Monday, March 15, 2010

Management: An Alternative View

Let's start straight: What is management? Here is my take: It is a pseudo-science designed to preserve power relationships in the new, industrial society. That will not pass me any exam, but that is what I learnt during my twenty-odd years in commercial running around.

If that sounds a bit too uncharitable, consider sitting through any business strategy planning session. You will surely be impressed by the pomp and the seriousness these sessions are conducted with, the charts and graphs, and the elaborate models that get discussed and presented. For all the statistical sophistry, the whole thing is actually bunk though. Managers will laugh at their own efforts during the lunch time. All about beers and bullet points, the exercise is all about the story hanging together in a series of interconnected slides, rather than any serious analysis of the future. And, why so? Elementary, because future can not be analysed.

I am not trying to belittle the statistical models that we have grown so accustomed with, but they stand belittled anyway in today's day and age. The blame should come to us. They were models - imaginary what-if analysis based on scenarios. We took them for gospel truth. All because we needed to invent the 'science' of management, indeed.

And, what is the pretence for? As I say, it is about making sure that people remain in their places. The biggest disconnect I had with the management 'science' over the years is this: the philosophy that you define the role and then hire the person. That's basic, you would say, how can this be anything otherwise. However, this business of imagining a role and fitting a real person into it seemed unreal to me. In the first place, you will never find a fit. Besides, it never seemed a good idea to me to trim the person of possibilities and try to fit her into a role straitjacket. If anything, it seemed counter-intuitive.

Chester Bernard observed while we pay the person for some skills, it is the whole person who comes to work. And, then, management is about stripping the person of her wholeness, and fitting this person in the box allocated in a fancy org-chart drawn up in a remote window-less boardroom. In fact, I realized management is all about org-chart in some cultures - look into the website of any Bangladeshi organization, public or private, and you will come across a rather detailed organization chart - and this stripping of people of their possibilities is what management as a science is supposed to do.

This fits in nicely with the objectives of management. The common sense objective of a business to make profit; in fact, the only plausible objective, as I have been told by my more enlightened colleagues. This means that the whole game is about making a lot of people toil to generate surplus, and therefore leisurely life, for a few. It is about the providers of money ruling over the lives of people, and to do so gently, by creating an illusion of scientific truth and making the used feel good about it. The entire tapestry of modern life, the allure of ownership of a 'leasehold' flat, the equal monthly instalments which let people consume their whole lives away, the myth of retirement savings, the elaborate recycling schemes of stocks and bonds, the promotion of luxurious life through movies and soaps, all centred around a nine-to-eternity job on a tiny desk of a windowless office, is based on stripping people of all their possibilities and grooming them for the roles they are meant to be in.

There are alternatives to the bleak, optionless world that I portray here. The window of freedom and possibility is entrepreneurship, one would say. That's a role-breaker, the creator of possibilities, something that spawns out new opportunities. But, entrepreneurship is mere freedom for the individual concerned, it is yet to become a doctrine of freedom. Paulo Freire taught us that the oppressed mimic the way of the oppressor, and thus become oppressors themselves, once they get some power. The same happens to entrepreneur: They buy into management best practises, the same ones they were so fed up with that they left, and heap those prejudices on other people. To perpetuate this, we build a culture based on entrepreneur as a superman, who indeed deserves special treatment; we welcome him to the club, and tell him not to rock the boat.

So, in all, management is an elaborate system of make-believe science, designed to perpetuate the system of oppression and de-humanization that our societies are based on. It is based on the idea that business is a money-making machine, not a social organization designed to solve social problems. It treats people as cogs, role-holders and resources, and not as people. It strips people of possibilities, and reduce the act of business as a mere transaction, rather than of involvement in a wider social dynamic.

However much I wish to believe that we live in knowledge societies and things have changed, reality tells me a different story. I can feel that our current system is in its last gasps, and the possibilities of freedom around the corner, facilitated more by the greatest existential crisis of capitalism than by good sense. I meet people who are questioning the wisdom handed down to them, but they do so quietly, in the corners. I hear the whispers of change undermining the high-pitch promotion of management as gospel truth. However, so far, the steel grip of industrial era management thinking has hardly been loosened. Obviously, a conscious effort is being made to co-opt the new ideas of corporate responsibility and open collaboration in the dated concepts of role thinking and hierarchical management.

One can take an optimistic view and see that such thinking will eventually come unstuck. This is because we are at a tipping point, a time of fundamental change. This recession has shaken our society to the core, and despite huge public investments, it is refusing to go away. Despite all our sophistication in management, we seem to be heading for another great depression. The drowning cry of TV evangelists that everything will be alright real soon, and one can already see the 'green shoots of life', is the delusion of the old management; more real are the warnings that we are never going to get out of the mess unless a fundamental rethink about how we manage our lives are attempted.


mandeep said...

Thought provoking write up.
Would like to add that today tools developed to improve productivity and aid management of an organisation are already beginning to control the organisation. What I am refering to is tools like Power Point and spreadsheets.
Today by imaginative use of features of excel and simulating almost any condition, a large number of products and processes are being created. Power Point presentations are being used to över emphasize" and sell what one wants to sell. The organisations and people are then being subjected to such products and processes, which by now are already being perceived to be a solution to all challenges an organisation is facing. What is more scary is that even any questioning and review of management practices is being done through extensive dependence on such "tools".
The "what if" scenarios and "simulations" are today controlling the board rooms and any scenario that cannot be fit into these templates is being outrightly removed from scrutiny.
I would go to the extent of saying that today's financial crisis owes a lot to such tools - which could, infact have, been used to create and sell complex financial products, which otherwise were based on poor fundamentals. Gullible citizens, including organisations, banking systems, started believing, accepting and propogating such products and all seemed like a fairy tale until the house of cards came down.
Managements would do well to limit their dependence on such tools and step out of their boxed structures and decision making processes guided by flow charts and arrows, and look for tapping entreprenurial energy and talent that exists within their organisations to run their businesses.
Today's post recession world needs to step out of "boxes and arrows" thinking, failing which the pain is likely to continue for a much much longer time, despite what stock markets and "green shoot" thinking may point towards.
Imagine a discussion in a financial (or for that matter any organisation) on how to "create value" from the extreme liquidity pumped in by central banks across the world without actually checking if they were actually creating value (no inverted commas this time).

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Absolutely agree. In fact, since I wrote this post, I found an expert endorsement of what I was trying to say. In THE MANAGEMENT MYTH: WHY THE EXPERTS KEEP GETTING IT WRONG, Matthew Stewart takes a similar position. You can see a review here:

I guess management science is a tool, or a set of tools, which has gone out of hand. It is time that we discover businesses as social organizations, of the people, by the people and for the people if I may add, and start afresh.

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