UK: Tackling a very tall order.

UK: Tackling a very tall order. - "The Complete Guide to Modern Management 1991-92" edited by Robert Heller (Mercury, 400 pages, £25.00).

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"The Complete Guide to Modern Management 1991-92" edited by Robert Heller (Mercury, 400 pages, £25.00).

Review by Philip Sadler.

Managing in today's business environment is such a complex mixture of art and science that no collection of articles, however wide ranging, can sensibly pretend to offer a "complete guide" for practitioners. Robert Heller has, nevertheless, brought together contributions from over 70 experts, drawn from the spheres of consultancy, business and the business schools, which do provide an extremely wide coverage of subjects of current concern in management circles. For the most part the articles live up to the claim that they are "authoritative and direct". Moreover, they are pretty well up to date with latest thinking and practice.

Heller has grouped the articles into seven sections. The first - Creating the Future - is concerned with the business environment and strategy formulation. The rationale for the second section - Foundations of the Firm - is not clear. It includes pieces on such diverse subjects as boardroom responsibility, the valuation of brands, the case for market research, design management and "the logistics of the greater Europe". The remaining five sections deal with functional aspects of management - finance, information technology, marketing, human resource management and logistics.

The books' breadth of coverage is both a strength and a weakness. The strength lies particularly in the accessibility, within the compass of a single volume, of succinctly presented information about most of the topics upon which today's managers need to be well briefed.

The weakness lies in the inevitable superficiality which results when complex issues are treated with such brevity. Robin Sykes, for example, attempts to answer the daunting question: "How do we make strategies in this age of discontinuity?" in eight pages of text, three and a half of which are devoted to tables and graphs. His ideas are undoubtedly thought provoking but would need developing at much greater length to be of much value to managers.

This comment applies to most of the articles which deal with broader issues of fundamental importance - such as factors affecting the competitiveness of European industry, managing the global business, making strategic acquisitions pay, the responsibilities of directors, management development and employee motivation. Subjects as far reaching as these call for treatment at greater depth in a work which is described as "a complete guide". It is also important to offer guidance on further reading, and to provide references to sources. This omission is a major, and puzzling, weakness.

Much the same applies to the articles on more specialised subjects such as treasury management, market research, computer-aided design and executive pensions. As introductions for non-specialist readers these are by and large excellent - useful and informative. The lack of guidance on further reading leaves the reader at the end of a cul-de-sac with nowhere to go.

Space for greater depth in the treatment of some issues, and for reading lists, could have been found if some of the more trivial topics had been dropped. Indeed, the whole balance of the book is thrown out by including, alongside issues of strategic and fundamental importance, topics such as customer entertaining and desktop publishing.

In his foreword Heller highlights the need for companies facing the challenge of an increasingly complex and competitive environment to transform themselves if they are to survive. The technical knowledge required to achieve such a transformation is, he argues, both deep and widely available. His use of "technical" in this context is intriguing, since the contents of the book are not confined to techniques. Indeed, some chapters are highly conceptual. The technical emphasis, however, may be linked to the curious omission of a chapter on the most powerful forces capable of achieving corporate transformation: leadership and cultural change.

Heller draws an analogy between today's chief executive and the pilot of an extraordinarily complex spacecraft, confronted with myriad dials and controls, all of which must be activated for best performance. Followers of "Star Trek", however, know that it was Captain Kirk's leadership which saved the day - he left the dials and controls to his chief engineer.

(Philip Sadler was formerly principal of Ashridge Management College.)

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