Novel choice for budding grey suits

Management Lives - Organisational Behaviour - Understanding People and Organisations

February 25, 2000

Most organisational-behaviour textbooks sold in the United Kingdom share a heritage of United States occupational psychology and a conviction that behavioural science provides a useful tool for managers.

They assemble a standard set of topics (motivation, leadership, group processes, personality, communication, structure and so on) and offer descriptive listings of each area''s "key theories", supplemented by "business-relevant" examples. Understanding People and Organisations falls squarely into this category, whereas Organisational Behaviour: A Critical Introduction and Management Lives offer welcome alternatives.

Linda Maund''s text attempts to be encyclopaedic. Unfortunately this is undercut by the variable quality of the content. Many sections offer clear and coherent overviews of standard topics, but too often there are ambiguities in the representation of key theories and attempts to oversimplify that lead to confusion and inconsistency.

Insufficient attention to overall coherence and detail places this book at a disadvantage in the already crowded market for "conventional" texts on organisational behaviour.

In contrast, Fiona Wilson''s, and David Knights and Hugh Willmott''s texts are reactions to the managerialist and positivistic orientations of conventional textbooks such as Maund''s. Both demonstrate a reluctance to abstract people''s behaviour at work from wider patterns of social relations, exhibit a preference for academically rigorous (but accessible) sociological reasoning and locate themselves firmly within a (critical) European rather than US social-science tradition.

Wilson retains a fairly standard textbook format, but avoids the tendency to swamp the text with boxes, diagrams and lists of "key points"; Angela Martin''s gentle but cutting cartoons provide a welcome alternative.

The book is divided into three sections: the meaning of work; power, control and resistance; and changes in work organisation. Part one investigates why people work, scientific management, bureaucracy and three "views" of work: the employee''s view from below; the manager''s view from above; and the view from outside (sexuality, deviancy and emotions). Part two deals with managerial power and surveillance, the disciplinary potential of organisational culture and diverse forms of employee resistance. Part three examines neo-organisation, unemployment, stress and alternative forms of ownership. Throughout the book, discussions of gender and other social inequalities are incorporated as a central concern rather than a marginal afterthought, and the extensive use of a wide range of empirical studies produces a text that is critical in the sense of challenging managerialist and commonsense interpretations of work. Chapters are relatively short and, while the clear, concise style generally makes this a virtue, in a couple of cases it creates an unfinished impression. This is a book that offers students a great deal: it is readable, amusing and intellectually challenging.

Knights and Willmott have a similar concern to escape the limitations of conventional textbooks and do so by turning to literature in an attempt to make management live and expose the reality of management lives. Four major concepts are deployed as analytical tools: identity, insecurity, inequality and power. These are elaborated through illustrations drawn from novels: David Lodge''s Nice Work , Tom Wolfe''s Bonfire of the Vanities , Milan Kundera''s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Kazuo Ishiguro''s The Remains of the Day . The authors'' belief that "real" fictional accounts are more compelling and enlightening than the poorly disguised fictions used as "real life" illustrations in conventional texts is well founded. The combination of theoretical parsimony and novel illustrations creates a clear and contained symmetry of conceptualisation and application precisely because events as depicted in good novels are heightened in intensity and stripped of superfluous "noise".

Unfortunately the price that has to be paid for this expositional clarity is the loss of the novel as a complex and ambiguous totality. Management Lives uses extracts for its own purposes, and this procrusteanism means that, ultimately, it retains the feel of a textbook, albeit one with a more sophisticated content and better-written case-studies than most.

But, given that the book is unlikely to appeal to students or teachers who are not prepared to read widely, this is probably an unfair criticism. At the end of the day, it is an exercise in organisation studies and not literary criticism. For those wanting innovative ways to engage students, this may well be a springboard for a more creative and imaginative management education.

David Goss is professor of organisational behaviour, University of Portsmouth.

Management Lives: Power and Identity in Work Organisations. First Edition

Author - David Knights and Hugh Willmott
ISBN - 0 8039 8333 6 and 8334 4
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 174

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