Inside Business: Keep an eye on the ball

Robert Heller's new book examines how European firms can compete globally, reports Roger Trapp

Anybody picking up a copy of Robert Heller's latest book will find it difficult to overcome a sense of foreboding. The title, In Search of European Excellence, is so reminiscent of the Tom Peters and Robert Waterman best-seller, in which many of the once-great case studies soon fell from grace, that it looks as if the doyen of British management journalists is unnecessarily tempting fate.

But Mr Heller is too smart for that. He does not even go in for lengthy examinations of specific companies. Rather, different organisations are brought in and out of the picture to illustrate points good and bad.

Accordingly, Marks & Spencer is introduced for a brief section on the development of the concept of the "virtual organisation". Pointing out that "M&S has been a manufacturer without factories ever since the founder, Michael Marks, decided to sell all goods at the fixed price of a penny", he then explores the tensions created when a company seeks to hang on to its reputation as a benevolent employer while not maintaining total control over the people and operations working on its behalf.

Similarly, he looks at LucasVarity to examine the problems that are threatening to undermine the 1996 merger that soon ceased to be thought of as a genuine marriage. In particular, he pours doubt on the ability of the much-touted concept of re-engineering to bring about a substantial change in fortunes.

Emphasising the limitations of an approach that even its proponents accept has a high failure rate, he says that LucasVarity appears to be one of those companies where spectacular results have been achieved in parts of the organisation while overall performance continues to disappoint.

"The key lesson of the failed re-engineers is that initiatives to reshape businesses and their cultures often founder because top managements, while preaching revolution, in practice never go beyond narrow reform," he adds.

This sounds defeatist, but he is not totally without hope. Conscious that he is writing at a time when it is becoming widely perceived that Europe is falling behind the United States and Asia in the take-up of new technologies and approaches to business, he suggests that "a new breed of excellent managers" is emerging to take up the challenge of trying to catch up with the Americans and Japanese.

No doubt also conscious that business readers like action plans, he sets out 10 "vital renaissance strategies" that are adopted by leaders desperate not to take their charges into the footsteps of those who converted great companies into not-so-great ones.

These are: devolving leadership without losing control or direction; driving radical change in the entire corporate system, not just in its parts; reshaping culture to achieve long-term success; dividing to rule, winning the rewards of smallness while staying or growing large; exploiting the organisation by new approaches to central direction; keeping the competitive edge in a world where the old ways of winning no longer work; achieving constant renewal by stopping success from sowing the seeds of decay; managing the motivators so that people can motivate themselves; making team-working work, the new, indispensable skill; and achieving total management quality by managing everything much better.

Many of the still mainly American leaders that have gone down this route are heading young, high-tech companies. As Mr Heller points out in his book (published by HarperCollins at pounds 20) the "two streams" of new technology and new management ideas flow together. But executives such as Jack Welch at General Electric of the United States and Robert Goizueta of Coca-Cola are recognising that older organisations must face up to what management guru Peter Drucker refers to as "the new realities".

There does, however, appear to be one significant problem; another development of the modern world is the apparently endless desire to personalise everything, so that any kind of success or failure at an organisation is put down to the role of one person.

Accordingly, the apparently successful shift in focus from manufacturing to marketing at the sports goods company Adidas is, as Heller describes, attributed to the arrival of Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the former Saatchi chief, as chairman and chief executive, while everybody is familiar with how Liam Strong, the Sears boss, was blamed for everything that went wrong at the retailer when he could not possibly have been responsible for everything.

Nevertheless, as the likes of Bill Gates of Microsoft and Andy Grove of Intel are continually reminding us, the stakes are too high for European companies to shrink from such obstacles. Mr Heller's real theme is to be bold and to not be hemmed in by the old ways.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Miracle muffin: chemicals can keep a muffin looking good at least a month after it was bought
food + drinkThe alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
News
business
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
An 'Einstein cross', just above the multicoloured cross, shows four spots of yellow light, where the light from a distant supernova is distorted by 'gravitational lensing'
science
Voices
A recent rise in net migration has been considered bad news for the Government
voicesYet when we talk about it, the national media goes into a frenzy, says Nigel Farage
Sport
Johnny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
footballI don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
News
people
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Guru Careers: Executive Assistant / PA

£30 - 35k + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Executive Assist...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Reach Volunteering: External Finance Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable