The new generation of management thinkers is more practically minded than ever before.
One of the few certainties in business theorising is that today's foolproof technique is destined to be tomorrow's risible ruse. Fashions - as well as fortunes - come and go. Ideas emerge and are celebrated as the cure to all known organisational ills before being consigned to corporate history. Look at re-engineering, the idea of the early 1990s. Books on the subject sold in their millions. The concept's founding fathers, James Champy and Michael Hammer, mined a rich seam before slipping from view as sales faded and managers began to question the merits of the idea.
But, as each thinker disappears into the ether, another is sure to take the place that has been vacated. After all, becoming a management guru is well-paid and influential work. Each generation inevitably produces a new crop of gurus.
In the past this group was self-selecting. If you worked at Harvard Business School or as a consultant with McKinsey you were in pole position. You also had to be American - or a naturalised American. After all, the roll call of influential European management thinkers is short. In the new generation of management gurus this long-established pattern may be coming to an end. Faith in the US management model appears to have slipped. Tomorrow's gurus are scattered around the world and Europe is growing in intellectual influence. London Business School, for example, is home to Sumantra Ghoshal and Arie de Geus, as well as hosting forays from visiting professor Gary Hamel.
France's INSEAD is home to rising stars, such as Chan Kim, as well as long-established luminaries like Yves Doz. 'There is a European school of theory which is much less deterministic than American models. It is concerned with creating things dynamically and there is a critical mass of people who think along similar lines,' says one of the new generation, Don Sull.
The emerging generation of thinkers is more truly international than ever before. And, perhaps as importantly, it is unfettered by a single model or framework. This may be the time when management thinking enters a more mature, less fashion-conscious age, where theorising is in touch with reality. If so, the following six emerging thinkers are likely to be carrying the torch.
MAPPING THE CORPORATION JULIAN BIRKINSHAW
Occupation: assistant professor,
Stockholm School of Economics
Age: 33; Nationality: British
When he was a student at Durham University, Julian Birkinshaw supplemented his grant by starting a cartography business. A decade later he detects parallels between the days he spent tramping around mapping the woods of the Lake District and his current work at Stockholm School of Economics' Institute of International Business: 'The essence of academic work is simplifying the complex and discovering patterns and relationships,' he says.
Birkinshaw's initial research was carried out at the University of Western Ontario, where he gained an MBA and a PhD in business administration.
This provided the basis for his continuing work on international organisations and how their subsidiaries can sometimes be innovative, entrepreneurial leaders rather than timid corporate followers.
Birkinshaw is also researching how network organisations identify and make best use of their core competencies. 'If you ask people at head office and subsidiaries about the same thing you will usually get very different answers,' he says. 'I am trying to understand how all sides can add value to each other. This links to the subject of managing knowledge. Companies need to become better at managing what I call their "centres of excellence".
They have to identify pockets of expertise and how they can be leveraged and disseminated.' His research suggests that top performing units are good at giving knowledge away as well as bringing it in. Low performers tend to be good at neither.
Sweden attracted him because of its concentration of big multinationals, the fodder for his research. 'Scandinavian companies have always done things a bit differently,' he says. 'They are not afraid to innovate. There isn't an authoritarian culture but one where dissent is open.' From an academic perspective, Birkinshaw points to the more open European approach as a major advantage: 'The American academic system pushes towards rigour at the expense of relevance. The European model offers more freedom.
If I look for inspiration I look to people in Europe.' Even so, he is cautious about being caught in an academic straightjacket.
'Academic journals tend to find more and more techniques for testing more and more obscure theories. They are asking trivial questions and answering them exactly. There has to be a backlash,' he says. 'I want to move on to carrying out research and writing articles which influence business.'
MATTERS CULTURAL FONS TROMPENAARS
Occupation: consultant and author
Age: 45; Nationality: Dutch
Fons Trompenaars is the best established of the group. The Dutch consultant has an impressive pedigree. In the early '80s, he studied at Wharton where he came across a group of influential thinkers including Russ Ackoff, Eric Trist and Stafford Beer. 'I became interested in management and culture,' he says. 'At the time there was nothing in the field. People wondered what it was.'
Sponsored by Shell during his PhD research, Trompanaars returned to the Netherlands to work for the oil giant. After setting up his own consultancy, the Centre for International Business Studies, Trompenaars wrote his 1993 book, Riding the Waves of Culture. This was one of the first books to focus attention on managing cultural diversity. 'When I wrote the book I wrote it for myself. It was not elegant but typically Dutch in that it was forthright,' says Trompenaars. 'Its sales have increased every quarter. My explanation is that for many managers globalisation is just starting and they are only now beginning to realise the implications.' The book also involved the British academic, Charles Hampden Turner, and the two are now business partners.
