Thursday, February 10, 2011

Belshaw's World - Control freaks branded by their blindness

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 2 February 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

In last week’s column I commented that language used and reality often diverged. In this column, I want to go further, arguing that so far as management speak is concerned, the popularity of a topic in management is often directly but inversely related to what is actually happening on the ground.

Sound extreme? Well let’s test it.

To continue the specific example from last week, in recent times there has been a lot of talk about flexible organisations. Organisations have to be flexible, capable of responding quickly and effectively to changing conditions if they are to survive.

This rhetoric can be directly compared to the on-ground reality, the rise of the centralised command and control organisation.

Then we have the emphasis on standards and performance indicators, especially in Government. Management and public policy rhetoric drips with it. We must set performance standards, practice evidence based management, develop quality frameworks. This rhetoric holds in private and public sectors and at all levels of Government.

The reality? I know of no evidence that management has improved. Just look at NSW or some recent Federal Government program examples to see what I mean.

Still not convinced?

The 1990s saw great emphasis on the importance of people management. Our people are our strength. To a degree, HR emerged from its previous ghetto.

And what was happening on ground? There we saw process re-engineering, the progressive end of permanent employment, retrenchment and outplacement.

The late 1980s marked the rise of the brand. We don’t make things, we manage brand portfolios. We have to get value from our brands.

The only problem is that this emphasis on brands and branding in the private sector coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in modern business history: once proud brands vanished, replaced by ever more ephemeral substitutes.

The brand jargon expanded into politics and the public sector.

The punters, the dismissive word for voters that emerged into prominence over the same period, chose between brands. If a party was in trouble, its brand had to be renewed.

One of the key problems in all this is that the concepts popularised, the language used, can actually blind us to operational and political realities.

Does anybody seriously consider, for example, that a political party is a brand? Yet this language is used all the time.

There are varying definitions of brands. However, one common definition is that a brand is a name, sign, symbol, slogan or anything that is used to identify and distinguish a specific product, service, or business.

Using this definition, the NSW Labor Party has some of the attributes of a brand. However, this is at best a tenth order issue.

NSW Labor is not in trouble because the brand is in trouble. Rather, the brand is in trouble because NSW Labor as a party and government is in trouble. Branding is actually an irrelevancy.

If you do focus on brands and branding, if you try to use private sector approaches, you get advertising, focus groups and spin.

One of the difficulties faced by those of us trying to improve management is that it’s almost impossible to break through. The mental and organisational lock-in is just too great.

Imagine, for a moment, just what response you might get if you tell a client or the organisation you work for that it must abolish or drastically restructure its existing performance management and reporting systems; do away with terms like key performance indicators, inputs, outputs or outcomes; and give its people greater real freedom to make decisions, to experiment, to take risks, to make errors.

See the problem? It means giving up control. It means learning to think in new ways.

I am actually a great supporter of test and measurement. I was also an early campaigner for program budgeting with its inputs/outputs/outcomes and also for standards based approaches.

My problem lies in the way that all these things have evolved. I cannot continue to support approaches that have so clearly failed. If they cannot be made to work properly, then let’s get rid of them!

Yes but is not a good enough answer in response.

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