UK: THE MANAGER'S CORE FUNCTION. - The Management Charter Initiative (MCI) has already achieved sterling work. Yet despite this and the pronouncements of management gurus, doubts still remain in many people's minds as to exactly what management really is

by Felix Wentworth.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Management Charter Initiative (MCI) has already achieved sterling work. Yet despite this and the pronouncements of management gurus, doubts still remain in many people's minds as to exactly what management really is. Is it art or science? Can it be learned or is it inborn? Is it functional or general? Can it be defined as a specific list of competencies, or is there something more?

As a contribution to this debate I believe it may be helpful to divide management into two quite distinct parts: leadership on the one hand, and the control of resources on the other - which I shall call CORe for short.

The acronym is particularly appropriate, for the control of resources is indeed a core activity of management, and is one to which not enough attention has been paid for far too long.

The main resources are: people (and their skills); plant and premises; materials; information; and money. CORe is about using these to achieve laid-down objectives (a) dependably, and (b) with the least possible waste. It is therefore about consistently delivering both high quality and high productivity (or more generally output-per-input) - whether of a product or a service. It is perhaps not surprising to find that at senior level the largest component of management is leadership, whereas at first-line and second-line levels it is CORe that is the largest.

For a chief executive, leadership starts with personality: style, charisma, decisiveness, and how well the individual represents the company to the outside world, to its customers and to its employees. A clear understanding of the company's strengths and weaknesses, and of the external trends and influences affecting its activities is also needed t is the chief executive who has to decide on the culture of the organisation (for example, is politicking encouraged or not?), and on its basic structure - issues like decentralisation and accountability. Above all, he or she is the only one who can give the vision of the main mission or broad objectives and the strategy to achieve them. Is the main aim to maximise profits, or to grow; is it to diversify or to dominate one market; is it to innovate or be world-class?

For functional directors, leadership involves deciding on policies that will not only fit within the leader's vision but support its achievement. There will be specific policies for marketing and personnel, for finance and IT, for production and logistics and for purchasing and research.

For a local site director or operational manager, the leadership will consist again of culture (for example, informality, consultation, communications and MBWA - 'management by walking about'), and structure (for example, cells and teams). And down at first-line management level it will consist of setting a good example, acting decisively and dealing fairly.

So leadership is no sinecure, as people down at the 'sharp end' sometimes imagine. But when all is said and done, it is something that exists essentially in the realm of ideas and attitudes. What leadership provides is a framework within which the real work has to be done by the CORe activity. It is CORe that makes things happen, that implements the policies, that delivers the product or service, that sustains quality, and that marshals the limited resources so as to drive towards the objectives in the best possible way. CORe can, in fact, be summed up as 'running an ongoing operation'.

In CORe, to manage is synonymous with 'to control', for both terms mean the same thing, namely 'to make things happen as you intend them to'. This is true whether one is talking of managing a project, a horse, a sweetshop, a company, or the economy. Unfortunately, the mechanisms of management control are generally not very well understood. Nor are there any books that I know of giving practical guidance on the subject. The theory says that control requires the setting of clear, quantified objectives, coupled with the application of the principle of the feedback loop.

he feedback loop consists of monitoring continuously where the organisation is as against where it wanted to be; and, when these do not coin-cide sufficiently closely, of taking the appropriate remedial action. In practice, good control cannot be left just to the individual's memory, intelligence, common sense or initiative, but requires the creation of a support structure of effective operational (not financial) control systems.

These will ensure that, day in, day out, the right information is delivered to the right person at the right time, and that a structured means exists to ensure that appropriate remedial action is indeed taken. (Incidentally, one of the great illusions of our modern technological age is that control systems are the same thing as information systems. They are not.)

Experience has shown that operational control systems, virtually everywhere, fall a long way short of what is adequate. Today, when BPR (business process re-engineering) is widely seen as the latest universal panacea, what is needed even more is OSR (operational systems re-engineering).

In OSR the 're-engineering' is not the radical reappraisal of the what and the how of BPR, but a detailed, practical, bottom-up review of the existing mechanisms of operational control. OSR does not usually involve sweeping changes, but takes the form of identifying gaps and deficiencies in existing systems, then designing practical remedies for these, and then installing them in a way that wins hearts and minds.

It is not, of course, as easy to put into practice as it sounds, for it needs experience and know-how as to what works and what doesn't. But the potential contribution that OSR can make to clawing back waste, making huge cost savings and improving the bottom line is every bit as great as that claimed to be made by BPR.

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