Book review: Reinventing Management, by Julian Birkinshaw

A strong bureaucratic system or a free-wheeling ethos? Kai Peters likes Birkinshaw's practical approach.

by Kai Peters

There are, fundamentally, two types of management book. In the one camp are cookery-style books with 10 easy steps to eternal happiness or five easy lessons on leadership. They sell like hot cakes - in my view, because they take away the need to think, as thinking is quite hard work. In the other camp are books that take a more thoughtful, long view: Peter Drucker and Charles Handy come to mind. These books reflect on the changes taking place within society and within organisations, and show how the two are interlinked.

Julian Birkinshaw's new book, Reinventing Management, belongs in the Drucker category. Its central thesis is that each organisation has a management system composed of a variety of elements that have been developed over time. This management model, 'the set of choices we make about how work gets done in an organisation', has four basic dichotomies that blend together. It can be bureaucratic or loose; hierarchical or collective; clearly aligned or oblique; and, lastly, motivational through the pursuit of money or through the pursuit of inherent reward.

Birkinshaw points out that managers have a choice. He doesn't say that bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations are awful and we must all strive towards a knowledge-intensive, collaborative, self-fulfilling nirvana. Instead, his thesis might be characterised as the 'Goldilocks and the three bears' school of management: the challenge is where to sleep.

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