The Troubleshooter maps a new path for managers: John Harvey-Jones has put his sensible thoughts in print, writes Roger Trapp

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The Independent Online
SIR JOHN Harvey-Jones is that rare thing: a successful businessman who is also a media star. With bluff good sense to match his garish ties, he has introduced the real world of commerce to the nation's living rooms via two series of Troubleshooter. All of this should help make his latest book, Managing to Survive, a runaway success.

But although it is subtitled A Guide to Management through the 1990s, those who buy it should not think it provides any magic solutions or quick fixes for dealing with an era that most commentators agree will be tougher than any before. Sir John himself distrusts the notion of instant panaceas.

'The difficulty is that there can never be any single correct solution for any management problem, or any all-embracing system which will carry one through a particular situation or period of time.

'Most ideas on management have been around for a very long time, and the skill of the manager consists in knowing them all and, rather as he might choose the appropriate golf club for a particular situation, choosing the particular ideas which are most appropriate for the position and time in which he finds himself,' he writes at the outset.

Nor does the author have any particularly original insights. Nobody would argue with him over the importance he attaches to understanding the opportunities provided by the single European market, the breaking down of the old order in Eastern Europe and information technology.

Where he is strong is in drawing on his experience, mostly with ICI but also with the companies he has visited for Troubleshooter, to offer entertaining lessons for people seeking to follow in his footsteps.

In a section entitled 'Where to Go in the Wild Wood', he talks of the need for the senior management of an organisation to choose the direction in which they want to go.

'I know of some excellent companies which have built their businesses entirely on 'managing' the total supply of a required service to another business, be it treated water, transport or distribution.'

In contrast is the 'surprising number of people who have believed that their customers can be forced to react in particular ways' - with an extreme example the banks, which have 'repeatedly carried out actions for their own administrative and commercial benefit, and expected that their customers would have to lump it'.

As well as urging greater concentration on service, he adds his voice to the clamour for smaller, more flexible business units. He recalls that when he took over as chairman of ICI - which has, of course, since decided to split in two - he was 'astounded to realise that I was the only person in the company who had the ultimate organisational responsibility for the profit of the entire company'.

He does not advocate the break-up of all large organisations, just that they should 'emulate the advantages of small, compact businesses, while retaining the advantages of their own large size'.

But even with his insistence on the greater importance of money, in the sense of cash, he makes a heart-warming case for managers recognising the needs of people.

'In the nineties it isn't just women who have to follow split careers. Everyone with a technical background will require 'retread' times and increasingly they will need to take time out to study,' he writes.

He says that it is imperative that companies behave as if they mean those statements in their annual reports describing their employees as their 'greatest resource'.

As a slim - albeit in places repetitive and loosely written - volume, it has obvious appeal to the harassed manager trying to make sense of the changing times. If it becomes a bestseller, British business could become a more humane and better- directed place in which to work.

(Photograph omitted)