BOOKS: It's curtains for managers - If centrally planned economies have been discredited, why should we run our companies that way? Charles Handy hails a book with a wake-up message

BOOKS: It's curtains for managers - If centrally planned economies have been discredited, why should we run our companies that way? Charles Handy hails a book with a wake-up message - The End of Management; By Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith; Jossey-Bass

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The End of Management; By Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith; Jossey-Bass; pounds 20.50

Francis Fukuyama maintained that the combination of liberal democracy and capitalism represented the final conclusion of society's evolution and thus The End of History. How odd then that businesses, the institutions of capitalism, have shunned democracy in their own domains. In its place they have fostered the theory of management - a system originally devised for the control of slaves and, in Aristotle's view, animals and women.

When Kofi Annan spoke at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UN, he said if the previous century had taught us one thing it was that central planning did not work. No-one thought his statement controversial, yet many of our organisations are still, in essence, centrally planned economies. You have to wonder why.

Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith do just that in this book. They conclude that management is an idea whose time is up. The people who work in organisations these days are not slaves or serfs. Nor are they merely the instruments of their titular owners, shareholders who often do not even know that they own the business. 'The days of military command structures in which orders are announced by CEO generals and barked by mid-level sergeant-managers to docile privates who blindly obeyed them are over,' they say.

Those days are over because the speed with which change and innovation happen is forcing organisations to abandon their top-down processes, and because the new information channels allow decisions to be taken nearer to the coalface and quicker. Instead, we are, say the authors, seeing businesses turning into 'strategic associations of self-managing employee teams' who collaborate as members of complex networks. The second half of the book is a set of prescriptions for how these teams and networks actually operate.

So far so good, and useful too. But the interesting question is the one the authors explore in the first half of the book. Why have we persevered for so long with a system that treats people either as idiots or as untrustworthy slaves, instead of as the responsible, rational and sensible individuals that we all are if we are allowed to be and if we believe in what we are doing? Why have we created systems that separate employees from responsibility, decision-making, intuition and ownership? And is it not anti-democratic to give the real power to outsiders who provided the money but none to those who give their time and skill, even their whole adult life?

Have we been working with a self-fulfilling prophecy - treat people as children and they'll behave as children? For it's true, is it not, that many people prefer being told what to do and like the freedom from responsibility and stress. Or have managers been seduced by the apparent power over others that a hierarchical organisation offers, and by the disproportionate rewards it can provide to those at the top? Or have we been blinded by what we are accustomed to and have accepted that hierarchy, rules and managers are an essential part of organisational life?

If so, say the authors, we are depriving individuals of the chance to develop themselves to their full potential, and are cluttering up our organisations with wasteful and counterproductive processes. There is, in other words, a moral as well as a business argument for change.

And change there will increasingly be, because the new well-educated knowledge worker wants more than a pay cheque from his, or increasingly, her work; they want a purpose, even a chance to make one of those small footprints in the sands of time. Organisations that do not recognise the need to share power and responsibility with all their workers will lose them.

You may not share the idealistic view of humanity that pervades this book, but we need wake-up calls like this to shake us out of our comfortable assumption that we know how to run organisations and that all they need is occasional tweaking. Just possibly, we are seeing the dawn of a new era, and it won't be called management.

Charles Handy's latest book is The Elephant and the Flea, published by Hutchinson.

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