Management: Fuelling a sense of mission

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The Independent Online
In the past three to five years business trends have converged to create the ideal climate for integration across organisations.

The rise of multi-disciplinary, multi-functional teams as a predominant way of working is being fuelled by the realisation that added value can be achieved more cost-effectively through horizontal rather than vertical processes.

One specific case is the trend of reducing the number of suppliers in order to break down traditional barriers between them and their customers.

Volkswagen, under the charismatic leadership of its recently recruited group production director Ignacio Lopez, is just the latest in a long line of companies to signal a strategy of reducing the number of suppliers in order to form much closer relationships with companies that can respond with total propositions rather than single products.

Lean production and other new methods of manufacturing, activity- based costing, business process re- engineering, relationship marketing and the interactive power of information technology are similarly based on the principles and benefits of synergy and the synchronised flow of effort across a system that includes suppliers and customers.

At the same time, the somewhat simplistic reliance on 'mission statements', so popular in the mid-1980s, is being superseded by more integrative frameworks that bring together the organisation's long-term purpose, strategic competence, corporate values and standards of behaviour into one coherent approach.

The work of Andrew Campbell and Michael Goold, of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, using the concept of 'a sense of mission' is a particularly powerful example of this thinking.

Similarly, a growing group of multinational companies, including ABB and Electrolux, is deserting conventional structures revolving around one corporate centre and a dominant home culture.

Instead, these organisations are adopting the notion of an integrated global family of interdependent, yet culturally diverse, business units. In essence they are attempting the ultimate challenge - simultaneous differentiation and integration, which is sometimes referred to as 'think global - act local'.

All of these are exciting developments and have the potential of leading to a new business and management climate; nothing short of a 'management renaissance'.

As with everything, however, there is a shadow, and it seems to be lengthening right now. The fundamental paradox concerns our ability, as individual human beings, to behave consistently in the spirit of integration.

Experience of management behaviour - including my own, I hasten to add - suggests that we find the benefits of integration compelling when it comes to people and activities for which we are responsible. But we tend to fight against it when it requires us to subordinate our own local interests to the good of the greater whole.

This seems to hold true at all levels of management. It also exists in the wider business arena, illustrated by the emerging protectionist pressures within and between free trade zones and the trend against mergers as exemplified recently by the ICI and Racal break-ups.

If the threefold increase in the value of the Racal-Vodafone-Chubb businesses since their demergers is anything to go by, the argument for disintegration of businesses may gain even further momentum.

With such swings in political, social and economic debates likely to continue for some time, we need a better understanding of how to help people see the longer-term benefits of integration and we need to develop practical ways of encouraging them to behave in a more integrative manner.

We must find ways of overcoming the knee-jerk reaction of reverting to parochial behaviour when faced with a crisis if we really do believe in the advantages of an integrative view.

Decision-makers need to understand the basic human need for a focal point for our integrative efforts - one we can tangibly experience, one which touches us as human beings and not just intellectually.

Paul Kennedy's book Preparing for the Twenty-First Century sets out the challenge to our survival over the next 20 years or so. Ultimately it appears to depend on a 'one-world' view, mutual interdependence and our ability to find 'win-win solutions' for all humanity.

Business leaders and managers now have the opportunity to prove that it is possible to cross the final frontier and that you can balance global and local interests, but only by first fostering an integrative spirit at a personal and human level.

Peter Beddowes is dean of Ashridge Management College.