Corporate acumen

The Future of the Organisation
April 4, 1997

Colin Coulson-Thomas, author of `The Future of the Organisation, is a fervent believer in the strengthening of companies through his concept of corporate change, which takes into account the interest of all the stakeholders and is in harmony with the environment. With the help of new technology and new ways of working, the tenet for corporate transformation - which moved from quantity to quality in the 1980s - will, he says, move again in the 1990s towards the idea of harmony.

The author's ideas have been developed in several books and major surveys on the subject of corporate change, and here are brought together in a forward-looking review, that, in his own terms, introduces holistic and people-centred approaches to management and transformation. This laudable outlook is inherently sensible. It focuses on learning common sense and communication skills. But while it offers a good perspective, we are left to follow an outstretched arm towards the horizon with a detailed idea of what our destination will be like, but not how to get there.

According to Coulson-Thomas, a company that is not ready to acknowledge and act on the need for change, is destined to spiral down, eventually becoming a commodity supplier and then fading away. This is also the way of the living organism and as human beings we can only stave off degeneration with a balanced lifestyle and possibly a bypass operation if we are so unfortunate as to need one. The application of a little make-up or even a facelift will do no more than conceal the blemishes.

In corporate terms, Coulson-Thomas equates the balanced lifestyle with "quality" and the lifesaving operation with "re-engineering". As in life, a company should boldly try to find its own way rather than follow an obsession with tool kits or fads. Well-programmed and balanced change should be able to extend the healthy life of a corporation longer than available medicine can extend life for humans, but success will depend on the right decisions in the face of many dilemmas. Coulson-Thomas presents many of these dilemmas; they include group thinking versus individualism, cost-reduction through layoffs versus employee loyalty, automation versus people involvement, centralisation versus decentralisation. He highlights the pitfalls and indicates favoured outcomes but leaves readers to find their own way to reach the decisions.

Quality is an abused word in management science and its meaning can extend from the basics of quality control to the general concept of continuous review and improvement. Coulson-Thomas has chosen not to pick an interpretation for "quality" in this book. He allows the subject of his research to interpret "quality" freely - leading to significant confusion.

The author finds that there is considerable disillusionment in the "quality revolution" in the workplace owing to falling returns, high costs, inflexibility and quality being taken for granted. Yet, despite the author's pessimism, 81 per cent of respondents in his Quality: The next step survey said that quality was a "critical success factor''.

This finding would appear to be a resounding confirmation of the continued importance of quality even though it may be becoming a qualifying factor rather than a differentiator. Quality departments act like the police force of totalitarian regimes at one extreme, and, at the other extreme, Mazda's quality program creates so many extra features that a cost-conscious public is not prepared to pay for: these serve as examples of quality programs which do not provide the desired results. However, such implementation is further from the core concepts of the quality revolution than Coulson-Thomas's own favoured enactment which entails continuous improvement; he advocates a continual refocusing of the quality program to suit developing situations.

The book explores more change-related anguish over the topic of business process re-engineering - which, it is true, has suffered more documented failure than successes. Then Coulson-Thomas reveals the sunshine on the horizon where the reader may acquire a taste for the flavour of his ideals for the company of the future. This is a world where leadership is enlightened and committed to change, where the workforce is motivated and empowered, and in which the functions and processes are in harmony with the community with which they coexist. Above all, the company finds its own way to stay ahead of the pack by developing core competencies and satisfying the customers' needs and desires through the loyalty, learning and initiative of the members of the company. There is simplicity without superficiality.

These aspirations represent a tall order for architects of change, without providing them with enough help. The book would benefit from more references to Japan where corporations have come closest to achieving harmony in their manufacturing environment.

In the manner of Coulson-Thomas's own concept, his environment has been the breeding ground of many ideas which have succeeded in being cloned into western-style management fads. The quest for market-share and long-term growth, together with career-based management and lifelong employment, have created fertile fields for cultivating and developing the type of corporate qualities for which Coulson-Thomas is striving.

In the West only owner-managers and founders of their own companies find themselves with similar freedoms and the drive to follow the guiding principles; even in Japan the situation is eroding.

The style of the this book is exploratory and the work is copiously backed by facts and figures from Coulson-Thomas's surveys, but in some cases these facts seem to be used more to prove a point than to provide objective support. Many of the companies to which he refers are not as excellent in their practices as they seem to be, judging from their stated policies.

The book, too, misses out on the simplicity it advocates, and for some of the companies surveyed, most notably Xerox, the volume of references indicates that policies are so complex that implementation must be almost impossible; the numerous checklists, flow-charts and other analytical devices would lead the unsuspecting into a maze from which they would never escape. But the readers who follow it through will benefit from a much greater depth of understanding by the end of the exercise.

But what then is the readership? The book, I believe, is too philosophical and lacks the prescription needed to become a popular reference text. What is more, Coulson-Thomas is projecting a corporate world in which stakeholders get equal consideration, and where the long-term outlook is more important than short-term financial results. These ideas conflict with those of most professional managers sandwiched between their various stakeholders and needing high-profile action to prove their contribution.

As an academic work, the book covers previously published ground, but it does serve as a reference to the author's extensive research and as a comprehensive introduction to anyone wanting to take the time to look deeply into people-centred change. For such readers, few books will offer as many insights and experiences to heighten understanding of the benefits of a holistic attitude to change. We can keep on hoping that this awareness will lead us all to an era of harmony.

Paul Brunet, co-founder and chief executive of P. T. Citra Tubindo, Indonesia, is studying management at the School of Management Studies, University of Oxford.

The Future of the Organisation: Achieving Excellence through Business Transformation

Author - Colin Coulson-Thomas
ISBN - 0 7494 1935 0
Publisher - Kogan Page
Price - £25.00
Pages - 450

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