USA: Kanter saw it coming.

USA: Kanter saw it coming. - The innovative pro-change organisations of Rosabeth Moss Kanter's The Change Masters are now commonplace but, in the early 1980s, such views were radical stuff.

by Trevor Merriden.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The innovative pro-change organisations of Rosabeth Moss Kanter's The Change Masters are now commonplace but, in the early 1980s, such views were radical stuff.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter doesn't like to rush a good book, especially when she's writing it. The Harvard Business School professor's first four major titles, Men and Women of the Corporation, The Change Masters, When Giants Learn to Dance and World Class were each separated by six years, with the first coming out in 1977 and the last in 1995. This may make her publisher nervous but then the books are hardly of the simple 'here's how to do it' variety. They contain a series of complex ideas, which have been developed with a steady sense of evolution over a quarter of a century.

The Change Masters, published in 1983, found Kanter making a closely argued analysis of the weaknesses of post-recession America. Whereas Men and Women of the Corporation had looked at how bureaucratic powers had underused employee talent, The Change Masters delighted in the fact that the death of these 'corpocracies' at least meant that there was room for a more agile, change-oriented kind of company.

Kanter spent a lot of her time travelling around America in the early 1980s and was surprised to find one particular question cropping up time and again among corporate chiefs: how to get more innovation, enterprise and initiative from their people. This was a siren call of despair from bureaucratic businesses badly battered by poor economic conditions. These businesses had prospered at a time when the success of a US company was assumed to have been due to the efficacy of its organisational structure - and had little to do with the people running that system.

As Kanter herself puts it in The Change Masters: 'In the turn-of-the-(twentieth) century organisation theory and its 'scientific management' legacy, individuals constituted not assets but sources of error. The ideal organisation was designed to free itself from human error ... management was there to handle the few unexpected events that could occur.' After so many years of telling their people to put faith in the corporate system, top managers suddenly realised that the corporate system now had to put its faith in its people, instead. There are now many such idea-intensive people at all levels of most organisations but, back in the early 1980s, this was radical stuff.

Kanter illustrated the starkly different futures likely for those companies willing to consider such issues, and those that were not. 'Segmentalist' companies would always be against change, would have a narrow compartmentalised perspective on corporate problems and would suffer as a result. 'Integrative' companies, however, in which individuals throughout the organisation are encouraged to innovate, would prosper. Innovation, of course, meant more than white-coated boffins. Kanter defined it in the broadest possible sense: 'If most people were asked to list some of the major innovations of the last few years, microprocessors and computer-related devices would be mentioned frequently. Fewer people would mention new tax laws or the creation of enterprise zones ... or problem-solving task forces. This is unfortunate, for our emerging world requires more social and organisational innovation.' Judging by the number of task forces set up by the New Labour government in this country, it must be very innovative indeed.

The Change Masters established an international reputation for Kanter, albeit very slowly. The sheer complexity of Kanter's book is a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, her penchant for numerous case studies illustrates key points well. On the other hand, the main points of the book are often made in a roundabout way via several unrelated (but nevertheless interesting) observations. But droning on about one big idea that everybody understands has never been Kanter's style. Her carefully thought-out and well-constructed arguments have easily survived the test of time. Kanter's innovative pro-change organisations are commonplace - and she saw them coming ahead of anyone else. This, above all, is what gives The Change Masters its lasting value as a Management Classic.

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