From the archive: The more things change...

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Written by Martin Addison on 8 September 2020 in Features
Features

One of the benefits of being a TJ subscriber is full access to our decades-long archive of content - here we look back to a piece about management from October 2012.

 

Management thinking has been through many changes, yet the fundamental role of a manager is the same, says Martin Addison.

Management is actually quite a straightforward discipline. So why have there been so many management fads? To answer that, we have to step back briefly to look at how management thinking came about.

Many of the ideas that govern modern business and capitalism stem from philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith created the intellectual foundation and principles that underpin a business enterprise. In their age of scientific discovery, it seemed natural to think of an organisation like a machine, with inputs and useful outputs. To explain their concepts, they borrowed terms from classical physics such as "labour force", "elasticity" and "equilibrium".

This idea of "systems thinking" still holds today, although new contenders, including models based on biological principles and chaos theory, have risen to challenge its dominance.

Historically, the structure of large organisations mirrored the 'command and control' model favoured by the military, in which the 'generals' develop the strategy, the 'officers' translate that strategy into actions and the 'soldiers' implement the actions on the ground. Henry Ford summed up the prevailing attitude towards employees when he said: "Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?"

However, other employers such as Cadbury and Lever adopted a more paternalistic attitude, creating 'company towns' (Bournville and Port Sunlight respectively) to create closer ties with their workforce. They realised that looking after their employees was good for business.

The search to truly understand the best way to manage a business enterprise started in earnest around 1920, when the first comprehensive theories of management appeared. The ball really started rolling when Harvard Business School offered the first Master of Business Administration degree in 1921. As early as 1927, Mary Parker Follet, a pioneering US business theorist, was talking about transformational leadership and the power of the collective goals of leaders and followers.

The purpose of business

Celebrated modern business philosopher Peter Drucker, who profoundly influenced management and organisational theory, wrote one of the earliest books on applied management in 1946 (Concept of the Corporation). He claimed that the purpose of business was to satisfy customers. This contradicted economist Milton Friedman, who was one of the main advocates of the notion that the purpose of business is to maximise profits for the owners. Others argued that the principal purpose of business should be to serve the interests of a larger group of stakeholders, including employees, customers and society as a whole.

With conflicting ideas circulating about what businesses were actually for - and divergent attitudes to employees - it's not surprising that different management approaches developed to help organisations achieve their objectives.

Parker Follett defined management as "the art of getting things done through people". In recent years, there have been shifting definitions but management is usually seen in terms of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using the available resources efficiently and effectively.

Although the command-and-control approach has lost favour, large organisations are still structured in three clear levels of management - a senior management team, middle managers and first-line managers - with different tasks being performed at each level. Increasingly, this pyramid-shaped hierarchy is giving way to flatter structures. Despite this, the basic role of a manager has remained much the same. It involves:

  • analysing what needs to be done in a situation and organising and motivating others to do it
  • making best use of the resources available
  • communicating and sharing information
  • making decisions
  • providing feedback on performance
  • monitoring progress
  • hiring people for appropriate jobs
  • delegating responsibility.

In many organisations, the boundaries are blurring between management and leadership. The consensus of opinion used to be that 'management' was about the issues of today, requiring efficient organisation and implementation, whereas 'leadership' was about the future and involved motivation, vision and managing change. However, as Joanna Kozubska says in The Seven Keys of Charisma: "There are times when a leader needs good systematic management skills and times when a manager must inspire people. We have to be able to do both."

Good and fad approaches

As we can see, the basic tasks of management can be readily defined so it is surprising that so many different opinions have been put forward about how to do it effectively. Academics and consultants have proposed and popularised a number of different theories and approaches to management, each designed to help businesses achieve their goals with greater efficiency.

These different approaches have included management by objectives; matrix management; one-minute management; management by wandering around; total quality management; business process re-engineering; empowerment; knowledge management; Six Sigma; ISO 9000; kaizen; quality circles, and various information-technology-driven approaches.

These could all be described as management fads, as each has enjoyed fleeting popularity. Those with merit have stood the test of time. The problem is that few management approaches are universally applicable. Total quality management, for example, may be inappropriate for an importer of fruit. Also, while the fundamental principles of ideas such as 'management by objectives' or 'management by wandering around' may be sound, they'll produce nothing but disappointment if they are not properly implemented.

Having said that, some management ideas were undoubtedly implemented simply because they were popular within managerial circles, not because of any real need in the business for organisational change. Many of these fads have simply been old wine in new bottles, promoted by specialists with a vested interest in securing profitable consultancy projects. Unsurprisingly, this has led to great scepticism from employees whenever a new management approach has been adopted.

Evidence that nothing is really new when it comes to management can be found in classic texts. For example, Sun Tzu' s The Art of War, the definitive work on military strategy and tactics, has been revered throughout history as a treatise on leadership, despite the fact that it was written 2,500 years ago. Niccolò Machiavelli's classic The Prince, written 500 years ago as a handbook for rulers, offers an uncompromising account of how to seize and retain power. Both books remain astonishingly relevant to managers in today's organisations, offering business lessons and practical insights for personal success.

How to manage

The essence of good management has always been people skills: the ability to deal with others effectively and politely. These so-called 'soft skills' are the personal attributes, social graces and behaviour that characterise our relationships and underpin our ability to interact with other people. They differ from hard skills, which are the occupational requirements of the job.

Soft skills can often be the hardest skills to learn but they are fundamental for management effectiveness. They commonly show up in the workplace when we need to communicate face-to-face with each other, negotiate, solve problems as a team, influence others, present our ideas, manage conflict, sell or reach decisions with clients or colleagues.

A manager's ability to perform in his job, and his career prospects, will be strongly influenced by his soft skills. That's why organisations screen for personal traits such as dependability and conscientiousness in recruitment. It's also why L&D devotes significant attention to soft skills development, particularly for employees who deal face-to-face with customers.

The essential soft skills of management have remained constant over time and, every year, new managers need to learn them. However, dramatic change has occurred - particularly since 1972, when John Cleese and Sir Antony Jay co-founded Video Arts - in the way that soft skills learning is delivered and how technology has been used to support the process (see box on opposite page - see pdf).

A clear lesson, from 40 years of change in training, is that technology is only an enabler in the development of soft skills; the focus should always be on the learning. Further technological shifts are inevitable both in society and in business. However, it will always be necessary to appropriately present and adequately resource learning.

That means there will always be a role for L&D in delivering soft skills learning for managers. Simply making content available to unprepared and unsupported learners will not work. And, of course, the learning will always have to be engaging. As John Cleese has famously said: "People learn nothing when they're asleep and very little when they're bored."

So, as we can see, trends in management thinking may come and go, and technological shifts will inevitably occur, but in terms of the actual soft skills that are required to manage, nothing will really change.

About the author

Martin Addison is chief executive of learning content specialist Video Arts. He can be contacted at maddison@videoarts.co.uk

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