The end of management

I’m returning to the debate about the end of the organisation with Josien and Joitske both having since added to the discussion.

The original proposition by Gilbert forsees change in the predominent “unit of interest”, the organisation, without clarifying what is meant by that except to differentiate from the geographical community.

I think we are mainly talking about structures which employ people. This holds even in the voluntary sector which is still based on hierarchical principles with a full time paid staff treating the volunteers either as customers or low cost labour.

So Gilbert is arguing that the new communications channels facilitated by internet technology will change the internal structure of the organisation, and also blur the boundaries between organisations such that new forms appear which are no longer recognisable as the old organisations at all. The hierarchical and insular characteristics are being destabilised and displaced.

Josien initially agrees and cites some examples of changes we can expect to emerge:

  • people centred, not organization centered
  • organic, community like
  • vertical, hierarchical communication replaced by horizontal many-to-many communication
  • role switching / bottom up: no fixed positions
  • increased permeability, boundaries are fluid and flexible
  • personal and work identities mix
  • creative commons, building upon each others work, less defence mechanisms
  • fuzz and flux: much larger tolerance for messyness, abundance and constant change over time
  • identifying with people, causes, values, not organizations
  • use of multimodal communications; attracting transliterate people

I think the essence of what is being offered here is a fundamental shift in power away from the employing organisation and towards the individual citizen. That would be quite extraordinary, revolutionary even. So what is it that ties people into unequal relationships with the employing organisations in the first place? Well it’s the need to earn a wage in order to pay for rent and food etc. This has been the case ever since we were chased off our own land and turned into wage labourers with the first industrial revolution. So now the internet will set us all free from this servitude? Well I think it could play a role in doing so, but not the evolutionary role that is being marked out. A gradual shift away from organisations while they are not looking, handing all the power over to individuals acting collectively as communities is not on the cards in my opinion, because this scenario conveniently ignores the existence of the state. Whether it be the nation state, the UN, the IMF, NATO, the EU or whatever there are huge forces at work with a vested interest in maintaining the dependence of individuals upon wage labour relationships in order to maintain the flow of profit from the poor to the rich. And they control the infrastructure, education and armed forces as means to police their own continued position of power.

So my initial argument is that the economic relations determine the social structures, that organisations exist to exploit the employer/employee relationship and that changes in communications, no matter how promising are secondary to this.

But I could be wrong.

What if the change in communications were able to facilitate new economic relationships all by themselves without the people even needing to lift a finger to overthrow the old states?

According to the theory of the Long Tail, new technology can reduce the cost of production or distribution such that existing markets are totally disrupted. Dinosaur corporations are then replaced by new, agile startups empowering networks of freelancers and massed amateurs.

So we can all quit working for IBM and Tesco and just sell each other collectibles via eBay? Well in actual fact, some of us really can do that but it isn’t the basis for a whole new economy. The long tail phenomenon only affects certain segments of certain markets. As I pointed out, we still need shelter, food and other basic necessities provided and that is all under the control of a long established order, seemingly unthreatened by Google and Facebook.

In fact the ‘new technology’ of the threshing machine, printing press, coal, steam, steel, radio, electricity and so on could have ushered in a new society based on common ownership and democratic administration but we’re still waiting for that two or four hundred years later because in that struggle for power, the old order won. History tends to repeat itself, but not always in the same way.

Joitske then joined the debate with a kind of middle position.

“The organization is there to stay, but the manager is not”

which brings up the question of the role of management within organisations which is tied up with the role of the middle class in the bourgeois state. It’s long been known that self-organised groups of people can produce more effectively without having parasitic supervisors getting in the way. That’s not to say that we don’t ever need leadership, but that in natural structures leadership emerges from amongst the community rather than being imposed and directed from above or outside.

Joitske claims that “more and more organizations thrive on knowledge workers” and I think that’s another important point which could help to clarify our debate here because as Josien observed in her second post, “When you immerse yourself in web2.0 and only talk (or rather, skype, phone, chat, blog, tweet) with others that populate this small universe, it is easy to think differently.”

