Nuccio Ordine, an Italian professor, has written an essay of this title, to my knowledge not translated into English. It talks about the usefulness of knowledge which has no immediate translation into specific, practical benefits. Perhaps the type of things that make us better human but don’t have a strict, immediate material pay off. He is talking about the Humanities, or philosophy, or those disciplines that are disconnected within the obvious ‘making money of it’. He talks about the concept of ‘useful’ being only understood as something that has to do with a profession, with an application and, above all, an application with monetary outcome. He says that ” the modern man, who no longer has time to dwell on useless things, is bound to become a soulless machine”.
If there is a sector of society where this concept of utility is taken to these extremes, it is perhaps business and the business organization. The traditional ‘effective’ organization, conceived as a machinery, is obsessed with effectiveness. Therefore anything that has not obvious ‘utility’ is bound to generate antibodies. Here is a list: informal conversations, duplications of or shared roles, debates, free floating time, etc. Even ‘brainstorm’ conceived as a free space of ideas, requires from us an immediate summary and prioritisation. Fear of leaving things with ‘no closure’ is high, even a sign of ‘bad management’. We are supposed to be effective, concrete, practical, sharp, simple, outcome driven, conclusive and decisive. There is no room for the ‘use-less’ time where there is no obvious practical outcome. It is simply, at the very least, politically incorrect to behave that way.
The constrained, machinery-like approach to organizational life is missing the point. It kills creativity and innovation. Detractors of the ‘use-less’, ‘not obvious-outcome-yet’, say that the risk is inefficiency and waste. They tend to see the issue in black and white, where only a type of black is good management. But the presence of some ‘use-less’ space and time may be the clue for the ultimate usefulness. Leaders should protect ‘use-less’ spaces as much as an organism needs oxygen.