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The Best of the Rest
Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Charles Handy
Since the success of Tom Peters, many new management thinkers have tried to become gurus. There are gurus who compare business with sport, there are gurus who say that business should learn the lessons of religion and, of course, there are gurus who simply state the obvious.
The truth is that the business world is now so competitive that companies are ready to pay huge amounts of money for almost any new ideas. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a real management guru and someone who just wants to get rich quickly.
But as well as Taylor, Sloan, Drucker and Peters, there are two other management thinkers who are certainly great modern gurus - Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Charles Handy.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter is one of the very few women management gurus. She has spent her working life studying the problems of large companies and the ways they have to change to compete in the modern world. She believes that large companies today are in a kind of Olympic Games for business. She says that just like the Olympics, business is now an international competition. And just like the Olympics, modern business tests the skill and strength of people who work on their own and people who work in teams. But, of course, the big difference between business and the real Olympics is the kind of games that are played.
According to Kanter, companies now find that they are playing games like the one in the children’s story Alice In Wonderland. In the Alice In Wonderland game, the equipment is always different from one moment to the next. In modern business, she says, it’s exactly the same situation. In Alice In Wonderland, the rules of the game are always changing. In modern business, it’s the same thing again; nobody knows what will happen next. And in Alice In Wonderland, the game is often interrupted by a mad Queen who shouts, ‘Off with his head!’, for no good reason. So what’s the comparison here? Well, most business people would probably agree that their plans are too often destroyed by strange people for no good reason at all! So how can companies succeed in this kind of game? Kanter says that they need to have the size and strength of the old big businesses, but they also need to be as quick and inventive as a modern small business.
Kanter says that if big businesses want to continue to be successful, then they must learn to dance.
Charles Handy is an Irishman who shares Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s interest in the idea of change. Handy had a successful working life with the oil company, Shell, before he became a management writer and a teacher at business schools. But Handy has also always been interested in religion. His father was a religious leader in Ireland and at one time he too thought of joining the church. Perhaps as a result, his thinking always has a strong sense of right and wrong.
Handy believes that we are living in a time of huge change. In one of his books, he compares our situation to the situation of the people who lived in South America around five hundred years ago. He tells a story about a South American person who once looked out to sea and saw a large sailing ship. This person had never seen a sailing ship like this before, so he decided that it couldn’t exist.
‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ he told himself. ‘It’s just a strange effect of the weather.’
The ship existed, of course, and it was full of Spanish soldiers. When they landed on the coast of South America, they changed the lives of the people there for ever.
Handy thinks that when we look into the distance, we too can see the shape of our future lives. But, just like the South American in his story, we choose to put those thoughts out of our mind. He thinks that this is a big mistake. He says we should be worried about the things that we can see in the distance. “We should be worried because the things in the distance are frightening. We should be worried because these things will change our lives in big ways. And we should be worried because we aren’t ready for those changes.
In the past, he says that we lived in an age of reason. There was order in the world and everything was organized. People understood the changes that happened, even if they didn’t always accept them. But today we live in an age of unreason. In the age of unreason nobody really understands what’s happening in the modern world and nobody can really explain it.
So how can we deal with these changes? Handy tells us to forget about our old ideas. To understand the modern world, he says we need ‘upside down’ thinking. We have to imagine the impossible and expect the unexpected. And how can we do this? We can do this by using the three ‘I’s: information, ideas and intelligence.
Just like Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, Handy believes that knowledge workers and computers are changing the business world. He says that in future, company life and office life will start to disappear. More and more people will become independent and will work for themselves. They’ll work from home and use the telephone and the computer to communicate with other people. This should be good news for companies, because they won’t need to have so many expensive office buildings in the middle of cities and they won’t need to pay so many people regular money. But how does this affect ordinary workers?
Charles Handy hopes that their lives will improve. He believes that in the future people will have more time for their family and friends, because they won’t have to travel to work every day and will often work from home. But in other ways, their lives will become more difficult. Most people will probably need more than one job and more than one skill to make a living. Perhaps teachers will also need to be writers and consultants. Perhaps policemen will have to be guards and private detectives.
But when the world is turned upside down, who knows what will happen?
The thinking of management gurus has come a long way since the time of Frederick Taylor and scientific management. For Taylor, management was certainly not about crazy people or company Olympics or upside down thinking.
But, although management gurus have produced all sorts of very different ideas, in the end, how useful are they for real businessmen and businesswomen?
Many people have criticized the management gurus. Many have said that their ideas are a waste of time. But before anyone forgets their ideas completely, perhaps they should remember the story of some Hungarian soldiers who were lost in the Alps.
The Hungarian soldiers had got lost on a freezing night and had almost no food. Their situation was very serious and they didn’t know what to do. Then, one of the soldiers reached into his pocket and took out a map. The soldiers studied the map for a long time and discussed the best route. After a long and difficult walk, they were able to come down from the mountains and they found a village with some food and a roof for the night.
The interesting thing about the story is that the soldier’s map was a map of a completely different area of the Alps. It had given them no useful information at all. But that map had been enough to make them think and to make them talk about their problem. And that’s what saved their lives.
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