As one idea after another fails to translate into sustainable practice, there is growing disillusionment with the pedlars of managerial wisdom. Perhaps they should be treated as sources not of solutions but of inspiration.
No executive office is complete without a neatly arranged row of management bestsellers. They are as much a fixture as the family portrait and, cynics might say, as much practical use. Research by the Management Training Partnership found that three-quarters of personnel directors buy at least four management books a year. But, only one in five are actually read. Tom Peters calculates that while over five million copies of his In Search of Excellence have been sold, only 100,000 or so readers have read it from cover to cover.
As the books gather dust, executives absorb the latest big ideas at seminars and conferences. There can hardly be a manager in the western world who has not been to an event promoting a particular individual's view of how they should be managing their business. There is more - the consultants with their theories and formulae, the business schools with their resident experts advocating particular tools and techniques. There is no escape from the maelstrom of bright ideas.
The people behind the ideas, the management gurus, mine a highly lucrative and truly global business. The bestsellers may be purely decorative, but the management guru industry is big business. The leaders in the field demand daily fees in tens of thousands of pounds. A prominent Harvard professor can command $90,000 for two days work with a company - such figures are no longer unusual among the top-ranking gurus. They travel the world from auditorium to corporate headquarters preaching their particular brand of managerial wisdom. Expectant managers hang on their every word. Peters on empowering your people; Michael Porter on competitive advantage; Richard Pascale on corporate transformation; James Champy on re-engineering.
It is an industry of big ideas and sizeable rewards which, from humble beginnings, seems to have developed a life of its own. Surrounded by hype and hyperbole, the thinkers themselves are quick to distance themselves from being labelled as gurus. 'There is a lot of obnoxious hype about being a guru to the extent that the medium can destroy the message,' warns Henry Mintzberg. Former Harvard Business Review editor and author of When Giants Learn to Dance, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, says: 'I reject the term guru because it is associated with pandering to the masses, providing inspiration without substance. There is a little bit of the shaman in a guru.' Amid the acclaim and semantic questions, managers may ponder - how do the gurus make managing easier, more efficient or more enjoyable? Do they really have all the answers?
Reading the publicity material you would soon be convinced that they do. Experience suggests that they do not. Look at the failure of many TQM programmes. Look at the faltering progress of re-engineering. Indeed, research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that management fads follow a regular life cycle. This starts with academic discovery. The new idea is then formulated into a technique and published in an academic publication. It is then more widely promoted as a means of reducing costs or whatever is currently exercising managerial minds. Consultants then pick the idea up and treat it as the universal panacea. After practical attempts fail to deliver the promised impressive results, there is realisation of how difficult it is to convert the bright idea into sustainable practice. Finally, there follows committed exploitation by a small number of companies.
'You have to be sceptical of some of the gurus,' observes Richard Stagg, publisher of business books at Pitman Publishing. 'Some lack an objective viewpoint and are actually selling their consultancy services rather than innovative ideas. When someone's message is inextricably linked to the suggestion that you pay for their consultancy services to de-mystify or implement their theories, you have to question its real value.' Among the fiercest critics of this merry-go-round of ideas is Richard Pascale, author of Managing on the Edge. 'It's like the practice of medicine in the Middle Ages. A leech under the armpit, and one to the groin, with no understanding of bacteria, viruses or how the body worked, there were lots of prescriptions ... But cures were largely the product of random chance. A parallel holds today. Lots of remedies but few examples of authentic transformation. Organisations churn through one technique after another and at best get incremental improvement on top of business as usual. At worst, these efforts waste resources and evoke cynicism and resignation.' New leeches, old ailments. 'The questions are the same, but the answers from the gurus change,' says Derek Pritchard of Hay Management Consultants. 'It is difficult to tell whether they are the initiators of change or simply commentators on trends. But, often they are providing ready-made answers to complex questions when in reality there isn't a ready-made answer. Managers cannot take what the gurus say in isolation, but need to distil and interpret their ideas.' Criticism of the gurus and the guru industry is widespread. Today's bright idea and bestseller is tomorrow's executive suicide note. Peters was lambasted following the poor performance of many of the companies celebrated in In Search of Excellence. Much of this criticism was unjust and Peters forcefully turned it on its head in the sequel with the pronouncement 'Excellence RIP'. If you are a guru you have to take such vicissitudes of corporate fortune on the chin.
The critics are now hovering around re-engineering. Hailed as the latest in a long line of corporate saviours when it was discovered at the beginning of the decade, re-engineering is limping along, like a teenage recording sensation trying to make the leap into the mainstream. It has followed the well-trodden route towards cynicism and resignation - and is now in the final death-throes of the MIT life-cycle. The answer has become the problem. And, according to critics, the problem was that re-engineering provided too ready an answer in the first place.
