Show the world who's boss

The week on radio
  • @RobertHanks
It's possible that in a few years' time, once the dust has settled, historians will come to see that the most destructive phenomenon of the 20th century has been the dominance of management theory. This may sound unlikely, but consider the competition: Stalinism, Nazism - aren't these extreme applications of management theory? What was the Cultural Revolution but re-engineering? What was the First World War but an ambitious example of downsizing, carried out by governments working in co-operation?

What links all these things and management theory is that they all involve reducing people to numbers - perceiving them in essentially economic terms, as units of production and consumption. Certainly Haig's management of his bit of the Western Front during the Great War makes far more sense if you work on the assumption that he regarded conscripted soldiers as disposable, a regrettably inefficient means of mopping up enemy firepower, like a sort of human kitchen-roll.

The connection wasn't made explicitly, but certainly seemed to lie behind Time and Motion Man (Radio 4, last Saturday), a dramatised feature about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American industrialist who invented time- and-motion studies. In 1911, Taylor testified before a special congressional committee after the introduction of his management methods into American arsenals and navy yards had sparked protests and strikes, and Mark Rickards used the transcripts (performed by the excellent Colin Stinton and Shane Rimmer) as the framing device for an informative, impressionistic study of how lives have been damaged by the pursuit of efficiency.

Behind Taylor's theories lay a benevolent justification: that only by increasing productivity could mankind raise his standard of living. But as he saw it, such an increase faced two massive obstacles: the laziness and the stupidity of the working man. The solution, Taylor decided, was minute supervision, to get the working man to work more efficiently, and to stop him skiving off to the toilets for a fag every 10 minutes.

Taylor's attempt to formulate principles of "scientific management" clearly had a lot in common with the Marxist attempt to create a scientific version of history. In both cases, an enterprise that started out with philanthropic aims ran up against the profoundly irrational, irreducible nature of human desire; and, in both cases, the result was conflict. But admitting that resemblance, and the awfulness of management theory, you could still feel that Rickards' programme went a tad over the top, with its great slabs of elegiac string music. In the end, all that it came up with to condemn Taylor was some sub-Arthur Miller rhetoric, some archive tape of Margaret Thatcher on the need to produce more, and extracts from I'm All Right, Jack. This is hardly the court of history in session.

For a more balanced view of management, turn to Patrick Wright's Here Comes the Boss (Radio 4, Friday), billed as a history of changing ideas about management. The first two programmes looked at British industry's post-war enthusiasm for adopting military methods, and Wilfred Brown's experiments in worker participation in the Fifties and Sixties. This week, Wright introduced us to "Excellence" - a distressingly vague concept taken up enthusiastically by local councils in West Yorkshire in the 1980s. As a result, Huddersfield played host to a concert by REM. It would have been nice to know whether Wright regarded this as a triumph or an absurdity; so in this respect, an inefficient programme. Otherwise, excellence all round.