At your own risk…

When entering a car park, it is common to see signs on the gates: ‘The company accepts no liability for loss or damage to vehicles or contents, park at your own risk, etc…’
And likewise, a billboard poster may advertise an item of fast food, with the price displayed in huge red letters. In the small print will be found the phrase: ‘Subject to availability, price may change without notice.’
And when a company issues a contract to supply goods or services, the document will include a comprehensive list of terms and conditions which seek to exonerate the organisation in the event of anything going wrong. This gives rise to the farcical ‘Battle of the Forms’, where companies will engage in a tit-for-tat flurry of order acknowledgements, each determined to make their own terms the ones under which the contract will be fulfilled.
This is perfectly understandable, and it would be even better if all companies were obliged to include – as part of their Terms and Conditions, say – the seven Holy Assumptions of rational economics: a version of these appears in Chapter 1 of Strategic Decision Making, ‘Decision Processes’ by Chris Gore et al. These assumptions, all flawed, are:

1             We are pursuing a single economic objective which can be quantified and which maximises the utility of the decision maker.

2             Decision-makers maintain consistent and transitive preferences for their objectives.

3             All the parties involved have unlimited ability to process information and an awareness of their own self-interest.

4             There are a small number of clearly defined, mutually exclusive alternatives.

5             The outcomes of each alternative can be perfectly evaluated in terms of likelihood and cost.

6             The selected alternative will be that which maximises the ‘expected utility’.

7             We will have Immediate access to unlimited, relevant information.

By acknowledging the presence of these assumptions – and thus inviting clients and business partners to challenge them – we could arrive at a more satisfying outcome, with agents prepared to acknowledge liability for specific shortcomings.

It was while reading Gore’s article that I encountered a phrase not seen for many years: Leicester Polytechnic. This institution and others like it gave the UK a generation of skilled technical and creative workers including Kevin Whately and Rodney Bickerstaff (Newcastle), Gordon Taylor and Julie Walters (Manchester) and, from Leicester, Janet Reger and Simon Stanford. I wonder if the latter ever read a copy of Hugin, the student newspaper (named after one of Odin’s pet ravens, whose task was to fly around the world spreading truth and rumour.

The reference to Leicester Poly in Gore et al comes during a discussion of the decision-making process. A study of 280 corporate decisions found that in 38 percent of cases a single solution was proposed and accepted with no alternatives being considered. Unfortunately, no details of this study are provided; it would be useful to see the financial scale of the 38% compared with that of the entire sample of 280.

But since the upheaval in higher education which took place after 1992, all of the polytechnics have been rebranded as ‘new universities’, instead of maintaining their original status as craft workshops. A great deal of first-class research was carried out at these institutions; however, because of their close ties to industry, many of the projects were covered by confidentiality agreements and so remained unpublished. This led to the widely-held belief that Polys were dull teaching establishments where plumbers went to learn to read and write, while universities were seen as high-octane research generators.

Perhaps the current UK economic crisis (‘Crisis? What crisis?’) will prompt the revival of technical colleges where talented youngsters could learn about arcane topics such as chemistry and engineering, rather than real subjects – entrepreneurship, topline synergstic facilitating and commodity trading. After all, why should anybody bother to work for a living when you can just shuffle funds between time zones and different currencies, then persuade other people to bet on the exchange rate, a process which seems to magic vast sums of money out of nowhere?

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