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The Myths of Management - Managing Innovation and Change - Human Resource Management

April 4, 1997

Bertrand Russell in his book In Praise of Idleness suggested that work was split into two kinds. "First, altering the position of matter at or near to the earth's surface relative to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension; there are not only those who give orders but those who give advice as to what orders should be given."

Few managers nowadays would accept Russell's analysis concerning pleasure and pay, but many will have suffered from the extension of advice. At the time of his remarks, however, the prevailing management style was based on "control" through minute assessments of working practices to incentive schemes, or "scientific management".

From there we moved inexorably towards a "human resource" orientated management style, where the focus was on an interpersonal environment, or the human relations approach to managing people and organisational change.

Now we are firmly in the HRM era, where top executives are beginning to accept their often espoused but (previously) rarely internalised euphemism, "our most valuable resource is our people". All these books are part of the HRM phenomenon.

Karen Legge, who synthesises her own work and contextualises the human resource management field, has the subtitle "Rhetorics and Realities" to guide her distinguished work. The book is divided into 10 chapters exploring in sequence personnel management, `styles of managing the employment relationship, and various aspects of HRM. The purpose has been not to provide a simplistic text book of concepts and definitions or even HRM tools, but to mine the deeper truths behind the rhetoric of established practices. The author acknowledges this in her introductory chapter, saying, "the concern is not to explicate, in a prescriptive manner the minutiae of best practice management techniques that form the handtools in the work of managing employees... The purpose of this book is to situate such activities in the context of managerial rationales, constraints and opportunities."

It is a scholarly attempt to go behind the scenes of HRM, and the conclusion is that the soft aspects of the model - of employee involvement and empowerment and the like - are now "a shallow rooted plant, save in the most exceptionally fertile soil".

Jon Clark's book, where the relationship between technology and man is explored, looks at just one establishment, Pirelli General's Aberdare site. An extremely well-written sociological account of more than 10 years of massive technological, human resource and competitive change in one factory, it analyses the impact of automation and its implications for the workforce and the future of organisational life. It covers the conflicts, the decision-making processes, the failures and successes of this venture, in a narrative form that makes a cogent case study of green- and brown-field development in the automated factory of the future. Again, we have a case of intention (or rhetoric) versus practice (or reality), but also a good practice example of technological innovation and creative human-resource management. As Rosabeth Kanter suggested in the early 1980s in her book, The Change Masters, and as Clark emphasises here, the future of organisational life is about innovation and people: "...we need to create conditions, even inside larger organizations, that make it possible for individuals to get the power to experiment, to create, to develop, to test, to innovate. Whereas short-term productivity can be affected by purely mechanical systems, innovation requires intellectual effort. That, in turn, means people."

The art of managing people is the subject of The Myths of Management by Adrian Furnham. Qualitatively different from the previous two books, this short work aims for a more popular readership. It highlights 40 myths of management, in seven chapters, covering motivation, training, decision-making, self- knowledge, selection, control and experts. "Money is the best work motivator", "success at work is a matter of luck", "you learn about management on the job", "the art of management is just common sense", "most workers are lazy, work-shy and feckless", "big is beautiful in business", and "travel broadens the mind" are just some of these myths. Each of the 40 are systematically explored - and undermined. The author assesses the "what" and "why" of management myths, seeing them as parables or a "traditional story that embodies popular beliefs".

People who engage in mythologising management attitudes and behaviour do so because it serves their purposes. Such folk also help create the norms of corporate life which may guide human resource management practice even though based on flimsy foundations.

Although Adrian Furnham's book is written in "airport-lounge" style, it provides some thoughtful commentaries on managerial attitudes and behaviour that have, for too long, been taken for granted. He helps debunk much of this, though, as he says, the myths are like recessive genes "inherited by those who take up the mantle of management".

A few years ago Sir John Harvey-Jones indicated that he disliked and distrusted books that offered a cure-all for managers' problems. "In one bound, Jack was free" is the category he suggested for such books. I agree. But these three books do not provide miracle cures. Instead, they try to provide some light behind the rhetoric, and some substance to the myths.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology, Umist.

The Myths of Management

Author - Adrian Furnham
ISBN - 1 897635 98 2.
Publisher - Whurr
Price - £12.95
Pages - 114

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