'The trouble with re-engineering, and why it won't stand the test of time, is that it is too situation-specific,' says Ray Wild, principal of Henley Management College. 'If something is seen as an easy solution, it has a detrimental effect. If it develops dependency, it is bad for business. But it is a poor manager who sees it that way.' Wild regards the guru business as 'part of management development and education' and points to its potential benefits: 'If a manager reads books or attends a seminar and as a result better understands the complexity of his or her business that is good. Often gurus are offering sanitised, popularised versions of what has been round for a while. Hopefully, it encourages managers to stop and think. They must then decide if what the guru is suggesting is appropriate.' Often it is this final element which is missing. Instead of seeking out approaches which are appropriate to their businesses, managers appear in perpetual search of the holy grail of management. It is not that these various ideas - whether re-engineering, empowerment or TQM - are poor concepts. Many do work, but not if they are set in tablets of corporate stone. They have to be open to flexible interpretations, and used when needed, rather than as all-encompassing 'solutions'. Becoming the slavish disciple of a particular managerial luminary is likely to end in commercial disaster.
The companies which have succeeded in making re-engineering work, for example, appear to be those which have adopted a pragmatic approach rather than those which have tried to instal it wholesale. They have taken ideas from a variety of inspirations. Attending a conference might help ideas to gel or offer a ways forward, but it is down to managers to work out the best combination. It is akin to being presented with a recipe book and, having bought the ingredients, cooking them as you think best.
Yet, the desire for instant solutions which tackle all managerial problems in one fell swoop remains strong. While they may acknowledge that many guru-generated ideas have a short shelf-life or prove practically impossible, managers continue to board the bandwagons when they arrive. They appear to be incurably fashion-conscious. Some turn into fashion victims. They buy The One Minute Manager in their millions. Would barristers buy The One Minute Advocate? I think we know the answer.
It seems that managers are in need of security and reassurance. 'People who read management books often want the safety of a proven formula or need a precedent before they act,' says psychologist Robert Sharrock of consultants YSC. 'They like techniques which rationalise their jobs. The trouble is that, for all the techniques at their disposal, managers generally act at a very intuitive level.' Managers may have absorbed the latest thinking on core competencies, but are more likely to base a decision on prejudice or personal opinion rather than a neat theory.
Strangely, this search for security leads managers to listen to gurus whose message is anything but reassuring. The currency of Pascale, Peters or the UK's Charles Handy is insecurity and uncertainty. There is, however, the reassurance that the gurus are identifying trends, feelings and fears which managers are already experiencing.
The second irresistible lure is that latching onto the latest great idea may serve to advance your career. It is notable that the higher you progress up corporate hierarchies the less influential the gurus appear to become. 'Managing directors and chief executives tend to be confident in their own methods and are sceptical of gurus. In contrast, aspiring managers cast around for recipes for success and ideas which can distinguish them from the crowd,' says Sharrock.
Managers also feel pressure to keep up-to-date with the latest thinking. They need to have an answer when the managing director asks what they are doing about identifying core processes. 'People want to know what others are doing. The last thing you want is to be out of touch,' says Henley's Wild. 'It is a question of credibility but if it gives managers confidence there is nothing wrong with that.' For some, gurus are simply motivational. Forget the detail, become inspired by the evangelical presence. Peters is the most notable member of this inspirational wing of gurus. His seminars are events where he strides the stage, perspiring and preaching. Peters' writing style is similarly active, punctuated with 'Wows!' and exhortations. It plainly works. David Hearn, managing director of direct marketing agency, Anderson Hearn Keene, attended a Peters seminar. 'It was inspiring and you return to work believing that you can change things. The inspiration, in itself, is a good thing. It gives you another new perspective even if you don't do everything he says. But the bottom line is that the gurus make money, but usually not from running a business.' The last point is one constantly referred to by managers obsessed with the bottom-line. 'There is a degree of narcissism. The gurus boost their self-esteem talking in front of audiences. They get a buzz, safe in the knowledge that if things go wrong when managers try out their ideas they bear no responsibility,' says YSC's Sharrock.
While this is undoubtedly true, managers now realise that ideas and the people who generate them have, occasionally, sparked revolution. If the time is right, the audience receptive and the concepts practical, ideas do count. Managers can't afford to miss the opportunity when, and if, it arises. Look at the post-war resurgence of Japanese industry. Its growth was based on the precept of quality - built on the ideas of two Americans, W Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran. While the duo were listened to in Japan their ideas were all but ignored in the West until the 1980s. By then it was almost too late. The Japanese converted theory into practice and became a huge industrial power thanks, in part, to their highly effective implementation of the ideas of Deming and Juran.