Trompenaars work is based on exhaustive research. His questionnaire on matters cultural has now been answered by 40,000 people. 'I love research but wouldn't survive if that was all I did. What I would like to create is a think-tank so that we can be at the cutting edge of the development of ideas and of delivery,' he says. 'The essence of what I do is the transformation of fairly complex models into an appealing, practical setting. There is now a tendency to be too theoretical. It is the transformation into what managers can use that is important. I can look in the eyes of managers and understand them.' Trompenaars is now working on a book on leadership which links it to his central theme of reconciliation. The hypothesis, he says, is straightforward: 'Societies which can reconcile better are better at creating wealth.
THE PHILOSOPHER PUPIL
Occupation: assistant professor,
London Business School
Age: 35; Nationality: American
London Business School's Don Sull possesses a CV which has guru written all over it. Armed with a degree, an MBA and a doctorate from Harvard, he has worked with McKinsey & Company as a consultant and was involved in the $1 billion leveraged buy-out of tyre maker Uniroyal Goodrich. Suggesting that he is as much Renaissance man as new man, Sull's career also boasts a thirst for philosophy, fluent German, a spell as a bouncer in a motorcycle bar, authorship of a musical and membership of the Harvard Boxing Club.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, that Sull's research currently centres on something he calls 'active inertia'. This is a term to describe the corporate tendency to carry on doing what they have always done when they are faced with a crisis. Rather than freezing rabbit-like in the glare of change, managers and organisations carry on in much the same way as before. 'Inertia is the enemy of progress. Past insights ossify into cliches, processes lapse into routines, and commitments become ties that bind companies to the same course of action. Perhaps the most vital and fulfilling element of a manager's job is to prevent inertia,' Sull concludes.
He brings an historical and philosophical slant to business research and education. Sull contends that talk of visioning and looking towards the future is all very well, so long as it is does not forget the past: 'People tend to think of the past as a hindrance. But you can't have a revolution every day. The past also enables and can be a dynamic force.
It confers certain advantages such as trust, brands, reputations and relationships.'
His belief that managers, educators and thinkers require a broader view challenges accepted wisdom. He is critical of the view of management as a social science to which a set of rules can be universally applied. 'We are starting to see the limits of the model of management as social science.
Management is closest to practical and moral philosophy. How do you get people to act in a proactive way to do the right thing? The biggest problem is not that people don't know what to do, just that they don't do it.
There's a lack of ambition and imagination.'
But, he observes, such limitations are hardly surprising when one considers a business education system which prefers foolproof models to Stoic philosophy: 'In the US business education has been construed more and more narrowly as applied science. Business school professors are engineers and managers are mechanics. Management education is about knowing the right thing to do and getting people to do it. The fundamental assumption is that there are universal laws which can be extracted. I don't believe there are global business laws other than in finance. There are useful generalisations, but in management, context, timing, personality and history are everything.
The challenge lies in developing judgment, knowing which tool to use rather than reaching for the hammer every time.'
Sull plans a book based on his active inertia research within three years. Only then will we discover whether he can measure up to his own challenge: 'Managers need first-rate Plutarchs, not second-rate Adam Smiths.'
Occupation: assistant professor,
Harvard Business School
Age: 41; Nationality: British
There is a flourishing export trade in American business school professors.
This business brain drain is generally a one-way process. Not many European business academics enter the hallowed halls of American academia. David Arnold of Harvard Business School is one of the chosen few.
Arnold's route to joining the Harvard faculty in 1996 was an unconventional one. He has a degree in English literature and a master's in modern drama and worked in publishing before finding himself as marketing manager of the UK's Ashridge Management College - 'It was the last decision I ever made,' he now reflects. 'Like many people I thought that marketing would be very creative. It seemed to be about literature, production and creativity. It wasn't arty but the best you could do. A lot of MBA students think that way even now. We disabuse them of that notion. Marketing is creative but there is more to it than that.'
Finding himself fascinated, Arnold took an MBA and joined the Ashridge faculty - one of the few examples of a gamekeeper turning poacher. He later did a doctorate at Harvard and now teaches the core marketing course on the school's first-year MBA programme and an international marketing course. He is also taking over responsibility for the International Marketing Management element of the MBA programme.
'There is an aura around Harvard though this is more so outside the US,' he says. 'Harvard is a broad church and is highly stimulating because of that. You can teach a case study in great detail in the morning and then attend a purely academic seminar in the afternoon.'
