Book review: The Death of Modern Management, by Jo Owen

Owen's doom-laden tome contains some grand pronouncements, with limited data or evidence.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

We're doomed, I tell you. Done for. Finished. I've just been reading all about it. Times are changing. This is a revolution, an upheaval. Management is just, like, so over.

I'm getting my breath back after finishing Jo Owen's The Death of Modern Management. He's not an author encumbered by self-doubt.

Here's a selection of the things Owen believes: 'Modern management is dying under the weight of its own contradictions'; it is now 'reaching its end game'; 'The easy certainties of the past are over'; 'Organisations are moving from command and control to co-operation and commitment'; 'Employees are no longer like indentured workers at the mercy of an all-powerful employer. Through skills, affluence, welfare and choice, employees have found freedom.'

All these statements are debatable. Command and control? Still alive and kicking, surely. Employees are free? Come off it! Yet the claims are stated as fact. And in so doing, Owen mimics the approach of the very gurus and theoreticians he says he mistrusts. We get grand pronouncements, followed up by limited data or evidence. It is not a convincing package. In fact, a few pages on, Owen concedes: 'Clearly, not all organisations have made the transition from modern management to the new world.'

This sprawling, overambitious book tries to cover almost every aspect of business and organisational life. Owen has a line on everything: finance, strategy, technology, marketing, knowledge, change. There are moments of insight and flashes of inspiration, but they're wrapped up in a long, breezy narrative that, with too many wide-of-the-mark utterances, undermines the reader's confidence.

Owen rejects most management thinkers, unfairly, as people who come up with 'BFOs' (blinding flashes of the obvious). There is ritualistic trashing of some of the big names. But he comes up with a few BFOs of his own, such as: 'From the early days of the Industrial Revolution the basic business model was "make and sell". First you make stuff and then you hope to sell it.' And: 'The advance of capitalism has gone hand in hand with the advance of knowledge.'

Sometimes the statements are bizarre, forcing the reader to shout back a sceptical question. 'As power shifts from producers to consumers, so the importance of marketing grows.' How? 'The nature of the firm is changing fundamentally.' Is it? 'Anglo-Saxon firms are no longer the only success models to follow.' When were they ever? 'The challenge for management is getting harder all the time.' Harder than when?

It's not all bad. The text contains strong, thought-provoking stuff too. Owen is, rightly, a deep sceptic on the conventions of finance. 'Managers need to break free from financial orthodoxy to make sound financial decisions,' he says.

And he cuts to the chase in the recent market turmoil. 'Short sellers were not the problem, they were part of the solution, because they looked past accounting value to find the economic value and the prospects for the firm. They established the truth which accounts successfully hide.' Hear, hear.

Owen is damning on the fancy footwork and dishonesty that surround the annual budget. 'Most firms spend far too long on the budget process and far too little on the strategic process,' he says.

Some of his practical observations on the workplace ring true as well. 'E-mail wars start when we stop talking,' he says. We all know about that. And this is cute: 'Management is largely about change. The job of a manager is rarely to keep things exactly as they are.'

Owen has written well in the past about management and the workplace, but here he overreaches himself. 'This book is your guide to the new world disorder,' he writes. That claims far too much.

His concluding arguments are typical of the sort of management blah-blah writing that we have all produced at one time or another. How much does this sort of thing help anyone: 'The old success formulas are failing because the world is changing: the new world needs new approaches. The changes are not small: they are vast.'

Owen adds: 'No-one can tell what the future holds. This book does not pretend to predict.'

I predict that the author, on reflection, will wish he had spent a bit longer on this curate's egg of a book: good in parts, tasty at times, but ultimately unconvincing.

Stefan Stern is a contributing editor to MT

The Death of Modern Management
Jo Owen
John Wiley & Sons £18.99.

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