In Understanding Organisations, Charles Handy warns against head-in-the-sand tactics and provides psychological insights into power that remain true today.
Charles Handy, a regular Management Today contributor, is noted for his shrewd analysis of modern life. Over the last two years, he has stimulated our work thoughts indirectly, by drawing parallels between the modern workplace and culture. So it comes as a bit of a shock to re-read the more down-to-earth approach of his first major book, Understanding Organisations, first published in 1976. Today, Handy is a writer, broadcaster and 'people's guru'. Back in the 1970s, his views were not well established, however, and his spiritual and psychological insights were less developed.
In the mid-1970s he was directing the Sloan Programme at the London Business School, which had been set up in order to teach managerial psychology and development. Using best practice from the existing literature, Handy adopts the guise of a skilled doctor examining the symptoms of his patient in Understanding Organisations His overriding desire is to make us aware that 'diagnosis lies at the heart of effective management'. Much of what 'Doc' Handy tells us about diagnosis seems straightforward and even rather obvious in the 1990s. In one chapter, he suggests that the manager's job is characterised by brevity, variety and fragmentation and that it's made up of constraints, choices and demands.
This is hardly earth-shattering stuff but what a re-read of Handy's book does reveal is that he can write brilliantly (and bravely) on subjects such as the psychological importance of 'power' and 'influence'. If we are to understand organisations, Handy suggests, we must understand the nature of power and influence 'because they are the means by which the people of the organisation are linked to its purpose'. They are words rarely mentioned in polite company because they in some way imply the infringement of an individual's freedom over his or her actions. But, as Handy says, 'only the ostrich among us can survive modern organisational life with his ideals of individual freedom intact'. Ostriches have a poor track record in smart career moves.
In the introduction to the fourth edition of Understanding Organisations, Handy notes that, while the world has changed, his strain of analysis has come into vogue. When talking about how few changes were necessary to the original text, he notes that 'the old truths about people, groups and organisations still apply. I haven't had to change that many of the basic propositions ... Perhaps we are only now beginning truly to understand organisations and to make them both effective and exciting.'
It is not very clear what these 'old truths' are. Indeed, Handy rejects universal answers and instead takes us on a tour of his thinking on the nature and behaviour of organisations, giving full credit to management writers who have inspired him. He makes no apology for such an approach - 'it is wise to be eclectic'.
Even back in 1976, Handy's otherwise matter-of-fact analyses of the dilemmas of the modern workplace showed us signs of the Handy to come. Take this gem, for instance: 'The management of people ... is like making love. Most of us do it at sometime or other. Most of us do it at least adequately though perhaps we worry from time to time that we might do it better. But we are certainly not going to admit it openly, certainly not going to ask for lessons in it, hardly prepared to discuss it except in a jocular vein.' As with much of what Handy says, it's difficult to draw any direct conclusions from a 'management as rumpy-pumpy' analogy but at least he makes you think.