.
A magazine editor has the duty of deciding on the best content of a
publication – in this instance I feel you have failed.
Head of personnel, National Weights & Measures Laboratory
I am appalled by the tone of the comment piece. John Philpott seems to be
applauding the fanaticism that has already resulted in massive loss of life and
may well lead to many more pointless deaths.
Modelling successful organisations is worthwhile. When the success brings
about such awful consequences and is driven by an insane disregard for human
life, one has to look at their goals as well as the management style.
Senior training officer Learning & Development (Retail) Halifax
As a staff development co-ordinator and a management trainer I am appalled
by the headline "Al Qaeda’s management lesson". It is completely
insensitive to equate the horrific events of 11 September with what John
Philpott describes as "the power of the high performance organisational
What next from Personnel Today – "Pol Pot’s top tips for employee
motivation"? I hope you print a suitable apology.
Are we so starved of shining examples of best practice in the profession
that we have to resort to finding some kind of corporate learning opportunity
from the tragedy in New York?
I wonder what Bin Laden would think of a chartered profession holding their
activities up as an exemplar of excellence. I know that controversial writing
can sell papers but this article is in very poor taste.
Lawson HR Consulting
Why ignore the valuable lessons of world events?
Personnel Today editor Noel O’Reilly reponds
The reaction from some readers to last week’s Comment appears to suggest
some topics in the present international crisis should be off limits. Personnel
Today supports the article and I stand by our decision to publish it.
It is worth adding that similar issues have been discussed elsewhere in the
media. The Guardian, for example, has published an article comparing the
efficiency of the Al Qaeda network with that of the West’s intelligence
Personnel Today, together with all decent people, abhors the actions of the
terrorists on 11 September. Since the events of that day the magazine has
produced a wealth of coverage of the attack and analysis of its repercussions.
The CIPD, of which John Philpott is the chief economist, has also put every
effort into mitigating against the dire effects of the tragedy.
In the piece the author makes it clear that he opposes the fanatical goals
and values of the terrorists. He is clear that the use of the high-performance
organisational model to support the objective of mass murder is completely
The author’s point is that Bin Laden’s devastatingly effective network may
be based on management theory he learned in the West, and it is ironic that
most western organisations have not adopted similarly effective models. The
author does not condone the strategy of the terrorists, as one correspondent
suggests, he explicitly separates the issue of organisational structure from
that of strategy.
Another objection is that it is insensitive or tasteless to consider the
terrorist attack from the angle of management theory and organisational
effectiveness. Surely in a democracy it is appropriate to look at world events
from every possible angle provided you do nothing to diminish or trivialise the
experience of the victims.
A further objection is that it was inappropriate to use a provocative
headline and a picture of Bin Laden to promote the article on the front page.
Our purpose was clearly to draw attention to the article and it achieved that
aim. As we fully support the article, we make no apology for making sure it got