2007 – Why management isn’t working
Amid the complaints and grumbles over the postal strike
I have been quietly enjoying a break from those packages
that promise so much when they drop through the letter box
yet deliver so little when you look inside.
It’s difficult to explain the sense of optimism with
which I approach each new package. Unlike those bland white
envelopes that you just know are either circulars or bills,
there is something about the Jiffy bag that triggers a sense
Perhaps it’s the knowledge that someone has gone
to a lot of trouble to ensure that it got here. Indeed,
if it contains a book, you know that countless hours have
been spent in the research, writing, editing and publishing.
There’s the distribution network, the warehousing,
the sales team, the catalogue. A lot of time is invested
in the preparation of a book.
Then you look at the cover and your heart begins to sink,
even before you turn to the contents. This is the reality
of today’s management book market. It explains why
I found myself last week delving through the pages of Peter
Drucker’s seminal work, The Practice of Management,
first published more than half a century ago.
There was another reason for revisiting Drucker’s
book. I wanted to remind myself about management principles
because I’m not seeing much that is good about management
Instead I’m reading about a National Health Service
that has bungled the training and recruitment of junior
doctors to such an extent that as many as 10,000 have found
themselves unable to progress their careers in the UK after
medical school training at a cost of £250,000 for
The interim findings of an inquiry headed by Prof Sir John
Tooke, chairman of the Medical Schools Council, published
this week, criticised the complexity of a job application
and interviewing process that could be put down to failures
in management and leadership.
Why stop at training and recruitment? The criticism could
be levelled at many other areas of health service management.
Will Hopper, the Co-author of the Puritan Gift, one recent
management book that actually delivers on its promise, was
lamenting last week the disappearance of the Nightingale
hierarchies that dominated health service management up
to the 1970s.
“At least we knew then who was in charge and that
meant that wards were cleaned thoroughly, unlike the position
we have today where there is so much outsourcing and where
no-one wants to take responsibility,” he said.
But this is the modern way. No-one seems to be in charge
anymore. The same could be said of the BBC where the excellence
of much of its programming and frontline presenters has
been undermined by poor management that has compromised
the network’s reputation for integrity in a series
of recent debacles, including the rigging of radio and television
This leads me to doubt one of Drucker’s opening remarks
in The Practice of Management. “Management will remain
a basic and dominant institution perhaps as long as Western
civilisation itself survives,” wrote Drucker at the
time. Basic, yes, but is it accurate fifty years on to describe
management as “dominant?”
Much of what we once knew as management – the administration
of the workplace – has been contracted out to specialist
providers who, the theory goes, should be more capable of
doing this so-called “none-core” work.
It was C K Prahalad and Gary Hamel who first introduced
the concept of core-competencies in a 1990 Harvard Business
Review article. Their subsequent book, Competing for The
Future, was one of the most influential management books
of the 1990s but its central message – that organisations
should concentrate on what they do best – was often
pursued with far too much enthusiasm and too little rigour
in assessing what was meant by a core competence.
Too many managers – and human resources managers
have as much to answer for here as anyone – sought
to discard the less popular in-house work and hang on to
the sexier functions such as talent management and succession
Much of the dull work – payroll, cleaning, security,
even training and recruitment in some cases – was
put out to contractors. By relinquishing this kind of work,
managers evaded responsibility. In time a second generation
of management stepped up to the plate with no previous experience
in the grunt work of basic administration. This meant there
was no-one around to compare what now passed for the status
quo with what went before.
The result in many organisations has been a competency
vacuum in management where the core excellence of a business
is undermined by a distinct lack of excellence elsewhere.
This is a fundamental weakness in the theory and practice
of core competencies.
Coupled with flatter hierarchies and laxer reporting regimes
that emerged from the 1990s fashion for corporate reengineering,
it has led to a crisis of management in some organisations.
“There is a certain unconscious humour in the new
instructions issued to hospitals,” write Will and
Ken Hopper in The Puritan Gift, “In reviewing existing
‘out-sourcing’ contracts, they were told that
they could employ ‘an in-house person whose job is
to keep the place clean.’ – or, as we used to
say, a cleaner.”
How did we get from Peter Drucker’s focus on management
by objectives that concentrated on management outcomes,
to the abdication of management that exists today?
Part of the blame must be levelled on a fashionable obsession
with leadership and a kind of corporate greed – not
the greed for ever higher salaries – although this
is one symptom of the malaise – but a desire for power
You can see this in the way rugby and football team managers
are habitually chopped when their teams fail in major competitions.
You rarely see the people who wield the axe shouldering
Perhaps this has something to do with the recent concentration
on corporate governance. Boards must focus so much on their
monitoring and deal-making role today that solid management
disciplines can be neglected. But there should be no corresponding
avoidance of accountability. The board of Northern Rock,
for example, cannot devolve accountability for presiding
over catastrophic borrowing policies that led to the bank’s
collapse. The buck has to stop somewhere.
When Drucker was writing in his prime, attempting to analyse
the qualities needed in a manager he outlined one qualification
that could not be learned but that every manager should
possess. That quality was character. Define it as you wish,
but if you strip away all the theories, all the fads and
all the processes, good management comes down to basic human
qualities. It was true then. It remains true today.
See also: Lessons
of history ignored by management