UK: THE GURUS - ROSABETH MOSS KANTER. - During the re-engineering revolution, no one heeded Kanter's talk of innovation, customer service and loyalty to staff. Now they are listening.

by Trevor Merriden.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

During the re-engineering revolution, no one heeded Kanter's talk of innovation, customer service and loyalty to staff. Now they are listening.

'I have my flashy moments,' admits Rosabeth Moss Kanter with a chuckle. She's not kidding. The Harvard Business School professor strides around the world's highbrow business conference platforms, proudly and loudly dispensing business advice into the eager ears of conference delegates. She marks her message with infectious enthusiasm and good humour, waving her arms around maniacally as she paces the stage.

Kanter's public performances are widely admired and have been taking her around the globe for quite some years now. Underpinning her high-energy stage act is a complex set of ideas developed with a steady sense of evolution over a quarter of a century. Her first major book, Men and Women of the Corporation (1977), looked at how bureaucratic corporations underutilised employee talent. This evolved into The Change Masters (1983), in which Kanter noted the 'death' of these 'corpocracies' (as she termed them), and compared the dying species with a new breed of organisation able to anticipate the need for change and agile enough to see it through.

When Giants Learn to Dance (1989) placed the agility issue within the framework of the global economy, and introduced the concept of the corporation offering its staff employability if not guaranteed employment. And finally, World Class (1995) looked at the intangibles common to companies that maintain global excellence. These boil down, says Kanter, to the '3Cs', namely concepts (knowledge and ideas), competence (the ability to operate at the highest standards) and connections (the best relationships, vital for access to global resources). Underlying this holy trinity are complex arguments about the way businesses and communities harness global market forces and make them work on a local level.

The growth of Kanter's popularity worldwide mirrored the spread of American management and business thinking more generally in the late 1980s. Earlier, Kanter had struggled hard to explain to international audiences ideas which, she says, 'still seemed radical in the United States, let alone in the rest of the world', even though these ideas, which she was among the first to promulgate, are now commonly accepted as normal management practice. 'Ideas like flatter structures, empowerment of the workforce, that sort of thing - these have been common themes in my work, rather than how to reduce costs by screwing your employees,' says Kanter. By the late 1980s, however, the messages were beginning to hit home and When Giants Learn to Dance was a massive bestseller.

For Kanter, originally a sociologist, business is a part of a much wider political, social and economic framework. For example, she describes World Class as 'one-third business, one-third politics and one-third community action,' and insists that sociological objectives are becoming ever more intertwined with business thinking. This broader thinking has led some to criticise her work for being too complex to mean anything to those involved in the hurly-burly of business life. One delegate at a recent conference in Gleneagles, at which Kanter spoke, summed up his feelings afterwards: 'I'm not sure what Rosabeth was saying, although I loved the way she said it'.

Kanter herself sees her unwillingness to oversimplify a complex message as 'my greatest strength and my greatest weakness'. She laughs as she admits, 'I have people urging me to do something which has a few big ideas that I should talk about endlessly. But my books aren't like that. They're not cartoons.' And she is unapologetic for her style of writing. 'Yes, my books are complex, yes they're thoughtful, yes they're intellectual, so yes ... they last.'

Good managers realise there are no simple answers to management problems, suggests Kanter. 'Managing means managing an entire context. If you strip out one element and apply one methodology, it won't work.' She sees some other management experts as trying to do exactly that, providing simplistic 'ready reckoners' with one input leading directly to one output. 'It's not the Peter Druckers or Michael Porters who get trashed. It's these faddish, simplistic little books where someone puts one idea, one thing ... and that's it. Well, how ridiculous.'

And now she warms to this faddism theme. 'I had great fun on this in the introduction to a forthcoming book. I wrote: "What do these have in common: gazelles, symphony orchestras, jazz bands, virtual networks, schools of sharks and astronauts? Nothing, but they have all been used as metaphors to describe the new organisation".' Her point is that the search for excellence has given way to the search for metaphors on the part of the consultant and writer. As there is little value created by those who chase endlessly for headlines, managers always return to gurus with more enduring lessons, she claims, something Kanter feels she can provide; 'I'm in for the long haul,' she says.

A few years ago, however, during the re-engineering revolution, things seemed less rosy. 'My advice to companies today is often the same as it was then. I said they were losing sight of innovation, customers, were too internally focused and brutal when dealing with staff. They didn't want to listen.' Then she adds, with a mischievous gleam in her eye: 'now they're listening'.

So where does Kanter see the next fads coming from? 'Creativity and innovation are back and I worry managers could translate innovation as "You've got to be wild and crazy and silly". It'll be like Casual Dress Day run amok.' She is also worried about the attention being paid to the concept of the learning organisation. 'It will degenerate into huge IT systems for knowledge management that nobody uses. There will be a lot of talk about knowledge databases which are well beyond what the company can afford. Then everyone will rebel because it will mean more work, more forms to fill out or things to put on the Internet.'

In Kanter's consultancy work, it is, she says, the ability of British managers to shun the worst of these fashionable excesses which draws her to team up with British corporate clients. One firm she has worked with in recent years has been Argyll, now Safeway, which rocketed from 138th to 13th place in Management Today's list of Britain's Most Admired Companies for 1996. She has also worked with the NHS. 'They had me in when they were discussing the new organisational style associated with setting up NHS trusts,' she says. Scottish Enterprise has been another of her clients, and Kanter has worked closely with chief executive Crawford Beveridge to introduce a more entrepreneurial style to attract dynamic foreign companies to the country.

Whoever she works with, Kanter is careful not to go in with all guns blazing. 'I don't say, "You turkeys, you don't know what you're doing".

Instead I bring the framework and some experience and we work together to find new ideas.' This humility surprises many. 'Someone said to me the other week, "Gosh, you're actually nice". I come with this name, you see. They imagine somebody formidable, but I'm the least formidable person imaginable.'

She points to differences and similarities between her approach and those of mainstream consultants. 'I think I come quite cheap compared with getting a whole lot of people in from a consultancy. I also have to be very practical and find ways to act that won't cost too much. I'm not McKinsey or Andersen, so I don't have 1,000 bodies to throw at every project.' Even so, she admits the lines are getting a little blurred between academics and consultants to the point that it is less clear 'who the knowledge developers really are these days'.

In terms of her own development, Kanter has a plan for some work on the way in which companies create the energy to move away from perennial underperformance to activate people quickly behind major organisational goals. And this summer she is publishing a collection of the articles she has written for the Harvard Business Review (of which she was once editor). What she's done is to put a new framework around the articles which elaborate on her 3Cs, giving companies three key things to implement in an organisational model. 'These are the imagination to innovate, the professionalism to perform and openness to collaborate. I'm very pleased with it because I've been working on a stream of ideas that still appear very fresh.'

The only thing that bothers her is the book's working title: Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management. She laughs as she says, 'It's going to be a little hard for me to say that title out loud. It's a little like Bob Dole talking about himself in the third person.'.

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