Beyond incompetency

In Search of Management
April 21, 1995

Ethnography is back. In much contemporary management literature messianic tracts load wide-ranging prescriptions on tiny platforms of fact, so it is a liberating experience to travel in Tony Watson's frail bark in which the rough- hewn planks are hand-crafted out of that old standby, the plain wood of empirical observation.

The author quotes a manager who greeted him as Stanley to Livingstone on the Victorian explorer's search for the source of the Nile. The title is no accident; it resinates with Peters and Waterman's In Search of Excellence which re-introduced the notion of managing an organisation as much through culture as through structures. This is a road book, an account of a journey.

Watson's company was a "fairly mainstream" manufacturer trying to refashion corporate culture in the image of the apparently successful models of our main overseas competitors. To be a large manufacturing enterprise at all in the post-Thatcher British economy must demonstrate unusual powers of organisational survival. Even less likely to find a company in which the typical source of consulting advice comes from academic researchers rather than from glib consultants.

Watson demonstrates the an-thropologist's skills of patient listening and detailed note-taking, cautiously picking his way from one observation to another, until finally the edifice of meaning is revealed. He focuses on that topical issue, the discovery of managerial competencies. He goes behind the egregious recapitulation of lists of competencies which resurface in committee drafts which bear as much relation to observable practices and behaviour as the pre-experimental conjectures of "substance" and "phlogiston".

Watson deals with the efforts of managers to frame structures of meaning to make sense of their duties. A technical manager asks "I really do wonder what my bloody job is sometimes. I say to myself 'I'm in charge of this office and the office in Birmingham' but then I ask whether I am really in charge of even myself when it comes down to it." Among many professional managers, there is a hunger for learning and a need to understand. Middle managers are prepared to challenge the slick conceptual formula, the regurgitation of action lists and the premature closure of naive questioning by the imposition of professorial authority.

Managers know that the real test of In Search of Excellence is what will this knowledge help me to do at 10 o'clock on Monday morning? Watson's managers are not striving for excellence. They are attempting to do better in an effort to keep the organisation going. Survival and satisfaction rather than maximisation and empire building is what they are about. Watson follows in the tradition of Barnard and Simon. His managers are neither Platonic planners nor Machiavellian fixers. They keep the larger vision of the organisation as a context in which they are always attempting to make decisions in areas of uncertainty that can have the effect of permitting those closer to the facts to act on matters on which they can be more certain. Their problem is that many junior managers lack the confidence to make decisions in areas in which they have technical but not interpersonal knowledge. Middle management is about constructive, cautious empowerment.

His managers' timeframes are short, their activity is episodic, their rewards uncertain, and their dedication unknown but potentially limitless. They may suffer from the anomie of boundless aspirations. So they anchor their activity in a set of middle-range theories of organisational behaviour. Watson's managers create a framework of industrial recipes similar to those described by Spender.

There is a moral basis to their work also. One respondent reminds us that it is an efficient organisation which provides the good things which people want from society. These managers understand clearly the nonsensical aspects of the Thatcherite dismissal of "society", a clue, perhaps, to the prevailing disillusion of managers with the political process.

Managers understand that it is not their job to motivate in a vacuum. "It is all about facilitating, about education, about motivating, doing lots of things to get things moving". This leads them to the quizzical question: "What about my empowerment, then?" They understand that getting people to conform and continually to improve is based on mastery of relationships. One explains: "They see me, I honestly believe this, and you can ask around to see if I am right, as a decent bloke, who always sees them right. Yes, and having swallowed a lot of this personal development stuff, I have helped them get a lot more out of working here than they might have." It is not a bad epitaph for a day's work in which one has "just managed". They are dismissive of the advice from transatlantic gurus, jetting from one $10,000 seminar to another, to "change the culture".

But these managers are not driven by a dissociated practicality either. One of Watson's managers unconsciously echoes Keynes' dictum that those who consider themselves to be the most practical are the slaves to the ghost of some dead scribbler. Common sense itself has to be reformulated, restructured and re-articulated into more relevant frameworks of discourse, as the theorists also do their work to puzzle out the reasons for the interconnectedness of things. This is two-way traffic between the "real world" and the laboratory in which management researchers and theoreticians have their place. So Watson's manager concludes: "Let's forget about fancy theories and talk about how things work".

Watson's book has made a start towards putting management research and practical management back onto course. But it will only have real impact if it leads to more of the same. It is a staging post on the journey to the source of the Nile. There are important discoveries to be made on the way through Egypt after all. Carefully sifting away the sand and removing the obstructive blocks of ignorance, preconception and premature closure may lead us to the entrance to the pharaoh's tomb. And perhaps we can share the excitement of Howard Carter who, as he peered into the darkness of the pharaoh's burial chamber, was asked what he saw. "I see," muttered Carter, "I see wonderful things". Watson and his team of one, backed by no vast research grant, supported by no corporate brass, have stabbed a thin but resolute beam of illumination into the darkness.

David T. H. Weir is director and professor of management, University of Bradford Management Centre.

In Search of Management: Culture, Chaos and Control in Managerial Work

Author - Tony J. Watson
ISBN - 0 415 09230 2 and 09231 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 242pp

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