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Can the Management Gurus’ lead us to Nirvana?


A Guru was once cynically described as an expert who had reached the age of 50 without being found out.

However we live today in the age of the Guru, with management Gurus being quoted not just by managers but by politicians and the media and being viewed as a celebrity sub species in their own right. The Big Corporations pay them millions, George Bush and Gordon Brown hang on their every word, they have an increasing effect on the way we live but when you investigate the outpouring of the Messiahs of Management you have to dig through an enormous amount of waffle to extract a nugget of truth.

But paradoxically the more that is published the less time the modern executive has to read, they are on the move, using their laptop on the train, parked on the M25 hoping that they are moving to Heathrow, at workshops, seminars and team building events, they cannot read any more so they “surf” the literature looking for a sound bite here, a slogan there, a clarion call to action, a smart and snappy slogan to impress their peers and keep ahead of the new kid on the block, because “management” is predominately male, white, grey haired, middle aged and in an era of downsizing, MBA driven change and politically correct HR policies HE is increasingly a beleaguered and insecure animal looking for new tricks to keep HIM ahead.

And make no mistake their is a lot of Guru Gobbledygook out there, it is now more than 250 years since any individual could claim to know all there is through reading. Evolution of the information explosion has probably peaked with the modern manager – survey after survey highlights information overload as the most common stress identified by managers.

They have a point, Business Literature, if one broadens that to include economics and technical works, has been at the forefront of the publishing boom since the early 1980s: It is now the largest non-fiction category in Britain, and Britain is a long way behind the United States in business publishing. So who are these Guru’s leading us to the promised land and what do they preach. Let us see if a short list is possible!

John Adair (b. 1934)
Britain’s first professor of leadership studies, claims to have been first to demonstrate that leadership is a transferable, trainable skill. His Action- Centred- Leadership defines leadership in terms of Task, Team and Individual.

Warren Bennis (b.1925)
Adviser to 4 US presidents and America’s best known guru of leadership, like Adair he believes leadership can be taught and his key book was Leaders; Strategies for Taking Charge (1985).

Peter F Drucker (b. 1909)
Vienna born guru who has pioneered almost every management theory ahead of the pack from his seminal work, Concept of the Corporation (1946) onwards.

Henri Fayol (1941 -1925)
French Mine manager who formulated the basic tasks and responsibilities of management; to plan, to organise, to command, to co-ordinate & to control in his book General and Industrial Management.

Michael Hammer (b. 1948)
MIT mathematician who coined the concept of business re-engineering in a 1990 article in the Harvard Business Review followed up with his book Reengineering the Corporation.

Charles Handy (b. 1932)
Britain’s only world class business guru who established himself with his book Understanding Organisations (1976).

Fredrick Herzberg (b. 1923)
One of the “Big Three” US motivation gurus with McGregor & Maslow. Differentiated between true “motivators” and mere “hygiene” factors such as salary and working conditions – invented the concept of “job enrichment”.

Rosabeth Kanter (b. 1943)
Pioneer of “empowerment” and the switch from “boss” to “partner” mentality. A leading authority on change management and the “post entrepreneurial organisation” – flatter, more flexible and faster to respond to changing global markets.

Tom Peters (b. 1942)
The leading example of the guru as a star performer. Like many gurus he is a former McKinsey consultant influenced by Japanese management approaches in Search of Excellence (1982) and lately managing in a chaotic environment in Liberation Management (1992).

Michael Porter (b. 1947)
A world authority on competitive strategy and advantage. In the Competitive Advantage of Nations (1990) he explores “value chains” within production processes and “clustering” of mutually supportive industries.

FW Taylor (1856 – 1917)
Pittsburgh Quaker who invented “scientific management” forerunner of “time & motion” & “work study”.

Some short list and we have left out Deming, the “godfather of quality”, Grove, Ansoff, Harvey Jones and even Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft!

Is there a real demand for management theory or is it a fad? – The answer must be yes the demand is real. The reason lies in the rapid change in industry and the greater world beyond. This change can be seen in privatisation and the retreat of the state from industry, the extinction of key firms like Pan American and the trauma endured by former market leaders such as “Big Blue”, IBM, as well as the changing face of organisations exemplified by Ted Turner’s CNN created in 347 days flat or Ross Perot’s EDS which operates as a series of project teams.

