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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Towards a critical practice of management – a book review

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Introduction

Management, as it is practiced, is largely about “getting things done.”  Consequently management education and research tends to focus on improving the means by which specified ends are achieved. The ends themselves are not questioned as rigorously as they ought to be. The truth of this is reflected in the high profile corporate scandals that have come to light over the last decade or so, not to mention the global financial crisis.

Today, more than ever, there is a need for a new kind of management practice, one in which managers critically reflect on the goals they  pursue and the means by which they aim to achieve them.  In their book entitled,  Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction,  management academics Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott describe what such an approach to management entails.  This post is a summary of the central ideas described in the book.

Critical theory and its relevance to management

The body of work that Alvesson and Willmott draw from is Critical Theory, a discipline that is based on the belief that knowledge ought to be based on dialectical reasoning – i.e. reasoning through dialogue – rather than scientific rationality alone. The main reason for this being that science (as it is commonly practiced) is value free and is therefore incapable of addressing problems that have a social or ethical dimension.  This idea is not new,  even scientists such as Einstein have commented on the limits of scientific reasoning.

Although Critical Theory has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment,  its modern avatar is largely due to a group of German social philosophers who were associated with the Frankfurt-based Institute of Social Research which was established in the 1920s.   Among other things, these philosophers argued that knowledge in the social sciences  (such as management) can never be truly value-free or objective.  Our knowledge of social matters is invariably coloured by our background, culture, education and sensibilities. This ought to be obvious, but it isn’t:  economists continue to proclaim objective truths about the right way to deal with economic issues, and management gurus remain ready to show us the one true path to management excellence.

The present day standard bearer of the Frankfurt School is the German social philosopher, Juergen Habermas  who is best known for his theory of communicative rationality – the idea that open dialogue, free from any constraints is the most rational way to decide on matters of importance.  For a super-quick introduction to the basic ideas  of communicative rationality and its relevance in organisational settings, see my post entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments. For a more detailed (and dare I say, entertaining) introduction to communicative rationality with examples drawn from The Borg and much more, have a look at Chapter 7 of my book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, co-written with Paul Culmsee.

The demise of command and control?

Many professional managers see their jobs in purely technical terms,  involving things such as administration, planning, monitoring etc.  They tend to overlook the fact that these technical functions are carried out within a  particular social and cultural context.  More to the point,  and this is crucial, managers work under constraints of power and domination: they are not free to do what they think is right but have to do whatever their bosses order them to,  and, so  in turn behave with their subordinates in exactly the same way.

As Alvesson and Willmott put it:

Managers are intermediaries between those who hire them and those whom they manage. Managers are employed to coordinate, motivate, appease and control the productive efforts of others. These ‘others’ do not necessarily share managerial agendas…

Despite the talk of autonomy and empowerment, modern day management is still very much about  control.  However, modern day employees are unlikely to accept a command and control approach to being managed, so organisations have taken recourse to subtler means of achieving the same result. For example, organisational culture initiatives aimed at getting employees to “internalise”the values of the organisation are attempts to “control sans command.”

The point is,  despite the softening of  the rhetoric  of management its principal focus remains much the same as it was in the days of Taylor and Ford.

A critical look at the status quo

A good place to start with a critical view of management is in the area of decision-making. Certain decisions,  particularly those made at executive levels,  can have a long term impact on an organisation and its employees. Business schools and decision theory texts tells us that decision-making is  a rational process. Unfortunately, reality belies that claim: decisions in organisations are more  often made on the basis of politics  and ideology rather than objective criteria.  This being the case, it is important that decisions be subject to critical scrutiny.  Indeed it is possible that many of the crises of the last decade could have been avoided if the decisions that lead to them had been subjected a to critical review.

Many of the initiatives that are launched in organisation-land have their origins in  executive-level decisions that are made on flimsy grounds  such as “best practice”  recommendations  from Big 4 consulting companies. Mid-level managers  who are required to see these through to completion are then faced with the problem of justifying these initiatives to the rank and file. Change management in modern organisation-land is largely about justifying the unjustifiable or defending the indefensible.

The critique, however, goes beyond just the practice of management.  For example, Alvesson and Willmott also draw attention to things such as the objectives of the organisation. They point out that short-sighted objectives such as “maximising shareholder value” is what lead to the downfall of companies such as Enron.  Moreover, they also remind us of an issue that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world: that natural resources are not unlimited and should be exploited in a judicious, sustainable manner.

As interesting and important as these “big picture” issues are, in the remainder of this post I’ll focus attention on management practices that impact mid and lower level employees.

A critical look at management specialisations

Alvesson and Willmott analyse organisational functions such as Human Resource Management (HRM), Marketing and Information Systems (IS) from a critical perspective. It would take far too many pages to do justice to their discussion so I’ll just present a brief summary of two areas: HR and IS.