How many knowledge workers can the economy support as a percentage of the total population and what exactly is a knowledge worker putting back into society?

Maybe the transition from management to knowledge worker is just the old petit bourgeoisie re-shuffling their own deck of cards, with no real impact for the foundations of society, which is based on the production of socially necessary ( as determined by the market) goods and services, oblivious to the real human needs and environmental impact.

Because really we are all ‘knowledge workers’ and always have been. The distinction between workers ‘by hand and by brain’ is a false one, injected in the nineteenth century by the Fabians and others. Yes, there are laborious unfulfilling repetitive tasks which need to be performed by somebody, but try doing any of them without a brain. If any job can be reduced to manual tasks only then it has already been replaced by machinery. So if we are all honing and deploying our own knowledge and skills in every area of life then what is special or different about these so-called knowledge workers?

I think I’ll just end with the question for now, not having even dealt with so many more points from Josien, Joitske and others, but looking forward to reading further contributions and comments as we attempt to both broaden and get to the nub of an interesting debate, or at least I hope so.

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7 Responses to The end of management

  1. Andy, just wanted to thank you for your frank and succinct comment on the 30DC forum about the “backlinks” product. Very helpful.

  2. Bev Trayner says:

    This conversation dances on the edge of something I’m puzzling about, except that your context is within organisations i.e. “the organisation” as a given.

    What interests me is the vehicle for that organisation. Is it a limited company? A Joint Venture? A network of companies, joint ventures. How do you harness people’s individual and joint needs for making a living, learning, networking….??

  3. Hi Andy

    This is such a huge topic (set of inter-linked, inter-discplinary topics) that I find it difficult to know where to start. I explored ’employee empowerment’ in my doctoral thesis in the mid 90s and much of the currently overblown rhetoric, in my view, about a shift of power in favour of employees / workforce participants resonates with what was being written about then. This was in the context of lean manufacturing and the need to appropriate or harness the tacit knowledge of shopflor operators. I concluded that ’empowerment’ was a shift in power towards those with valuable skills, and the outcome of having to treat people with respect and recognise the value / bargaining power inherent in their tacit knowlege. Hardly earth-shattering.

    Did workplace relations radically change? Nah.

    Two things you might find interesting.

    Firstly, a paper by James R. Barker, in the Administrative Quartely, vol. 38 in 1993, called ‘Tightening The Iron Cage: Concertice Control In Self-managing teams. This is from the abstract:

    “The study investigates how the organization’s members developed a system of value-based normative rules that controlled their actions more powerfully and completely than the former system. I describe the organization and its members and provide a detailed account of the dynamics that emerged as concertive control became manifest through the members’ interactions. This account depicts how concertive control evolved from the value consensus of the company’s team workers to a system of normative rules that became increasingly rationalized. Contrary to some proponents of such systems, concertive control did not free these workers from Weber’s iron cage of rational control. Instead, the concertive system, as it became manifest in this case, appeared to draw the iron cage tighter and to constrain the organization’s members more powerfully.”

    In other words, group dynamics can evolve and reinforce tighter control and compliance than any formal management system ever could.

    Which brings me to my second point. One of my heros is Karl Weick. His ‘Social Psychology of Organising” is a masterpiece. He says there is no such thing as an organisation; it is not a tangible entity. All you have at any given time are flows of people and information linked by inter-dependent relationships. He also says that adopting a minimalist approach to understanding organisational dynamics is a productive place to start. He claims that if you can understand how 9 people interact, you can understand how thousands interact.

    Anyway, my conclusion is this: even if organisations, for want of a better word, do re-structure and reform away from a supposedly dominant hierarchical form to more networked eco-systems (“hierarchical and insular characteristics are being destabilised and displaced”), human behaviour does not change. I have experienced this in online groups, where conflict, power, manipulation (real or perceived) has been as much in evidence as in any formal organisation I have ever worked in.

    Whatever the structures end up loking like (fragmented across time, geography and culture) people will communicate, miscommunicate, seek power, collaborate, etc exactly as they always have done. IMHO.

    I am not sure if any of this makes sense to anyone else.

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