Restricted market in the jargon business

The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Management
September 12, 1997

This handsome and massive 12-volume set draws on several hundred contributors from a variety of academic institutions in the United States and some from the United Kingdom to distil the essence of management theory and pour it into a vessel from which all can sip or drink deeply as they need. It is an ambitious undertaking. Some of the articles are succinct and incisive, a few make original contributions to their subject, others are embarrassing. Given the range of contributors and of subject-matter, this is not surprising. Yet one is left wondering whether the undertaking itself, with the horrifying editorial task it implies, is not fundamentally flawed.

The first question one asks is what these volumes are trying to be: a dictionary or an encyclopaedia. They explicitly try to be both. The work calls itself The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Management (on the outside), but each volume declares itself to be an "Encyclopaedic Dictionary" (on the inside), and the bulk of the text consists of what it calls "dictionary entries". These dictionary entries range from extended articles such as the seven pages on "process mapping" in the volume called Strategic Management, which gives detailed methodologies, through to a half-page definition of the word "ability" which opens the volume on "Organisational Behaviour". While a normal human being trying to make sense of consulting jargon might well want to know what process mapping is all about, most native speakers of English know what is meant by "ability". If they had doubts, they would also be better served by checking in the Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps the purpose of the encyclopedia's entry is to sow doubts. We are told here that ability "denotes competence in an activity", that it is "realised talent" and "a synonym for mental power, although there are other human abilities beyond the cognitive domain", which, if it means anything, must mean that "ability" cannot be a synonym for "mental power". Most native speakers of English knew that in the first place.

Let us then leave the pure dictionary entries on one side and concentrate on a more useful purpose this work may have, which is to act as a guide through the ugly jungle of management-speak, providing not just definitions, but some elucidation of the content of the jargon in those cases in which there is some. Alas, finding one's way around the guide is none too easy.

This is in part because of its division into 12 volumes which overlap and in part because of the problem of indexing. For example, the Strategic Management volume contains an article on the "growth share matrix". I can quite easily find my way from this to others which are related, such as "cash cow" and "experience curve". But in looking for it in the first place, I might well have looked for the "Boston matrix", and have had to look up any of seven page references under "Boston Consulting Group and growth share matrix", with no indication that one of them is the starting point of a full article. I might equally have started by looking for the "portfolio matrix". Again, I would have found no entry or reference in the main text, but have had to search five page references under "portfolio planning" in the index. None of this would have alerted me to the fact that the Marketing volume contains another article about the same subject called "BCG matrix", which apparently was "the eponymous technique developed by the Boston Consultancy Group" (presumably the Boston Consulting Group). To take another example, the Strategic Management volume has no entry under "competencies". The index refers one to "core competencies", which rightly discusses the wave of musings prompted by Hamel and Prahalad's Harvard Business Review article of 1990. There is an entry under "competencies" in Organisational Behaviour, but it does not even mention Hamel and Prahalad. In the volume on Human Resource Management there is no entry at all under "competencies" be they core or otherwise. Readers who cannot guess what the different editors have chosen to call things and which volume they fit into will spend many hours with the main index before finding what they want.

Some of the core articles are also positioned in a strange way. Look up "re-engineering" in volume two (Strategic Management) and you find an article called "re-engineering disadvantages", which is a restrained polemic. There is no entry anywhere in the volume under "process reengineering" and the index entry under "business process re-engineering" refers back to "re-engineering" - about which all we can learn is its disadvantages. Believe it or not, volume nine (Human Resource Management) contains an article called "business process re-engineering", which does in fact tell you what it is, and there is another similar one in volume ten (Operations Management), this time called "business process redesign". To complete the mystery, there is another article in volume two called "value-driven re-engineering" - who would have guessed? It turns out that this is the good stuff which does not have disadvantages. It also turns out that this re-engineering was invented by Andersen Consulting, and always works. Indeed it is "the best methodology" for performing "sweeping evaluations", and is "the most efficient and reliable means of implementing strategic, sustainable change". In fact it is really great. As one of the authors of the article is from Andersen Consulting, he should know.

