Dispensing with Management

I have an academic interest in management of organizations. My interest arises from a somewhat rhetorical question that has been lingering in my mind since I was very young: ”Do people really need managing?”. This question is clearly connected to my own personal traits, to which belongs an anarchistic viewpoint on interhuman relations. Five years of managing a small college unit many years ago gave me an opportunity to see things from a leader’s perspective, so my views are not only based on theoretical pondering or the fact that I have been ”managed” for most of my working life.

My interest has motivated me to read books, articles and blogs on management, mostly of course critical texts. The connection between complexity theory and the inner workings of an organization has been particularly interesting, as has that of management in relation to knowledge ”management”. I’m quite happy that my intuitive suspicion towards the effectiveness of traditional, hierarchic management systems during recent years has gained more and more support among both thinkers and managers. Gary Hamel, Ricardo Semler, Daniel Pink, Clay Shirky and many others have in one way or another commented on the shortcomings of central leadership, both in general and especially in the rapidly developing knowledge society. North Korea being in the headlines right now reminds us again what hierarchic leadership looks like when driven to the extreme.

Now of course, depending on the kind of organization or system you’re involved in, there is always a need for signalling. By signalling I mean conveyance of information about how the system is doing and what effects different actions have. In a traditional, hierarchical organization there is an idea that the manager is collecting all relevant information, and then distributes that part of it that he (sic!) deems sufficient for the employees to be aware of. This information is often adjusted and embedded in a way which both is aimed at strengthening his own position and to make the employees less likely to react in a ”negative” way (=react at all). I have very recently seen typical examples of this.

What actually inspired me to write this post was a short article in the RSA Journal, where two entrepreneurs who have taken a different path are presented:

Holm and Wilson have taken an unusual approach to doing business. When they began working together in 2003, Matt Black Systems was going through a challenging period. They initially tried to improve performance through traditional means, but found that employees quickly returned to old ways of doing things. So, they looked for opportunities to bring about longer-term behaviour change. They dispensed with management – which, according to Holm, was “an expensive resource whose cost outweighed its benefits” – and created a non-hierarchical organisation in which all employees were accountable for their own actions.

Now that is responsible management!

Their experience that ”employees quickly returned to old ways of doing things” is a key here, I think. Most people don’t actually want to get rid of management, because it’s convenient to not have to take a wider responsibility, especially if one considers oneself as one who is ”just working here”. Momentary new insights gained during a seminar or course will therefore not stick unless there are drastic changes both in the way the organization is run and in the way people relate to their jobs – and an important part of the latter is how they relate to management and being managed. The same can be said about education, most students still want a fairly traditional teacher out of conveniency, however counterproductive that might be for building a learning strategy that works in real life.

It’s often useless to criticize the behaviour of the majority, so let me frame the problem in a different way:  how come the management philosophy (including how employees look at management) has changed so little when the educational level has changed so much during the last 50 years? Have a look at this graph, from the Statistical Bureau of Finland:

Number of students in higher education institutionsEducational level in Finland 1920-2005

Yliopistot = Universities
Ammattikorkeakoulut = Universities of Applied Sciences

There is a huge development in the education level during 90 years (the population of Finland has only grown from 3 to 5 million during that time). And still people are treated – and allow themselves to be treated – as children. Either this is because the education does not live up to enlightenment ideals emphasizing the free, knowledgeable individual, but is instead geared towards production of a standardized, industrial workforce. Or then there is an inherent, evolution-based tendency to find and follow a leader. Maybe a combination of the two? Karl-Erik Sveiby shows that the latter isn’t necessary the case, at least not if we are talking about leadership in it’s vertical form. In it’s horizontal form (the most knowledgeable leads the others when performing a certain task) leadership is just rational, a way to get things done.

Sveiby:

However, there are (and were) no leaders at all in hunter-gatherer bands. Instead, there are several codes of behaviour, among them the kinship system. Guided by these rules adults have and feel a responsibility for the functionality of the band and they initiate and apply ‘management practices’ to influence the functionality. (p. 13)

But the main common criterion for leadership, irrespective of continent, seems to be generally acknowledged expertise in the matter under deliberation and the situation. (p. 14)

If we now combine these insights and add to this concoction the tendency for egoism and narcissism among many of us, we arrive to the conclusion that the reason why the outdated management systems still linger around in most organizations is because we are all socialized to them, we are lazy to take responsibility, and some of us gain a lot of respect and/or money for acting as a leader is supposed to act (according to the western tradition). There is no biological reason why we would need a central leadership, we are educated enough to be able to take care of our selves if we are allowed to do it (at least most of the time), the communication tools of today make it easy to communicate horizontally and if we want a progression of the knowledge society this demands a more horizontal kind of leadership.

Unfortunately, the development towards larger management units in society – both in government and business – makes unreflective people think there is even more need for central management. In reality, the only way of avoiding alienation in such cases is to increase democracy within the organization.

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