Turning doers back into thinkers: Consultant calls for an intellectual transformation to sustain companies in the competitive 1990s

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FOR a man who spends about a quarter of the year on holiday, Richard Pascale, the US management guru, is rather depressed. He decided at Harvard Business School that he wasn't cut out for a 'real job' - so he opted to teach, because he loved it. That gets a a quarter of his time, consulting gets another, and writing yet another - leaving the rest for holiday. But while he is happy with these arrangements, he continues to worry about society as a whole.

He is particularly concerned about what he sees as the development of a 'peasantry' created by companies shedding workers whose skills are not seen as critical to their 'competitive advantage'. Mr Pascale is not the first to take the view that the global recession is more than a blip. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic are full of articles about the end of 'jobs for life' and the threat to middle-class values from the loss of management layers. This vision is often countered by upbeat messages of how these trends will free people to take control of their lives and enjoy more than one career. But Mr Pascale paints a darker picture.

'There's a very large chunk of humanity with very limited prospects. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. There's going to be a great many people in this pool,' he said.

The problem is particularly acute in Europe, where fewer people are earning more money for working harder. But in the US, efforts to keep the unemployment rate down by giving people lowly paid jobs are also increasing social division and threatening stability.

It is not just individiuals who are suffering. Businesses are struggling to meet huge challenges. 'There's a very obvious set of conditions that plague most companies. They can see that doing what they know how to do faster and harder isn't enough to take them into the next century,' he said. As a result, they are fighting a rearguard action to find a way to achieve a fundamental repositioning in their markets.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he said that the chief executives of such companies as IBM, Kodak and American Express have recently lost their jobs at least partly because they did not realise the need for their organisations to reinvent themselves or because they could not get a handle on the concept.

Unsurprisingly for someone in his position, he said that this process - he calls it 'transformation' - is one that most companies cannot carry out by themselves without input from the outside. Moreover, he said, it requires more rigorous thinking by the managers as well as by any consultant.

Here, Mr Pascale is anxious to tread carefully. But the thrust of what he said on a recent visit to London is that the education systems of the US and many European countries have conditioned business people to consider themselves doers rather than thinkers. The received wisdom was that the thinkers went off into the media, the civil service and the professions, while the doers got their hands dirty in industry. That also must change, he said.

He concedes that it is difficult to get people 'to think rather than do' but argues that there is no choice when existing approaches have lost their intellectual reputation. As a model he wrote about Ford, which in 1980 went from a dollars 3bn ( pounds 2bn) loss to become the industry leader in earnings, at the same time improving the quality of its products from the worst of the three big US car makers to the best, and raising employee morale. The real trick, he said, is sustaining this kind of change - and that requires constantly moving the boundaries.

Mr Pascale, who has spent about half his consulting time in Europe and has worked with such British-based companies as Thomas Cook, Europcar, BP Exploration and Short Brothers of Belfast, said European audiences are generally more prepared to listen than their US counterparts.

While contending he was not keen to promote a fight among gurus, he lays a lot of the blame on them - or at least on their publishers. His book, Managing on the Edge, published in 1990, is less likely to be remembered for its central theme (that the success of companies depends on constant renewal) than it is for a diagram it contains that demonstrates the brief shelf-life of many management theories.

Although he collaborated with Tom Peters and Robert Waterman on In Search of Excellence, he now says that Mr Peters and a few others have moved close to showbusiness. 'Taken to the extreme, it's just theatre, and that's not sufficient to deal with some problems.'

He said some publishers now demand that the themes of management books be boiled down to a single sentence. Even though he is noted for his wide approach, Mr Pascale worries that if he says he is taking a holistic view, people will ask him for one sentence on that.

'The thing that's hardest to get across with US audiences is that we're caught up in a game. You pitch your message at a simplistic level, and it's an assumption that the customer won't buy it unless it's simple.'

He says it recalls the policy of a company he once advised. It had a breakfast food called Fads, with the cereal made into shapes that were popular with children at the time, such as dinosaurs. 'We laugh at kids, when we're not so different from them in business books.' This would not matter so much if the simplistic approach did not mean that almost anything said in management is likely to be applied in a superficial and piecemeal fashion - with 'underwhelming results'.

When he first discussed this syndrome seven years ago, he was given short shrift. After all, the boom was still steaming ahead, and one of his earliest audiences was the Young Presidents' Organisation, a group of top US executives filled with youthful enthusiasm and optimism. But he said he gets a better reception these days.

A TV programme about Mr Pascale's work triggered such widespread interest that it has resulted in a forthcoming series of seven BBC Executive Videos, with him as presenter. *

He says European audiences show more interest in experimentation. While the American entrepreneurial spirit remains undiminished, the established corporations appear conservative and attached to short-term 'fix it' views.

'Both are quite conscious that the industrial setting is quite sober. But the sense of possibility is greater in Western Europe than in the US. I think business people are behaving as if there is a united Europe, and they are prepared for that.'

* For information: BBC Executive Videos, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London W12 0TT

(Photograph omitted)