'The gurus should not be dismissed because the medium sometimes seems to overwhelm the message,' says Pitman's Stagg. 'The best are developing good ideas which might otherwise remain overlooked and are accelerating their acceptance in the world of management through persuasiveness, credibility and sheer strength of personality. You have to ask how else will good ideas get out there?' One obvious avenue is through business schools. Generally, however, their wisdom remains accessible only to those with deep enough pockets. It is ironic that, while most of the big ideas are targeted at large organisations, many of them are more easily implemented by smaller businesses. It is here that vital skills may be in short supply and where experimentation with new ideas is far easier than in a large organisation beset by long-established ways of doing things. Smaller businesses are more used to tailoring concepts and best practice to fit their individual needs.
So, what should be the role of gurus? Should they be masters of simplification and accessibility, but little else? Or, should they be pioneers of theory, leaving managers and organisations to wrestle with the practicalities?
'The term guru is too broad. People like Porter and Handy aren't offering solutions, but ideas,' says Henley's Wild. 'The test of ideas is how long they last. Some like TQM and JIT have become absorbed into conventional thinking.' It is ideas, not solutions, which stand the test of time and make the leap from dust-gathering book to factory floor. All embracing solutions to a manager's problems may sound good as you put the book down, but are unlikely to make waves next day in the office.
Hay's Pritchard argues that gurus should be thought-provokers. 'They should be pathfinders shedding new light on difficult problems. They should make people think - through being radical, and sometimes provocative, rather than being prescriptive.' Ideas do percolate through to best practice. The trouble is that by the time they arrive, it is often difficult to establish their exact origins. The learning organisation, one of the fads of the decade, was championed by MIT's Peter Senge, but built on work over many years by Harvard's Chris Argyris. Similarly, the roots of empowerment can be traced back to Robert Owen in the 19th century.
Amid the hard sell, the quick-fixes and organisational placebos, it is true to say that there is little that's original. But, without gurus, managers would lose a rich source of inspiration, information and controversy. Without the patchy framework of theory, opinion and examples of best practice provided by the gurus, managers would be even more isolated and many would learn that, as Van Morrison observed: 'No guru, no teacher, no method.'
The Big Thinkers
Frederick Taylor - 1856-1917
Father of 'scientific management'. Disciples include Henry Ford, who translated scientific management into mass production.
Alfred P Sloan 1875-1966
Creator of the multidivisional form of organisation, president of General Motors from 1923. His book, My Years at General Motors, is turgid but the decentralised/centralised debate he created continues. Admired by Peter Drucker and Alfred Chandler.
W Edwards Deming 1900-1993
The original thinker behind the quality boom of the1980s. Venerated in Japan from the 1940s. His ideas are encapsulated in his 14 Points and Out of the Crisis.
Douglas MacGregor 1906-1964
Creator of motivational categories. Theories X, (simplistically, the stick) and Y (the carrot) and author of The Human Side of Enterprise. Influenced Warren Bennis and many others, including William Ouchi who produced Theory Z.
Peter Drucker b1909
The guru of gurus. Drucker has created, influenced or denounced every management idea from Management By Objectives to the rise of the knowledge worker. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices is the most comprehensive work on the subject and The Age of Discontinuity is as relevant today as it was when published in 1969.
Igor Ansoff b1918
Creator of the term strategic management, Ansoff also added synergy to the managerial vocabulary. His books - including Corporate Strategy - are demandingly academic. Strategy has moved on to Henry Mintzberg, Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad.
Chris Argyris b1923
The roots of the learning organisation made popular by MIT's Peter Senge can be found in Argyris's detailed insights. Introduced the idea of single-loop and double-loop learning. Co-author of Organizational Learning.
Tom Peters b1942
Co-author of In Search of Excellence which created the guru industry. Champion of the Seven S framework, participative management and Management By Walking About. Renowned for his presentations, Peters is now more accessible on video than in his increasingly sprawling books.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter b1943
Author of Change Masters - accurately labelled as 'the thinking man's In Search of Excellence' - and When Giants Learn to Dance which introduced 'the post-entrepreneurial corporation'. The current fashion for empowerment can, in part, be attributed to her work.
Michael Porter b1947
Harvard-based creator of the term 'competitive advantage' and the five forces framework. Rational, logical, increasingly broad-ranging in his scope, and keen protector of the Michael Porter 'brand'.