Mintzberg, Managers, and Meetings

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

For about twenty-five years now I have been lecturing students about the work of Henry Mintzberg. During the 1970s, Mintzberg published a ground-breaking piece of research that was instantly recognised as a management classic. Building upon a very small sample of Executive decision-makers (literally a hand full of diaries), Mintzberg basically explained just why it is that managers seem to spend so much time in meetings. On January 2nd 2017, I became Head of Suffolk Business School. As a consequence I stopped teaching this…and started living it.

Today my working day started just after 7am. I had an 8am meeting scheduled and arrived early to get a head-start on the day (there are ALWAYS e-mails). I was in truth not too bothered by the prospect of this early meeting because I had been promised that it would commence and be built around bacon rolls. The problem being that I never made it to the meeting. Something came up that required my attention so I had to forgo breakfast. Having resolved this issue I then picked up a cup of coffee and a manuscript that the editor of Organization has invited me to review.

I read the paper and made some notes (it’s quite good but needs some further analytical and structural development) preparatory to the completion of the formal review that I will submit some time over the next few weeks. At 09:30 I met with colleagues from HRM and when this meeting concluded it was time to speak with a colleague from Portugal who will, I hope, visit the University in May. When I complete this blog post I will scuttle off to a meeting convened to discuss student recruitment. Later I will ‘catch-up’ with the Deputy Head of School and with my very patient PA before I have another meeting with HR.

This is pretty much how my days unfold. So just why do managers spend so much time in meetings? I thought you might ask this…

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Mintzberg. Photo (C) http://www.mintzberg.org

Mintzberg suggests that managers spend so much of each day in face-to-face meetings simply because this is about the best means of securing managerial ends and processes. But why is this is the case? It’s simple really: Mintzberg suggests that managing yourself and managing others is challenging and rewarding because this sort of work involves an on-going negotiation as to a) what should be done b) who should actually do this and c) who should cover the cost. And in complex hierarchies with limited budgets – such as, say, the University of Suffolk – this is perhaps more complex than you might imagine because there will be lots of managers; lots of managerial goals; lots of alternative courses of action and consequently many different ways in which the ‘right thing’ to do might be conceptualised and pursued.

But on Monday…my diary looks a little more relaxed…because on Monday I will be in a tiny rural village in south-west France en vancances. The village is tiny but it is steeped in history: The great French politician Gambetta attended school in this village. But this place has for me an altogether more alluring appeal for I will be staying in a house that has no land-line, no internet access and only an intermittent mobile telephone signal.

You see, those who manage also need to set time aside for reflection, so before my travelling companions awaken I will spend a part of each morning revising a now overdue manuscript on management gurus. When I return I might share a little of this reflection. Until then…adieu!

What is a ‘real job’?

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

As someone who has devoted his adult life to teaching and researching the business of management I am, routinely, challenged by journalists and by management executives as to my experience of the ‘real world’ and whether I have ever held down ‘a proper job’. These days I meet this sort of challenge head-on. If I am honest I am altogether too old and just too Scottish to indulge this sort of question. So I now respond to this inquiry by asking another question, ‘How might we know if something is real?’

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And when this is greeted by a quizzical look I add, ‘If I had spent the last 27 years working within a large corporate concern such as, say, Coca Cola you would be impressed and would not trouble yourself to ask such a question. You would readily acknowledge that I had, indeed, held down ‘a proper job’ in the ‘real world’. But what makes the production of a syrupy carbonated liquid somehow more real; more useful; indeed more noble than a career devoted to researching and teaching within Universities which are, after all, large, complex and often highly politicised organizations?’

As I’ve said before: you don’t looks sideways at your GP and say, ‘So you’ve never been anything apart from a doctor!’ I’ve dedicated my adult like to researching business, to understanding the complex problems that managers face every day – last I checked, Universities, too, had managers; struggled with strategic change; had to think about policy and profit. It takes a long time to become an expert… and I’m still working on it.

Teaching Business Ethics Through Sportsmanship

Dr Tom Vine presented at the Ensors sponsored Quay To Growth Business Breakfast at the University of Suffolk on Thursday 2 March. He discussed some new research taking place in the Suffolk Business School, on teaching Business Ethics using the principles of sportsmanship:

Business Ethics is traditionally taught through philosophy, and is often driven by the same key, Western philosophers: Kant, Aristotle, Marx, Nietzsche, to name a few. The biased is on abstract philosopher, and irrespective of the level of study (undergraduate or postgraduate), teaching falls back on a classical philosophical framework.

But here we have a problem – business students have not enrolled on a philosophy degree, and they can struggle with the material. Students may recognise that there is value to the reading and engagement with the module, but they are often looking for practical nuggets that will help them in their future careers – how can they be a better business person?

Here at the Suffolk Business School, we decided to start exploring alternatives to this traditional method of teaching, and have realised that we can supplement this with a different perspective – the idea of sportsmanship. Solomon (2004) even argues that good sportsmanship and fair play are essential obligations to business ethics, although he makes this statement free from further research or investigation. We decided to delve deeper, to take advantage of the connections between sportsmanship and businessmanship in a pedagogical sense.

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We know that there is a language of sportsmanship in business – considering the ‘ballcourt figure’, or to ‘get the ball rolling’. We ‘keep our eye on the ball’, or we have to ‘take it on the chin’. Clients ‘move the goalposts’, and competitors ‘play hardball’. Where has this linguistic connection between sports and business come from?

As in sports, there are competitors in business; there are rules by which we must play and conduct business; there are parallels in respect to betrayal. There is an sense of ‘fair play’ and behaviour that is driven by a moral reasoning.

So why do we think this approach works? Well, we know that sport has wide appeal – there is an already well established cultural understanding of what it means to be a good sportsman, even if a student does not follow a particular sport or team avidly. This allows our students to engage immediately, with something they can relate to on a fundamental level. Sportsmanship is learned at an early age – unlike philosophy. It is also inherently personal – learning of sportsmanship is experiential, much like how it is to be a good business person. These things make learning business ethics through sportsmanship intellectually accessible to students, who perhaps did not realise they would be embarking on philosophy as part of their business degree.

This is part of an ongoing research project by Dr Tom Vine and Dr Will Thomas. If you are interested in this research, please contact talkbusiness@uos.ac.uk