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Donkin on Work - Management Theory

August 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 times.

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 and ignorance.

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 other.

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,” he writes.

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 fads

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