Arnold's research centres on international marketing issues and he is also the author of The Handbook of Brand Management. He warns that his work is not as mainstream as it sounds.
'I am at the boundary of marketing where it comes into contact with other issues. Practitioners are in no doubt that international marketing is terribly important but academics don't regard international marketing as a legitimate sub-domain.'
Among his current research projects is one on emerging markets - 'Companies have to rethink marketing when they enter emerging markets. You can no longer assume that product life cycles which apply in the West will apply in countries such as China'. Another focuses on customer management and he has also looked at the evolution of international distribution channels.
The broad scope of Arnold's projects suggests that he has come to the subject at an interesting time. 'There is a mid-life crisis in marketing.
Will it go the same way as strategic planning?' he asks. 'To some extent in big organisations it has already changed. There is now much more interfunctional marketing and marketing in business units. We are seeing the break-up of the marketing function though some central functions, such as researching new markets, are likely to remain.' Interesting times, and, as Arnold reflects: 'Rather belatedly I have a career plan.'
Occupation: director of Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation, Boston, Massachusetts
Age: 48; Nationality: American
For the executive of the late '90s, mountains of information and endless complexity lurk at every corner. Chris Meyer is one of those who has taken on the task of breaking through the mire and myth of the information age. He is a economist and Harvard MBA who has transformed himself into a hi-tech consultant and author.
While at Mercer Management Consulting, Meyer founded the company's practice in IT industries. His eyes were soon opened. 'Around 1980 I started getting interested in telecoms and IT and worked with NASA and ITT on the new generation of telecoms technology, fibre optics, digital switching and so on. It was a seminal project from my point of view. It taught me how telecoms systems were set to change the world.' Meyer has been seeking to understand more about the emerging information economy ever since. He joined Ernst & Young in 1995 and heads the firm's Center for Business Innovation - an 'R&D shop' which aims to identify the issues that will be challenging business in the future and defining responses to them.
Meyer also established the Bios Group, Ernst & Young's initiative to develop what are known as 'complexity-based solutions' for management.
The challenge of making such solutions understandable and practical lies at the heart of his current work. Forget metaphorical butterflies. 'I am interested in moving between the theoretical and the practical. I enjoy ideas but I also enjoy seeing the business world change. At the moment this is an area of huge opportunity because practice is up for grabs,' he says. 'Complexity, for example, can be applied to operational situations. People understand about the interaction of parts. You don't start with the factory, you start with the machinery. Big things are made up of small things - that's the way the world is.' The difference in the information economy is that the small things are connected in a myriad of ways to create a 'complex adaptive system'.
Meyer's profile is set to increase with the publication of his book, Blur, co-authored with futurist Stan Davis.
FROM THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
Occupation: runs his own consulting company in Marlborough, Massachusetts
Age: 40; Nationality: American
Peter Cohan is well-connected. He was hired by re-engineering guru James Champy in 1981 to work with his consulting firm, Index Systems. Then, after studying for an MBA at Wharton, Cohan was recruited by the consulting firm of that other eminence grise of the management world, Harvard's Michael Porter. Along the way he also studied at MIT under the other half of the re-engineering duo, Michael Hammer.
Cohan's thinking is a distillation of some of the ideas championed in re-engineering and those of Porter. To these, Cohan has added his own experience of working on strategic planning with the Bank of Boston, as director of re-engineering at Liberty Mutual and as a consultant to hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley and Asia.
To the re-engineering concept he has added humanity. 'Champy and Hammer ignored the importance of people,' says Cohan. 'They were objects who handled processes. Depersonalisation was one of their themes. It was a huge flaw.' Now, he argues, 'the source of wealth was natural resources and then manufacturing and distribution. Now, it is the ability to manage smart people.'
Contrary to popular wisdom, Cohan found that hi-tech companies were particularly adept at this.
'Hi-tech companies aren't run by computer nerds. In fact, technology leaders have mastered the art of managing smart people.' The result of this realisation was a book, The Technology Leaders. In it, Cohan provides a marriage of re-engineering with Porter through his concept of the value triangle. 'First, you have to understand customer needs, then you must identify the specific product attributes required to meet customer needs better than your competitors. Finally, you have to get the technology that delivers those attributes,' says Cohan. 'Sequence is crucial. Instead of moving from steps one through to three, companies often move in the opposite direction. They fall in love with technology and lose sight of creating value for customers.'
Cohan now spends around four-fifths of his time consulting and the remainder investing in Silicon Valley start-ups. 'Porter's framework didn't focus on the management team. In my work with hi-tech start-ups I know this is crucial. Great technology alone is never enough to create a successful business.'.