Terribly Boring II: …and management

Under the least sexy blog title I hope ever to write comes part (b) in number II of the now alarmingly fractal Terribly Boring series…

Nearly everyone I know who has a manager thinks they do a crap job, and nearly everyone I know who is a manager hates doing it and thinks they’re crap at it. These people, obviously, are often one and the same. Anecdotally, that’s not a very encouraging sign, is it?

Management theory, however, is a boom industry in education and in publishing. On the one hand you have the Oxford Saïd Business School MBA, the programme for which reads like some moderately hardcore economics and technical finance has been wodged togther with a soupcon of sociology and international development. Comparatively little that is obviously balls. Well done. On the other hand, you have Who Moved My Cheese While I Was Busy Screwing Over Absolutely Every Consumer in the World and Still Getting a Knighthood in One Minute For Dummies. Or whaddever. Descending down the categories tree on Amazon like Dante into hell, I find that the Books > Business, Finance and Law > Management path yields at the time of writing 152,497 results. And that’s just on UK Amazon.

Anyone who has ever worked in publishing will know what all those bright covers and offbeat, colloquial titles signify; this is competitive stuff, and not only that, it is a branch of writing whose basis is persuasion. These people are basically writing diet books for corporations – their way is the “one that really works”. There must be dry, academic tomes on management theory in there somewhere, and they may well be more analytical and less evangelical, but they buy into the same core belief: that individual managers can make measurable differences to corporations.

New Labour managerialism was going to change the world, and specifically the public services, permanently and for the better (if what follows is rather simplistic, it’s because I’ve cribbed it from the Search Inside bits of Chris Dillow’s book because it’s just too cold to go to the library). Better line management structures, whizzy McKinsey-esque strategic change, a wholesale importation of targets, mission statements, visions and all the other paraphernalia of the business guru’s art were going to turn around the culture of public services and transform them into self-sustaining market-engines of perfection. It was going to be the first implementation at state level of the thinking underlying the squillions of books, papers, conferences and motivational events: that you can use the same set of principles and tools to manage anything, and you can teach anyone to use these tools, and by using them arrive at a perfect solution which has a built-in capacity to keep re-generating managerial perfection.

In other words, managerialism as a philosophy is top-down, teleological, utopian and bizarrely, twistedly, egalitarian. Sound like any political party you know? Hm! Oh look, a one-size-fits-all solution that can be potentially implemented by every manager and every organisation in the same way and give rise to a universally ideal system based on centrally dictated guidelines, tenets and directives. No wonder New Labour bought wholesale into managerialism.

But at the heart of New Labour’s faith, and indeed in the credibility of the topic as a whole, there are two misfires. One is that their evident belief in certain brilliant individuals, and also in swoop-down strategic consultancy, to improve things, is demonstrably at odds with the universal nature of the one-management-style-fits-all principle. How can you have a universal system which gives supposedly everyone the same capacities, and also appoint gurus, czars, superheads and, if all else fails, call in McKinsey?* If A Few Good Men really can change the world, what’s the point of targets, mission statements and all the other self-sustaining fripperies?

And the faith is misplaced anyway. As Rob Knight suggests on his other oft-neglected blog, it is impossibly difficult to assess what impact individuals are actually having on an organism so complex, multi-layered and supra-human as an organisation. Human behaviour is so complex, and organisational behaviour (which is an entirely separate thing) is so complex that the science has yet to be invented that will effectively assess them in relation to each other. If you ask me (which you did by clicking in) management theory and practice as it is currently understood will bear the same relation to that science, when it emerges, as alchemy does to chemical engineering.

The other misfire is that the debunking of the old “progress towards utopia” chestnut really ought to have filtered down into even the field of business studies by now. It hasn’t because management theory is a proto-science in flux, uncertainly staggered between psychology and economics, and is it exceptionally vulnerable to quackery around the fringes. Never mind – ha! – that it hasn’t worked in the political sphere. The idea that it might work was intellectually bankrupt from the off. If it really were possible to construct a management system that, er, delivered sustainable improvement across the piste (nyaaaargh, it’s got me, it’s got me!), then why would governments departments and public services need to keep on doing it? Managerialism ought to be a concept that makes itself obsolete by creating a structure pervious to change, and that is manifestly not happening in politics any more than in Real Life. A system based on evangelism, individualism and persuasion and with an avowedly teleological approach, it has the same scope for understanding its own limitations as a goldfish.**

PS: In pottering around the internet in what laughably passes, these days, for research in the People’s Republic, I came across the Saïd Business School’s shiny new blog, born a few days before Christmas. A lot of what is there at the moment is your typical student bloggery (the post currently at the top of the page opens with the word “Whoa”) but there is a sub-blog promisingly titled “Research” that doesn’t yet have any posts, probably because all the would-be posters are agonising about how best to tilt their writing so that their fellow students don’t get bored and yet snidey observers like me can’t drive a sarcastic wedge into the first sentence. But it’s early days. If I were to suggest an opening post subject for some brave soul, it would be Convince the People’s Republic of Mortimer that the study and implementation of management theory is not a complete and utter self-important waste of time and space and also fundamentally at odds with the total debunking of the obsolete concept of teleological progress. Feel free to work that down a little.

And I have precisely these misgivings about Nick Clegg’s appointment of Chris Bones. 

** Apparently their short-term memory lasts about three months, not, as some commentators unfairly suggest, seven minutes. Goldfish, that is. Not managers.


  1. This week has not been a good week for me to rave about the joys of management nor for me to write in a vaguely intelligent sense in response to a blog post (largely owing to spending 12 hours at work yesterday and a similar number today – not a lot for some people; but it ain’t really what I’m in it for).

    I actually enjoy being a manager. True enough, one of my team hated me and I didn’t like managing her. But she’s gone now.

    In terms of my small team, management actually has made a difference – and it’s backed up by wizzy statistics and everything. Now it’s not because someone followed a theory, and it’s still compatible with the complexity of an organisation, but it’s definitely *happened*.

  2. I think one of the problems with management theory is that management is something you DO, rather than theorise about, as the late John Harvey-Jones demonstrated.
    I wonder, though, whether there is any difference in the way management operates in smaller, more human scale organisations than in bigger units. I also think there is likely to be a difference in organisations in which management is seen as a shared responsibility and as being responsive to everyone in the organisation. I think that is why co-operative principles can be so important and why companies such as John Lewis which embody those principles can prosper as a result.
    I also think this might be one reason why Nick Clegg’s comments about reform of public services have really struck a chord with the party – we recognise that smaller units are instinctively better at managing things and are more likely to be dynamic, responsive and innovative (and there’s less damage done if they cock things up).

  3. “smaller units are instinctively better at managing things and are more likely to be dynamic, responsive and innovative (and there’s less damage done if they cock things up).”

    Indeed! Which is of course, why I’m a Lib Dem. Localism and appropriate devolution is scarily important to me!!

  4. “I wonder, though, whether there is any difference in the way management operates in smaller, more human scale organisations than in bigger units”

    Interesting point. I’d like to think so, for the reason Grammar gives @ 4. It certainly seems inherently more likely, because in a small organisation with fewer protocols, management conventions or whatever, the manager is free to respond more personally and idiosyncratically to situations. The two problems with this, and I guess this is what makes top-downers panic and try and legislate it all from on-high instead, are that first it depends on there being *good* managers, and second that every time there is a change of manager, there will be a sort of socio-political shake-up in the workplace until the new order is found.

    But actually, even very formalised management structures face these two problems anyway – and can even do harm by effectively protecting bad managers.

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