Orchestrating a future of note

Challenging Reality - The Drama of Leadership
November 21, 1997

Patricia Pitcher introduces her book with an apt quote from Chester Barnard's The Functions of the Executive, which, although published in 1938, is wholly appropriate today and encompasses the strengths of both books reviewed here: "Still more do I regret the failure to convey the sense of organisation, the dramatic and aesthetic feeling that surpasses the possibilities of exposition, which derives from the intimate, habitual interested experience. It is evident that many lack an interest in the science of organising, not perceiving the significant elements. They miss the structure of the symphony, the art of its composition, and the skill of its execution, because they cannot hear the tones."

Both of these books in different ways attempt to help us understand the structure, composition and execution of organisations and those who manage them. The first book, by Pitcher, focuses on "the skill of its execution", the various roles that leaders play in the playhouse of organisations. She is unhappy with simple differentiations between managers and leaders as espoused by both Abraham Zaleznik in the 1970s and latterly by Warren Bennis in On Becoming a Leader in 1989.

Although it is appealing to classify managers as administrators, maintainers, systems/structure oriented and short-termists, while leaders are innovators, creative, people oriented, inspirational and long-termists, Pitcher feels strongly that the subtleties of leadership are lost in these bivariate classifications. As a late convert to academe from the boardrooms of many North American companies, she feels that there are at least three identifiable types of leader: the artist, the craftsman and the technocrat. The artist is people oriented, intuitive, open-minded and visionary; the craftsman is dedicated, modest, humble, wise, direct and "doesn't pretend to know everything"; and the technocrat is methodical, detail-oriented, insightful, uncompromising, serious and rigid. These types can be extended further to refine the artist into pure, gentle or authoritarian; the craftsman into pure, regimental or creative; and the technocrat into pure, plodding or flashy. The author feels that the power struggles or drama played out between these types in organisations, and who wins them, ultimately determines the final corporate act, that is, the competitiveness or success of the organisation.

This is a well-written book, organised around the organisation as a theatre, with actors, scenes and scenarios. There are many corporate examples, vignettes, quotes and the like, and the author obviously feels that with technocrats in charge you have a potential disaster about to happen or, as Keynes once said, "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist". The corporate world is certainly changing and we are entering, as the author describes, "a world without guarantees and a world that demands a sharp pencil, vigilance, and constant innovation". Nevertheless, she implores us to consider, in this new employment order, the artists and craftsmen types in our society, and to be cautious of technocrats. The dawning of the new age requires, she suggests, humanity, wisdom, skill and conviction for a story with a happy ending.

This world controlled by technology is the focus of Christopher Barnatt's Challenging Reality. The author draws on our industrial history and the future of worldwide electronic connectivity to suggest that "the age of electronic interconnection - the Knowledge Age wherein human beings will work in tandem with smart machines - is only just beginning. In parallel, the heyday of mass production and industrial concentration is now drawing to a close." The titles of the chapters reveal the historical bent and innovative nature of this "search for the future organisation": "The archaeology of wonder", "Tools that talked", "Totally free to fly and totally free to fall", "Escapes from the here and now", "Cyberia-first steps", "Of networks and cocoons", and so on.

The book is divided into three waves in terms of the past, present and future across five "reality facets" (achievement focus, member status, knowledge media, geographic span and productive form). If we talk about people at work, in the reality facet of member status, society has moved from serfs and slaves in the past to employees in the present to a free-agent model in the future. Work organisations will become more organismic, more freelance, with individuals pursuing portfolio careers. So, in terms of corporate structures we will have moved from feudal/craft to bureaucratic to organic. The argument is that our knowledge media will follow, moving from single-channel to the current multi-channel to meta-channel, with all its implications for communications within virtual organisations.

The author sees a positive but difficult future in the electronic workplace of the next millennium. Future organisations, according to the author, will face many unpalatable and difficult choices: "Realism (however) will have to replace right as societies come to work out what they can actually afford to sustain for their citizens long term .... History, after all, does at least inform us that humankind will overcome." This is a book of ideas, of understanding the future from the past and is relatively optimistic about the challenging reality facing all of us in this multimedia, Inter-networked and virtual workplace of the future.

Machiavelli once wrote that "it should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating change ...". Whether we like it or not, change is here to stay in society, especially in the workplace, as both these books suggest. The hope for the future of man in this electronic and technological age, however, may depend on the nurturing and support we give to Pitcher's artists and craftsmen. It is important for all of us to remember in this context some of the "other reasons" why men and women work, as Studs Terkel highlighted in his acclaimed book Working: "It (work) is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than Monday-through-Friday sort of dying."

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Challenging Reality: In Search of the Future Organisation

Author - Christopher Barnatt
ISBN - 0 471 97072 7
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £14.99
Pages - 306

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