The Fad Motif in Management Scholarship

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

This has been a rather special week. I have, you see, been able to place a tick against an item on my rather lengthy and ever expanding ‘to do list’. I completed a draft chapter that I had been invited to author and within the agreed deadline (although only just!). It might be worth expanding upon this…

Some time ago I was invited by Oxford University Press to prepare a chapter on Management Gurus for an edited volume concerned with Management Practice. I was pleased and rather flattered to receive this offer (in truth, I would probably have asked my colleague Dr Huczynski, of the University of Glasgow, to write this chapter since he produced perhaps the first sustained academic commentary in this arena back in the early 1990s), and so I agreed to produce a chapter on Management’s Gurus. Look closely. The addition of the ‘apostrophe s’ is for me a crucial addition to the title. It is in fact my rather unsubtle way of placing a social distance between my analysis and the position of those who might be inclined to accept what their gurus tell them to think and do, without, in my opinion, sufficient critical reflection.

When I mention a research interest in the gurus of management I am regularly met by two questions:

  1. Who are the gurus?
  2. Do the gurus really produce empty fads?

The answer to these questions is far from straightforward. Well you wouldn’t really expect a clear answer from a Professor, would you?

It is rather difficult to produce a definitive listing of management’s gurus. Priorities change and ideas tend to fall out of fashion. There is probably ‘a famous five’ (including Peter Drucker and Tom Peters) but beyond this elite there is generally no agreement as to who we might place in that category of commentators which has been awarded (sometimes seriously and sometimes more ironically) the title of ‘guru’. In truth the debate about management’s gurus is not so much a discussion about whether or not this category exists; it is instead a sustained competition about who has the best gurus. Indeed it is worth observing that those academics who have attacked management’s gurus have called upon the services of their sociological gurus when launching this broadside!

As to what the gurus do? Well there is no doubt that these commentators produce and trade in fashionable ideas. That fact however should not be taken as confirmation that what the gurus say and do is simply empty and faddish. Nor does it suggest that those who would implement guru theory are engaged in a form of activity that is mindless and imitative. In truth it takes a lot of effort and imagination to implement TQM, ABC or BPR (you can look these up J). Some years ago I produced a paper that develops this line of analysis. You might find this entertaining:

Collins, D. (2001) “The fad motif in management scholarship“, Employee Relations 23(1), pp. 26-37

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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!

Revalidating the MBA Programme

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

The University of Suffolk ‘revalidates’ its degrees periodically. On a year-to-year basis we review the modules that we teach to ensure that these remain both useful and current. Every five years however we pause to engage in a root-and-branch review that, in effect, re-imagines our degrees. This process the University terms ‘revalidation’ and at present we are preparing for the revalidation of our MBA (Master of Business Administration ). What are we doing to re-imagine our MBA? I am glad you asked…

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University of Suffolk Waterfront Building. Photo (C) University of Suffolk

We are making a number of changes designed to ensure that our MBA continues to prepare participants for leadership and executive positions. In a blog I can only highlight a few of these changes so I will pause to pinpoint the following developments:

We have reviewed the content of our modules to ensure that, as far as possible, students work on ‘live’ (you will note I refuse to say ‘real world’) problems. In addition we have added more formative assessments to ensure that, as our students learn to become the ‘practical theorists’ that modern organizations need, they receive timely feedback on their ideas and plans.

Finally (within the confines of this brief account) it is also worth noting that we have changed the titles of our modules. This apparently cosmetic change is, for me, perhaps the most significant development, because it is designed to remind staff and students alike that although we generally refer to ‘management’ and ‘organizations’ as nouns; as things they are in truth more usefully constructed as verbs. And if you hope to make a difference in the (real) world you might do well to recall that managing and organizing are processes that we enact between us…