Clearly there is a real need in business to change or die, “survival is not compulsory” as Drucker has said and all the gurus emphasise the common features of an Enterprise:

1. To create & keep a customer
2. To build value & competitive advantage
3. To Grow
4. To perpetuate itself.

The management industry has responded to these changing times and the executive’s need for tools to cope with change by redefining management theory and practice whose development can be broadly summarised in 7 stages;

1. Weber’s bureaucracy (early 1920s)
2. Alfred Sloan’s pioneering work in decentralising General Motors (early 1920’s but entered common currency in the 1960’s)
3. Alfred D. Chandler’s “structure follows strategy” (1962)
4. Elliot Jaque’s invention of the ” time discretion principle” tying the levels of management responsibility to the span of time affected by each level of decision making in the organisation. (1976)
5. The first moves away from hierarchy to flatter management, signalled by Drucker, Handy & others in the 1970s.
6. Charles Handy’s “shamrock organisation” with its tripartite division into core staff, contracted out or fee paid and part timers (1989)
7. The “learning organisation” described by MIT’s Peter Senge dedicated to continuous improvement & evolution.

So underneath the Guru Gobbledygook there is a serious core and much to learn from them about the craft of management, motivating people, leadership, decision making, managing time, corporate mission & culture, building quality and competitive advantage & customer care. However as with any industry there must be much bubble and froth and the management industry is no exception with fashion and fads which promote cynicism amongst recipients many who will be change resistant an regard themselves as victims of a fad.

So different times different prescriptions. In the 1950’s it was Work and Method study, Systems in 1960’s, Social & Behavioural science in the 1970’s, Managing by Objectives in the 1980’s, Corporate Re engineering in the 1990’s and maybe The Virtual Company in the 2000’s ? However underneath the fads eternal truths endure and some new disciplines, like business re-engineering, are none the less valid for being a skilful rethinking and recombination of older techniques , though the flashy new packaging has an element of hype about it.

However the great weakness of the guru’s is the great weakness we all have in life, reading the future or in the lament of the American baseball star, Yogi Berra, ” The future ain’t what it used to be”. Strategic planning will always be the most difficult area for an enterprise – It wasn’t raining when Noah started to build the Ark.

In the final analysis management is not an exact science and whilst each guru can provide a window onto enlightenment each manager is responsible for his or her personal Nirvana, but as we head towards the millennium and beyond does any manager really feel they can have too much information?

So the gurus exist because of market forces. There is a demand for better understanding of business because of the rapid pace of change and because of this climate of change and their doctrines can never become fixed beliefs.

Once again we must quote the daddy of the Gurus, Drucker, in “Management, Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices” where he pinpoints lack of mission as the most important single cause of business failure and says to survive an enterprise must never cease to ask the 4 fundamental questions:

* What is our business?
* Who is our customer?
* Where is our customer?
* What is our value to our customer?

Or as Socrates said 3,000 years earlier ” Tie not your ship to a single anchor, nor your life to a single hope.” – Unfortunately, Socrates was too early to become a guru!

So can the Gurus lead us to Nirvana? Probably not, we have to do this ourselves but with their insights, approach and techniques they can deepen our understanding thereby making enlightenment more attainable. Pragmatism must rule, you can’t predict the future, BUT you can prepare for it.
David Caldwell

One Response

  1. A minor quibble
    There are some important distinctions to be made. F W Taylor was the piomneer of Method Study, his standard approach was to find ‘The One Best Method’. Gilbreth’s ( Cheaper by the Dozen)was to concentrate on Work Measurement. Both combine to be ‘Work study’. Fashions change, and sometimes the effort is on work measurement , sometimes on method study. Sensible businesses keep them in balance. BPRE is really a rebranded version of O&M, invented it HM Treasury in the 1940’s.
    I have been a management consultant for so long that I have seen fashions change and change back again, several times. What i have not seen enough of is managers who think hard before adopting the latest fad.

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