CLOSE-UP: BOOK REVIEW - EXPERIMENT AT WORK. Contradictions from the edge of chaos

Chris Powell reviews Andy Law's new book about life in the St Luke's collective.

"At St Luke's we share almost everything," except, it seems, their books. The former St Luke's chairman and founding partner Andy Law's sequel to Open Minds is the first book I've read since primary school with a first page that says: "This book belongs to ..."

Such delightful contradictions fill this book, which updates the St Luke's story through its opening of foreign "spores", Law's lecture tours around the world and the current recession (although not including the recent management changes). It's a book for believers, mixing the recent history of the collective with thoughts on humans at work and a number of "Law's Laws" (for instance: "A company that finds out new things moves into new places. A company that follows the book ends up on the shelf"). It generously provides a few pages after each chapter for the reader to write their notes. Like Law's description of his company, the book is "episodic and at the edge of chaos". It darts about, with no immediately obvious flow, but then, as he rightly says, real life works that way.

Like the author himself, the book is refreshing and honest, dwelling as much on the setbacks and cul de sacs as on the successes. The world needs more people of his conviction and bravery, willing to try new things, to sacrifice the fortune he probably could have made from a more conventional company structure and to risk falling over in public.

There is so much to applaud in his concentration on providing a working environment that makes the most of its people. The shared responsibility, the generous conditions, the corporate responsibility, the breadth of ownership, the realisation that it is the ad hoc encounters in corridors that provide the spark in our trade. But, as all the benefits he describes can be, and often are, offered by the better agencies, it leaves you wondering what can be the additional benefit of the formal structure as a collective. Reading the book, you are struck by the awful slowness of meetings about everything and working parties to agree the colour of the walls in the creche. But then, of course, this is a matter of conviction and not just a search for a more effective way of working.

To an unbeliever, like me, it does come across as a bit of a throwback.

In part, because collectives have, of course, been tried throughout history without ever producing a new model that has swept the corporate world.

More, though, because most of us have spent the past 30 years trying to escape the producer focus in favour of a focus on the customer, in the belief that the point of working life is primarily to improve the lot of all by providing responsive, affordable, better service and product and this has, indeed, enhanced the lives of most. That does, though, come at the cost of having to follow the vicissitudes of the market. Too easily, heavy focus on protecting the jobs and benefits of producers can become indulgent at the expense of consumers. I agree with Law that we all benefit from enriching working lives, but not when it produces something that sounds so cumbersome.

Has the limit on the influence and growth of collectives in history been set by their tendency to be captured by forceful personalities, like the children in Lord of the Flies? Does the lack of clear lines of authority expose this model to Orwellian risks that lead to their reversion to a more standard format, but with a less desirable leader?

There's another puzzle. The St Luke's model caused immense and worldwide interest. The degree of this amazed the author and spills over into many reminders of the bigwigs he mixed with on his lecture tours. However, as far as I'm aware, not one of the advertising start-ups in London since the arrival of St Luke's in 1995 has sought to copy this corporate structure.

Why? Is it fascinating, but "not for me"? Are we all waiting to see how it turns out first? Is it happening elsewhere in the world, but not in London? It is odd.

Does the collective model have the potential to work outside advertising, for instance in more substantial businesses, with capital to invest and shareholder or banks to placate? It is doubtful. In a way, however, it is strange that this experiment has happened in a sector where the workplace is typically already lively, liberal, with good conditions, little need for top-down management and where the companies are small and on one central, capital city, site. We have less need of a new model than most.

Books about business are awful. They are best reduced to a single paragraph.

Normally, there is just one thought, which is expanded over hundreds of pages of repetition and case history. That is certainly not what you get here. This is more of an amiable ramble through the ups and downs of life in a collective and thoughts that have occurred to the writer in his travels to share the secrets of his new approach with the rest of the world.

By chance, on the same afternoon that Campaign sent over Experiment at Work for review, I received the latest edition of Jeremy Bullmore's collected wit and wisdom, More Bullmore. Law's is a book for those keenly interested in corporate organisation. Bullmore's is a book for those keenly interested in advertising.

- Experiment at Work: Explosions and Experiences at the Most Frightening Company on Earth by Andy Law, £15, from Profile Books.

Topics