The rhetoric of HRM in organisations stands in stark contradiction to its actions. Despite platitudinous sloganeering about empowerment etc., the actions of most HR departments are aimed at getting people to act and behave in organisationally acceptable ways.  Seen in a critical light, seemingly benign HR initiatives such as organizational culture events or self-management initiatives are exposed as being but subtle means of managerial control over employees.  (see this paper for an example of the former and this one for an example of the latter).

Since the practice of IS focuses largely on technology,  much of the IS  research and practice tends to focus on technology trends and “best practices.” As might be expected, the focus is on “fad of the month” and thus turns stale rather quickly. As examples: the 1990s saw an explosion of papers and projects in business process re-engineering; the flavour of the decade in the 2000s was service-oriented architecture; more recently, we’ve seen a great deal of hot air about the cloud.  Underlying a lot of technology related decision-making is the tacit assumption that choices pertaining to technology are  value-free and can be decided on the basis of  technical and financial criteria alone.  The profession as a whole tends to take an overly scientific/rational approach to design and  implementation, often ignoring issues such as power and politics.  It can be argued that many failures of large-scale IS projects are due to the hyper-rational approach taken by many practitioners.

In a similar vein, most management specialisations can benefit from the insights that come from taking a critical perspective.  Alvesson and Willmott discuss marketing, accounting and other functions. However,  since my main interest is in solutions rather than listing the (rather well-known) problems,  I’ll leave it here, directing the interested reader to the book for more.

Towards an enlightened practice of management

In the modern workplace it is common for employees to feel disconnected from their work, at least from time to time if not always. In a prior post, I discussed how this sense of alienation is a consequence of our work and personal lives being played out in two distinct spheres – the system and the lifeworld. In brief, the system refers to the professional and administrative sphere in which we work and/or  interact with institutional authority and the lifeworld is is the everyday world that we share with others. Actions in the lifeworld are based on a shared understanding of the issue at hand whereas those in the system are not.

From the critical analysis of management specialisations presented in the book, it is evident that the profession, being mired in a paradigm consisting of prescriptive, top-down practices, serves to perpetuate the system by encroaching on the lifeworld values of employees. There are those who will say that this is exactly how it should be. However, as Alvesson and Wilmott have stated in their book, this kind of thinking is perverse because it is ultimately self-defeating:

The devaluation of lifeworld properties is perverse because …At the very least, the system depends upon human beings who are capable of communicating effectively and who are not manipulated and demoralized to the point of being incapable of cooperation and productivity.

Alvesson and Willmott use the term emancipation, to describe any process whereby employees are freed from shackles of system-oriented thinking even if only  partially  (Note: here I’m using the term system in the sense defined above – not to be confused with systems thinking, which is another beast altogether). Acknowledging that it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation or even a department, they coin the term micro-emancipation to describe any process whereby sub-groups of organisations are empowered to think through issues  and devise appropriate  actions by themselves, free (to the extent possible) from management constraints or directives.

Although this might sound much too idealistic to some readers, be assured that it is eminently possible to implement micro-emancipatory  practices in real world organisations. See this paper  for one possible framework that can be used within a multi-organisation project along with a detailed case study that shows how the framework can be applied in a complex project environment.

Alvesson and Willmott warn that emancipatory practices are not without costs, both for employers and employees. For example, employees who have gained autonomy may end up being less productive which will in turn affect their job security.  In my opinion, view, this issue can be addressed through an incrementalist approach wherein both employers and employees work together to come up with micro-emancipatory projects at the grassroots level, as in the case study described in the paper mentioned in the previous paragraph.

…and so to conclude

Despite the rhetoric of autonomy and empowerment, much of present-day management is stuck in a Taylorist/Fordist paradigm. In modern day organisations command and control may not be obvious, but they often sneak in through the backdoor in not-so-obvious ways. For example, employees almost always know that certain things are simply “out of bounds” for discussion and of the consequences of breaching those unstated boundaries can be severe.

In its purest avatar, a critical approach to management seeks to remove those boundaries altogether.  This is unrealistic because nothing will ever get done in an organisation in which everything is open for discussion; as is the case in all social systems, compromise is necessary. The concept of micro-emancipation offers just this. To be sure, one has to go beyond the rhetoric of empowerment to actually creating an environment that enables people to speak their minds and debate issues openly.   Though it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation, it is definitely possible to achieve it (albeit approximately)  in small workgroups.

To conclude: the book is worth a read, not just by management researchers but also by practicing managers.  Unfortunately  the overly-academic style  may be a turn off for practitioners, the very people who need to read it the most.

Written by K

July 18, 2013 at 12:17 am

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