There is, then, little uniformity of approach on the part of the many authors. In the case of some volumes, for example the one on Organisational Behaviour, the editor has tried to prescribe a structure ("definition - state of knowledge - current significance - future trends and applications"), but in most the reader is faced with a lucky dip. The depth of treatment given to the topics is also something of a lottery. For example, the piece on "brand" in the Marketing volume is a 17-line dictionary entry, where one might have expected an extended essay. In other cases, extended essays appear at unexpected places. Having read the informative, factual entry under "core competencies" in volume two, which is the sort of historical overview of the development of the idea and the positions adopted towards it by various writers which one might expect from an encyclopedia, one is referred to "strategic core competencies". This turns out to be an advertisement for the use of Quality Function Deployment to define competencies, a tool whose potential "has not yet been adequately recognised". By some happy coincidence, the authors of this one also turn out to be from Andersen Consulting, where this technique is evidently employed.

The other volumes vary in usefulness. Accounting is a useful guide for a student, less so for a manager who would like to check something when seeking to read some accounts. For example, readers wanting to look up depreciation conventions will find nothing under "depreciation" at all. They will have to use the index and will find references scattered across the work, starting with "accounting for fixed assets". The discussions under this entry are more of the principles involved than of accounting practice, which is more likely to be what the manager wants. It is also a pity that the volume is so US-oriented, with only a few references to non-Anglo-Saxon standards between the major world economies such as Germany and Japan, so that at least some comparison could be made between what is meant by "profit" in each system.

Information technology is an area which could benefit greatly from a dictionary. The preface to the volume on Management Information Systems sows hope in that it suggests which entries to read first as a general orientation before plunging into the morass of specific themes. The leading article under the entry "management information system" defines MIS as "a system within an organisation that supplies information and communication services and resources to meet organisation needs". The system, we are told, consists of "infrastructures" and "application systems". This sounds familiar.

Further illumination is proffered in a similar vein. For example: "The systems apply information technology and information resources to functionality and performance in products and services, quality and scope in analysis and decision-making, communication and sharing in cooperative work, and improved, faster operational management processes at all levels." Gripping stuff. It sounds as if an MIS is A Good Thing, and if it takes that many Latin nouns to describe it, it will probably cost an arm and a leg too if you want one. Yet I still wonder what it really means. Imperfectly remembering my Latin and taking a closer look at this sentence (which reads much the same as most of the others anyway), I tried to parse it. It is a sentence (I had my doubts at first) for it has a subject, lots of objects and a verb - just one ("apply") - but then MIS's and their proponents have always been parsimonious with verbs, no doubt quite rightly. There the insights ended. Do systems apply information technology to functionality in products? Do they apply information resources to scope in decision-making? Or do they do all this to all of them? How do they do it? How does any person, or any micro-chip for that matter, apply information resources to scope in decision-making? I can understand how you might make better decisions if you have better information. But how is the scope of decision-making altered by the application of information resources? Perhaps this is the wrong question. However that may be, it is sad that a dictionary, presumably committed to explanation, iterates a language cunningly devised to produce intellectual torpor and the desire to sign large cheques. I would rather read Heidegger. At least there is a certain gothic grandeur to him, and listening to Being comes a good deal cheaper than yearning after new functionalities. Perhaps the language of IT just seems to be English but it is really Latin after all, and, as in Latin, the order of the words can be changed without altering the meaning of the sentence. That would explain a lot.

In conclusion, while admiring the efforts of some of those engaged in this enterprise, one is left with doubts about its utility. Given the search difficulties with which it confronts the user, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The volumes covering more tightly defined academic areas, such as Managerial Economics or Finance, are usable and informative glossaries. Some in more loosely defined areas, such as volume seven on International Management, do give explanations of things specific to the area in terms the non-specialist can understand. Others however, like Strategic Management, contain some nuggets and some fool's gold. In many of these areas the encyclopedia has focused competitors. In strategy, for example, many would be better served by The Strategy Handbook by Michael Hay and Peter Williamson, which has the virtue of consistency. As those authors say, "for the manager and business student getting to grips with any new language and way of thinking, time is the enemy". Few managers or business students will have the time to surf the Encyclopedia of Management. Some members of the academic community probably will, but in a few years they will find it out of date. They will then be forced to join the management practitioners already surfing the Internet to find out what they want, which is perhaps what they should have done in the first place.

Stephen Bungay is a vice-president, the Boston Consulting Group.

The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Management

Editor - Cary Cooper and L. Argyris
ISBN - 1 57718 035 6
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £800.00 set of 11 volumes; £75.00 each

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