2007 – Lessons of history ignored by management
Every now and again we are reminded that great work is
something that is not confined to a specific period of history.
It has emerged at intervals over the millennia, often associated
with some large scale project although it can also manifest
itself in smaller projects at the hands of individual artisans.
Whether it’s art work on Greek pottery or the scale
and scope of Egyptian funerary construction and decoration,
it is clear that settled societies have proved capable of
high levels of craftsmanship in pursuit of excellence.
When the British Museum’s exhibition of terracotta
warriors from Xi’an in China opens in two week’s
time we shall be reminded afresh that concepts such as production
lines and quality control are not inventions of the past
200 years, but have emerged, then flourished for a while,
only to disappear as a civilization declines.
The terracotta army that includes representations of civil
servants, musicians and acrobats, was assembled using the
principles of mass production and standardisation combined
with individual artisanship that reproduced the facial features
of different regions comprising the army.
What kind of work organisation was involved in such projects?
How did the artists who worked the faces team up with the
clay-firing specialists who made the moulds? How did they
manage their work?
We might pose the same questions about the construction
of Stonehenge where large stones were transported great
distances from their original quarry sites. Was there a
hierarchy of workers and overseers? Did some people have
specific skills in stonemasonry?
If you look at the paintings discovered during the early
1990s within Chauvet cave in the Ardeche Gorge in France
you can see evidence in this 32,000-year-old artistry of
a grasp of perspective and form in drawing, skills that
defeated the best efforts of monastic artists in Medieval
It’s as if knowledge has been gained, then lost at
different stages of human development, that progress should
not be represented by a steadily inclining graph but one
that looks something like a switchback ride.
While organisational theory has advanced in the past hundred
years there is usually some precedent to be found in the
history books. The stopwatch that could measure elapsed
time of more than a minute, for example, was a relatively
new innovation when it was used by Frederick Taylor in work
study experiments during the late 19th century.
But the Royal Navy had been timing the performance of its
gun crews in the Napoleonic era almost a century earlier.
Military organisation, in fact, often preceded that of civil
enterprise. The Venice shipyards had been equipping gunboats
using an assembly line and division of labour some 700 years
before the idea was reborn in the Model T assembly plant
created by Henry Ford.
Even the idea of flatter hierarchies promoted in business
process re-engineering is nothing new. Among the Mongol
armies of Genghis Khan strategies were cascaded down and
discussed by the lower ranks who had a detailed understanding
of their contribution to the whole.
The kind of self-organisation promoted by Peter Drucker
in his seminal work, Concept of the Corporation, was fundamental
to military success in the Mongol conquests. While sometimes
it has taken an academic such as Adam Smith to recognise
the merits of specialisation, in pin-making, for example,
such efficient ways of working have emerged naturally and
just as naturally they can disappear through neglect, complacency
Managers today can tap in to a comprehensive library of
management knowledge, much of it proven theory, yet there
is growing evidence that good practices cannot be sustained
within succeeding generations of management. Organisational
development appears to have become stuck in a cycle of learned
and lost behaviours.
The GMB general workers trade union complained at the weekend
of a growth in macho-style management that it blamed on
television shows glamorising aggressive approaches such
as that adopted by the chef and restaurateur, Gordon Ramsay.
Talent shows such as the X Factor, known for its withering
critiques of contestants, and the Apprentice that delivers
“your fired” verdicts on eliminated contestants
are popularising a harsher style of management that has
been criticised in the past by progressive management theorists
such as Douglas McGregor, Elton Mayo and Frederick Herzberg.
Signs of greater aggressiveness are also emerging in the
general workforce. A recent YouGov poll carried out for
Investors in People, the workplace standards organisation,
among nearly two thousand UK employees, found evidence of
damaging competitive behaviour in workforces that many employees
complained was destroying team spirit in their companies.
More than a third of those questioned implicated their managers
who they accused of playing colleagues off against each
Are manager-worker relationships deteriorating? If they
are, the causes may be more fundamental than television
trends according to a new book, The Mismatched Worker* by
Arne Kalleberg, a social sciences professor at the University
of North Carolina.
Prof Kalleberg believes that western labour markets are
experiencing a series of social and structural imbalances
that have created serious mismatches in the jobs market.
Among them he identifies overqualified or overeducated graduates
working in unskilled jobs while other workers find their
skills have been overtaken by technological changes.
Other people are working many more hours than they want
to work while some do not have sufficient work and some
have found themselves living too far away from the kind
of jobs to which they are best suited.
Many of these mismatches, he says, are on the increase
in the US. “Work-family conflict and overworking,
for example, are more common now than ever before. There
has also been a growth in recent years in mismatches related
to underworking, earnings and benefits. Over-qualification
and geographical mismatches are also on the rise,”
Prof Kalleberg has little faith in labour markets to solve
the problem and calls for government intervention, supported
by business, to alleviate the plight of the working poor.
As he points out: “Society has to pick up the tab
for poverty in general and working poverty specifically.”
Some sense of the wider consequences of low pay and poor
jobs can be determined in the recent market volatility caused
by a willingness of some banks to extend mortgages to those
with poor credit prospects. The collapse of this subprime
mortgage market is a salutary lesson for those who believe
the market system need not address social concerns.
Prof Kalleberg believes that the US can learn from European
labour markets but I cannot see any US administration, whatever
its hue, adopting a Scandinavian social model, for example.
Nor is it likely to reduce the full-time working week, another
of the author’s suggestions. But many more US industries
could and should improve their training regimes by introducing
sector skill agreements.
No market system should overlook the labour market. Nor
should corporate management define history as the events
of the previous quarter. The Spanish philosopher George
Santayana had a point when he wrote: “Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
*The Mismatched Worker by Arne L Kalleberg, is published
by Norton, price $17.25.
See also: Management