An attack mismanaged

Against Management
July 25, 2003

This is a curious mixture of a book, and I am at a loss in suggesting what readership it is intended for. On the one hand, the author proclaims it to be a polemic. On the other hand, it comes in the guise of a serious, objective work of scholarship by a respected academic.

Martin Parker begins by distinguishing between three definitions of "management". The first is "a group of executives directing an industrial undertaking". I have two quarrels with this. It implies that management is an activity confined to industrial organisations. What about management in hospitals or voluntary organisations? Second, and more important, managers do not "direct". Direction in formal organisations is carried out by boards of directors, trustees of charities, governors of schools and elected members in local government. Management involves following direction, not giving it. Parker ignores this fundamental distinction in organisational roles, and this omission invalidates much of his argument.

The second definition is "the process or act of managing; skill in contriving, handling, etc". The third - "the academic discipline concerned with managing and administration; the part of an educational institution concerned with the same" - raises a relevant issue. A university department of "management" or "business", seen from the perspective of people wishing to obtain degrees, exists to provide vocational education and to equip them with the necessary knowledge and skills. From the viewpoint of many academics, however, its primary task is not to teach but to engage in something called "management studies", to carry out research and to publish the findings.

Parker rounds off this section by stating that what he is against is "managerialism" or the "generalised ideology of management". This, he implies rather than declares, is tied up with the operation of market forces. The following chapter, which links managerialism to the ubiquity of McDonald's restaurants and a "predatory form of globalisation", reinforces this interpretation.

In his third chapter, Parker examines attempts by business leaders to find alternatives to bureaucracy and to replace coercion with commitment. He notes that such attempts are not novel but points out that modern versions of this approach are more persuasive and better publicised. He does not conceal his scepticism about the sincerity of such attempts.

Much of the rest of the book suggests the stitching together of a series of essays rather than the flow of a carefully constructed argument. In his final chapter, Parker returns to his main argument. He does not believe that there is only one best way for humans to organise themselves. He rejects the account of the evolution of management practice over the past century that sees it as one of progress and enlightenment, and that has led to the "centrality" of management and the celebration of a particular form of market. He deplores the fact that this one-sided account is spreading across the globe in uncritical acceptance, with "disastrous ramifications for the human and non-human environment and for the autonomy of states and local communities".

He sets out the case for imagining alternative forms of organisation that do not involve managerialism. Size is one factor; opposing gigantism in corporations is an obvious first step. Beyond this, there are ideas to be found in worker cooperatives, utopian communities and other forms of social experimentation.

While accepting the validity of much of Parker's criticism of the state of the theory and the practice of how power and control are exercised in big organisations, I believe his attack to be misdirected. It is not the managers who are to blame. They are employees, too, and, in matters of strategy and policy, no more powerful than other employees. The proper targets of criticism on these issues are company directors and institutions representing shareholders.

There are some strange omissions from the references, given the bibliography's otherwise comprehensive nature. There is also some poor copy editing, in particular the reference to Kafka's "two posthumous books".

Philip Sadler is vice-president, Ashridge Business School.

Against Management

Author - Martin Parker
ISBN - 0 7456 2925 3 and 2926 1
Publisher - Polity
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 250

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