2003 - Management fads
In a momentous week that could
change the political map of the world it seems
odd to be writing of the everyday concerns of
working people. Yet, when the dust settles on
the Middle East, and the ink has dried on this
latest chapter in the history of global conflict,
work will remain the social continuum that defines
the course of our lives.
There has been much talk of a
new world order by those who believe that change
is implicit in the passage of events. It concurs
with the popular belief that capitalist society
is itself experiencing a great upheaval that could
transform the way people relate to the workplace.
Perhaps this was why I was drawn
to a counter-argument proposed by James Hoopes,
a history professor at Babson College in the US,
in a forthcoming book* on management history.
In this hard-hitting critique of management shibboleths,
Prof Hoopes outlines a simple view of the company
as an authoritarian institution that succeeds
because it invests power in managers to extract
performance from employees.
This is what it has always been,
he argues - at least from the time of Frederick
W. Taylor and his development of scientific management
that sought to wrest control of the job from the
worker. More to the point, Prof Hoopes concludes
that this is the way it will continue and this
is the way it has to be in a capitalist system
that exists to generate profit.
At the same time he concedes
that America's founding fathers never intended
work to be this way. Thomas Jefferson, for example,
was a great advocate of self-employment, believing
that the US should be a nation of independent
farmers. He declared that he never wanted to find
his "fellow citizens at a work bench".
That the work bench, or these days the screen
and cubicle, is exactly where we can find so many
employees today, writes Prof Hoopes, is a result
of the plain fact that office work "pays
better than tilling the land".
But salaried workers have paid
a price for their higher wages by sacrificing
certain freedoms to the demands of the corporate
autocracy. As Prof Hoopes points out, "free
speech often stops when work begins".
"As much as we can,"
he writes, "we ignore the fact that we check
many of our freedoms at the workplace door and
that ordinary citizens get their closest exposure
to undemocratic government when they go to work
for a corporation."
If this observation is discomfiting,
it is even more worrying when he suggests that
over the years management gurus and their ideas
have created something of a smokescreen for the
real nature of the management-subordinate relationship.
"To make corporate life more palatable to
Americans," he writes, "some of the
gurus have unrealistically minimised the amount
of power it takes to manage." The power invested
in management, he believes, is crucial to the
His argument is based on a five-year
study of some of the most important gurus of US
management. His conclusions are unsettling, suggesting
that the most significant tenets of management
theory embedded in big business are as flimsy
as a house of cards.
In a series of selective and
well researched potted histories of the work of
people such as Taylor, Elton Mayo, Mary Parker
Follett, Chester Barnard, W. Edwards Deming and
Peter Drucker, he seeks to separate the idealism
of the theorist from the reality of the workplace.
That idealism coloured the conclusions
of Elton Mayo, over the long-running experiments
looking at employee morale and motivation at Western
Electric's Hawthorne Works in Chicago, is well
documented. Prof Hoopes does not confine his questions
to those who are no longer around to contradict
him. He is equally surgical and sceptical in his
analysis of the teachings of those such as Peter
Drucker, Tom Peters, Warren Bennis and Peter Senge.
Some of his most telling observations
note how ideas sometimes ran away from their originators
as they were repackaged by consultants. Deming,
for example, disliked the way that his organisation-wide
focus on improvement came to be labelled "total
quality management", a catch-all phrase that
was attached to faddish interpretations of his
Even Peter Drucker - the gurus'
guru - does not escape criticism. He wasted too
much time, says the author, as did other gurus
in his generation, trying to establish a "moral
legitimacy" for management that has created
"unrealistic hopes" of democracy in
companies that are anything but democratic.
At the same time, however, Prof
Hoopes points to many practical management improvements
pioneered by Mr Drucker, particularly his "management
by objectives" that focuses on the aims of
the enterprise, concentrating on a goal, not on
the vagaries of personal taste. "There is
less risk of hurt and a better chance of good
work when manager and employee focus on the objective
needs of the business rather than each other's
subjective psychology," notes Prof Hoopes.
It would be heartening to record
that the book revealed a path for a more enlightened
form of capitalism in future. On the contrary,
the author's scholarly cynicism is maintained
to the end. In fact he suggests that some of the
more recent business concepts inspired by business
process re-engineering - the dissolution of demarcation
lines and looser job descriptions, for example
- have created more rather than less arbitrary
power among managers.
His analysis of corporate leadership
is prescient. Too often, he says, leadership studies
concentrate on the benevolent idealistic features
of the job, omitting the controlling and coercive
side. Prof Hoopes concludes that the corporation,
once described by Peter Drucker as the representative
institution of society, is "not a good model
for the rest of a democratic society". Further,
he decides that the idea of "democratising
corporations and legitimising management is a
More worrying still in this critique
is the absence of an alternative to the corporation.
"Top-down power and its potential abuse are
here to stay in corporate America. It is foolish
to think otherwise," he says.
But that is capitalism for you.
At least we are not talking about the nation state.
Or are we? His book ends with a throw-away line:
"It is all too possible to run a country
like a company."
False Prophets, the Gurus
who Created Modern Management and Why their Ideas
are Bad for Business Today, by James Hoopes, to
be published in May by Perseus Publishing, price
as a pdf file