Open Eye: A heretic at management's altar

Stephen Pattison's new book claims that management theory has become one of the great religious faiths of the late 20th century. Is he serious?
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The Independent Online
Best described as "quietly passionate", the Open University lecturer Stephen Pattison is a mild-mannered academic with a background in theology and public services. He's an unlikely revolutionary. Yet his latest book, The Faith of the Managers, looks as if it will lay a literary landmine under one of the most cherished icons of our time: management.

According to Stephen, management theory is the great unacknowledged religious faith of the late 20th century. And the sooner we acknowledge it, the better for all our businesses and public services.

Sounds a bit off the wall? Essentially, his argument runs like this: over the last 20 years many organisations in the voluntary and public sectors have experienced a management revolution, with "gurus" such as the American Tom Peters and our own Charles Handy becoming cultural heroes. The language and techniques of management theory, with its "total quality management", "appraisals" and "performance-related pay", have penetrated into virtually every workplace. However, far from being an empirically- based and rational activity, much of modern management practice depends upon "unproven and unprovable assumptions - faith assumptions about reality".

"Management is a surrogate religion, in the sense that it is full of beliefs, myths and metaphors that provide a firm world view, a way people can make sense of their existence. What popular religion is selling is hope - the possibility of control of the future.

"In particular it has many aspects which seem surprisingly the same as Christianity, particularly charismatic Christianity, and particularly conversionist charismatic Christianity."

So managers are going around waving tambourines and shouting "hallelujah"? Not exactly, though the techniques of popular management gurus such as Tom Peters often mirror 19th-century revivalist meetings.

"Peters explicitly uses the language of Old Testament prophecy. The scenario he paints is this: there is a threat from outside (competition), chaos is all around - but if you listen to me you can control the future. Buy my book, follow my methods, and you can come out on top of the chaos, not underneath it.

"The innate optimism of the message reflects Christian eschatology: `The Kingdom of God will come, all will be well'. He's using the same kind of techniques and ideas religious people have used for decades."

But surely the need for religion is in decline in the latter half of the 20th century?

"Not a bit of it. We live in an age of anxiety - millennium tension. People's lives and institutions are changing at a rapid pace and they need a narrative to explain everything. As the saying goes: `When people stop believing in God, they believe in anything'."

But he isn't saying throw out the management theory with the horoscopes and snake-oil. On the contrary, Stephen thinks good management is important, admiring writers such as Handy. "I don't want to be seen as management bashing. And there's a difference between what's being taught in Harvard Business School, and some of the crude `managerialism' put into practice by people who haven't thought about it.

"In the real world, resources are scarce and we need to compete and be very well organised. I don't see any alternative to managers. We don't need managers to abandon what they are doing, but it might help if they became more critical of what they are doing and of the beliefs they are adopting. Management techniques are not innocent; they shape your world view."

Stephen gives as an example the use of the word "mission". "All organisations now have `missions' and `visions' - the language of apocalypse is rife, particularly in public service. But mission is metaphor, and has multiple meanings and effects. It's good in that it suggests purpose and direction, but it also has an aggressive form, leading us to see other people as enemies or heathens, to be assimilated or annihilated. A lot of damage has been done in public service by the idea of individual organisations having their own missions. It means we need to keep our ideas to ourselves, not share them, because those out there are competitors. Implicitly it's about your organisation's own survival, not what good it may do."

Another of Stephen's targets is the "virtue" of management. "In the idealism and perfectionism implicit in things such as total quality management, there is no notion that it isn't always possible to give people everything they want, when they want it. In practice, certainly in organisations such as the health service, there are not enough resources to do this, and both providers and users of the service are being oppressed by an ideal they cannot meet." This leads to a syndrome which Stephen designates as MADD - mutually assured denigration and disappointment. "It is very disempowering and misery-making."

Managers may well ask: why take advice from an OU academic working not in the OU's large and thriving Business School, but in its School of Health and Social Welfare?

In fact, Stephen's breadth of experience makes him difficult to dismiss lightly. From reading theology at university and researching ethics, he went into the NHS as chief officer for a community health council. During that time he took a degree in public sector management. When he joined the OU in 1990, management mechanisms such as staff appraisal, five-year planning and change mechanism were just beginning to be introduced. Stephen's writing is driven by this experience, and by the desire to provide an alternative "worm's-eye view" of the management practices with which most of us have to live.

"Most of us are more managed than managing, but the view of the managed rarely gets into print. Managers and management theorists have a `symbiotic relationship' which doesn't encourage the critical approach."

Working at the OU, on the other hand, does. "The ethos of the OU is that it has always had a broad view of what it means to be human."

Stephen Pattison is a senior lecturer in the OU's school of health and social welfare. Currently writing for a forthcoming course on practice in health and social care, he is also engaged in a research project funded by the King's Fund, an NHS charity that looks at the values and beliefs held by people working in the health service.