Rosabeth Moss Kanter has it to a tee. One of the relatively few female management gurus, she combines an impressive academic pedigree with the profession's baser arts.
Much sought after as a consultant by electronics companies, she firmly believes there is no management problem so intractable that it cannot be tackled with a well-chosen acronym or multi-point plan.
Ms Kanter was in ebullient form at the recent International Management Symposium at Switzerland's St Gallen business school, where she outlined her five 'F's for business success. The gathering of managers, academics and students from the world's top business schools was an ideal congregation for a sermon of unimpeachable orthodoxy. Ms Kanter told her audience that a successful company must be focused, fast, flexible, friendly and fun:
Companies should be focused so they operate only in areas where they are excellent in all dimensions, not just the best in a local market. 'Specialisation versus diversification' has long been a key debate in popular management science, with the trials of General Motors and others giving the pro- specialisation faction the upper hand. They point, for example, to the way IBM is being 'nibbled to death' by light-footed and specialised competitors.
Speed is essential to cope with a rapidly changing business, government and regulatory environments. Ms Kanter urges companies to pursue steady incremental improvements rather than big break-throughs in product and process technology that require long lead-times.
Fast response to opportunities requires flexibility, especially in the use of employees. Job definitions should be broad, project teams should bridge functions and departments, and employees should be given professional tools and support to achieve their objectives.
Friendliness towards suppliers and customers is also important. Focused companies naturally need more partners as they carry out fewer functions themselves. This argues for long-term relationships between companies, rather than using frequently renewed contracts to keep costs low.
A firm that is fun to work for gets more value from its employees. The problem with promoting flexibility among employees is that it necessitates lots of training and frequent meetings. The key is to ensure that people feel they are controlling the process of change.
Most of Ms Kanter's conclusions appear straightforward common sense. After all, one would hardly expect successful companies to be unfocused, slow, inflexible, unfriendly and unpleasant to work for.
But her conclusions are not quite as uncontentious as they appear. She is quick to criticise US and European organisations for taking four to six times as long as their Japanese counterparts to bring new products to market. It was ironic, therefore, that in the same week that she addressed the St Gallen conference, Japan's renowned Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) urged Japanese firms to extend lead times and slow their product flow.
More fundamentally, Ms Kanter's approach is suffused with the dominant orthodoxy of current management thinking: that management and innovation should be 'bottom-up', with employees at the lowest level empowered and rewarded to ensure the company provides what the customer wants.
But the gurus need to be more convincing on this point. 'Bottom up' employee empowerment has a cuddly 1990s ring, but innovative companies such as Swatch, the Swiss watch- maker, have shown that anticipating consumer wishes rather than responding to them is the route to real success.
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