Inside Business: No place for control freaks

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The Independent Online
IT IS often said that just because something is obvious it does not mean that it is done. And nowhere can this be more true than in business, in particular management.

For instance, we all know - intuitively or from experience - that results are in a large way dependent on how the people producing them are treated. This does not necessarily mean employees should be showered with monetary rewards. It is, after all, increasingly acknowledged that people are motivated by more than money.

No, much more important are such factors as personal responsibility, feeling valued and, uncool as it may be to say it, a sense of pride in what they are doing. At a time when companies need to do more than just turn up to deliver returns for shareholders, even consultants who normally crunch numbers are championing what they believe to be the prerequisites for innovation.

You may say these are not such challenging aspirations. Indeed, a few organisations have made great strides in achieving them - coming up with the results to prove it year after year. But why are so many others failing to measure up?

The question is given added pertinence by the appearance of two books that - though very different in approach and written by authors who seem to have little in common apart from a belief that you don't have to wear a suit and tie to work - both express extreme disapproval of the way in which most business is conducted.

In Open Minds (Orion Business, pounds 18.99), Andy Law describes how he and a group of colleagues sought to turn the world of advertising on its head when they created an agency, St Luke's, that is unusual in two respects: it is owned by its employees and it is not named after its founders.

Mr Law says St Luke's is not proposing itself as a model for how every type of business should be run. But readers of his thought- provoking book will know he does not set much store by following the received wisdom of practitioners and gurus.

The unstructured and free-wheeling atmosphere at St Luke's would appeal to Barry Gibbons, the former chairman and chief executive of Burger King, whose latest knockabout tome is titled If You Want to Make God Really Laugh Show Him Your Business Plan (Capstone, pounds 15.99). Subtitled "101 universal laws of business", it is a series of apparently random swipes at many of the ills of modern business we all recognise - downsizing, empowerment and the rest.

But perhaps his abiding theme - encapsulated as "doubleact", or the process whereby decent people become "lying, insensitive, economically challenged, abusive morons the minute they enter the workplace" - is that people think they must behave differently from the way they do at home.

Mr Law reckons there are few organisations like his because those in charge fear losing control. And he is largely right. But the fear goes much deeper than that. Indeed, it is probably the most prevalent emotion at work today - and not just because so many people are insecure about their jobs.

Many organisations are reacting to such problems as overstated profit figures and similar scandals - themselves attributable to fear of missing targets - by reversing the process of decentralisation. The danger, therefore, is that the hatches will be battened down in preparation for the economic storms ahead.

That would be a mistake. It is surely obvious that encouraging employees at all levels to to feel involved - so they come up with ideas for creating new business and improving efficiency - will provide much more effective protection than concentrating control and, by implication, wisdom at the top.

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