The gurus we worship in the workplace

These thinkers influence how your desk is organised - or whether you have a job at all. Roger Trapp examines the power of the management theorists
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The Independent Online
The reviews of Charles Handy's latest book on "the changing worlds of organisations" have hardly been ecstatic. But that is unlikely to stop Beyond Certainty (published this week by Hutchinson, pounds 12.99) becoming a best-seller. The reason is simple: Professor Handy is a management guru and, to many, he and his cohorts are a new priesthood. Their books vie for space in airport bookstalls with the novels of Jeffrey Archer and Robert Ludlum, they are often media stars - with a select group earning several thousand dollars every time they stand up - and they attract loyal followings.

They are biggest in the United States, where the national psyche is more geared to self-improvement. But they are increasingly popular on this side of the Atlantic. Industrialists as varied as Sir Peter Parker and Sir John Egan praise their contribution.

The phenomenon of the guru has, according to Carol Kennedy, author of Guide to the Management Gurus, been expanding since the end of the Second World War. Just as sociology was the intellectual preoccupation of the 1960s, management theory sums up the spirit of the business-led 1980s - and continues in the 1990s as the corporate world seeks ways to escape from recession. The past 15 years have seen an explosion of interest in management and the growth of a powerful industry that takes in business schools, publishers and management consultancies.

For instance, business schools, once the preserve of the United States, are springing up everywhere, so that there are now nearly 100 in Britain; business books account for sales of about pounds 25m in Britain and about 20 times that in the United States; and the leading British practitioners of consultancy - which barely existed as a profession a quarter of a century ago - achieved total revenue of more than pounds 1bn last year.

All the parts of this industry feed off each other, so that book publishers, for instance, are inclined to hype up every author with any sort of idea into "the next big thing". Meanwhile, consultancies desperately analyse these thoughts to peddle new services to their clients. Significantly, they also stand to gain hugely from the vogue for "downsizing" or "rightsizing", since such job-cutting manoeuvres almost inevitably leave companies without the capacity to do for themselves the implementation that needs to supplement the gurus' thoughts.

The lines between gurus, business schools and consultants are in any case increasingly blurred. Competitive strategy specialist Michael Porter, for instance, is a director of the Boston-based consultancy Monitor, while Kenichi Ohmae, a leading thinker on global strategy, heads the Tokyo operation of McKinsey. And, as Leo Murray, head of the Cranfield School of Management, says, the schools are increasingly sitting down with companies in order to provide specific guidance. Professor Murray believes that this will lead to two forms of guru emerging: the esteemed long-term thinker and the less celebrated doer.

This growing sophistication also indicates a movement away from a reliance on vague concepts with little basis in reality. "Benchmarking" (comparing the way you do things with companies in other sectors as well as competitors), "total quality management" (concentrating on improving service at all levels of the business) and the like may leave many of us baffled, but other concepts - such as "diversification" and "sticking to the knitting" - have entered everyday business parlance.

If you are curious about whether your organisation has succumbed, look no further than your desk arrangement or who has authority to make a decision. Whether you are spread out or clustered in groups, whether responsibility is retained at the top or devolved, is more likely to be attributable to the influence of a management theory than chance.

Some concepts - especially when, like benchmarking or business process re-engineering (radically redesigning the way we do our work), they are rooted in common sense - are powerful. But the problem is that very few of them can be implemented piecemeal, so the tendency is to chop and change between them - leading to what is known in North America as the Bohica, or "Bend over, here it comes again", syndrome.

In spite of these drawbacks, interest is growing. Business people are being convinced that they live in an ever changing and increasingly complex world, and so need instant solutions to cope with it. The vogue for "empowerment" and other concepts is making managers of us all. As a result, management cannot be left to the executives. Everybody needs to be at least familiar with the buzzwords.

Equally, though, this widening of familiarity can breed a scepticismwhen the gurus are not felt to have provided all the answers.

Handy's latest book is getting the thumbs down largely because it offers no fresh insights about "portfolio working", "shamrock organisations" and the other concepts that so inspired readers of his previous works - The Age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoat. Similarly, Michael Hammer, the former computer science professor at MIT who introduced the world to business process re-engineering, has seen his stock fall as companies have failed to achieve marked benefits.

Tom Peters is arguably still the king of gurus precisely because he has managed to stay a step or two ahead of his fans. In 1982, he and Robert Waterman published the best-seller In Search of Excellence, which singled out several companies as examples of "excellence". Most writers would have been ruined when two-thirds of these quickly fell from grace. Not Peters. A quick about-turn led to his next best-seller Thriving on Chaos beginning with the claim: "There are no excellent companies."

The other thing that keeps Peters at the forefront of many minds is his sense of showmanship. Frequently described as an evangelist or missionary, his stock-in-trade is the walkabout seminar or lecture, which typically ends with him dripping with perspiration and his audience fired with missionary zeal.

It is an act that has - on the back of lecture fees rumoured to amount to $25,000 a time - made him a millionaire. He long since gave up his partnership at the management consultancy McKinsey & Co and now divides his time between north California and Vermont, where he and his wife keep llamas on a farm.

But Peters is not the only one making a fortune out of a concept that some see as the sociology or the cultural studies of the 1980s. Other gurus - notably Porter - earn significantly more than they would in academe through a combination of book royalties, lecture fees and lucrative consulting assignments.

For the most part, consultants are faced with implementing what gurus such as they are talking about. This, says Paul Sparrow, lecturer in human resource management at Manchester Business School, leads to the realisation that there is "a massive gap between the rhetoric and the people in the company".

The result is the fads that even some gurus admit plague their business. Richard Pascale, a Stanford University professor, is probably better known for his graph plotting the shelf lives of management theories than for his belief that the key role of management is to create and break paradigms, or habits of thought. The Institute for Employment Studies' Peter Herriot, who is producing highly regarded work on the practical effects of the sort of things that Handy is talking about, feels - not altogether tongue- in-cheek - that it is almost a fad to talk about fads.

Whenever consultants and academics gather together, they like to try to predict the next fad. Most, though, grow out of the preceding one, as with "transformation", emerging from re-engineering.

In fact, for all the urgings from Pascale and others for a "holistic" approach to management, the fads are likely to continue because, in an uncertain world, nobody really knows what to do. It seems safer to have a go at doing something - even if you change your mind about what it should be - than to be caught doing nothing.

Ten of the best business schools world-wide

Chicago Business School, Chicago, USA

Columbia Business School, New York, USA

Harvard Business School, Boston, USA

INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France

Keio Daigaku, Yokohama, Japan

Kellogg Business School, Illinois, USA

London Business School, UK

Michigan Business School, Ann Arbor, USA

Stanford Business School, Stanford California, USA

Wharton Business School, Philadelphia, USA


International Business Week/Independent