Another big idea

first_img Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos. Another big ideaOn 1 Dec 2001 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Fromnatural laws to neuro-science…Carol Kennedy explores some of the latestmanagement thinkingTEXT:What has people management got in common with the study of natural livingsystems? How does the Internet affect the valuation of “humancapital?” In a world of freelance brains that contract themselves to themost rewarding outlet, how will big corporations manage their global pool oftalent? What have the Rule of St. Benedict, the workings of the brain and theconcept of non-authority leadership got to say to those responsible formanaging the company’s human assets?Newideas on management are emerging from unexpected sources, many of them outsidebusiness, such as the research being carried out at the Santa Fe Institute in NewMexico on the complex adaptive systems found everywhere in nature – from thecosmos to the garden pond. The eminent management thinker Richard Pascaledevotes his most recent book to this subject, analysing case studies of globalcompanies such as Shell and Hewlett-Packard that have adapted living systemsprinciples to their organisations. (Surfing the Edge of Chaos, Texere, 2000)Ultimately,what living systems are all about in HR terms is self-organisation; independentagents acting on each other under simple laws that end up creating a large,constantly adaptive structure. This, as Pascale points out, is particularlysuited to the way the digital economy works – computer networks behave insimilar ways – and he predicts it will be the big idea of the 21st century, atheory that will last “at least 30 years and maybe a hundred”.Ona wider horizon, living systems are also about destroying equilibrium every sooften in order to renew species and advance evolution. “For any bigcompany, equilibrium is death,” says Pascale, pointing out that JackWelch, recently retired chairman of GE, is a master of deliberatedisequilibrium. “He knows on a very large scale how to cause anorganisation to question itself.”Pascaleis an admirer of Professor Ronald Heifetz of the John F Kennedy School ofGovernment at Harvard University, whose theory of adaptive or”non-authority” leadership also rests on managing disequilibrium sothat intelligence is released and distributed throughout the organisation.Societycannot entirely do without authority, Heifetz concedes, but leadership canemerge without it, and it is a model that he believes fits the new, volatilee-enterprise age. He points out that history is studded with examples ofindividuals without formal authority who went on to change the world, includingJesus Christ and Mohammed, and in the 20th century Gandhi, Martin Luther Kingand Nelson Mandela.Hasthe Big Idea – or, more cynically, management fad – had its day? The mostrecent example, re-engineering, was so counter-productive – failing to reachits targets in up to 70 per cent of companies – as to devalue the magic bulletapproach to performance improvement. Re-engineering, process-driven at theexpense of people, was often used as a cloak for savage downsizing; companies”let go” key knowledge workers, demotivated thousands of survivorsand fatally damaged trust.Thebig ideas in HR have not been hyped as magic bullets. They have been muchslower to work through into practice – many would say far too slow. Most originatedin the 1960s with industrial psychologists and motivational researchers likeAbraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg and Douglas McGregor; later on theformidable Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard-pioneered empowerment. Yet thenumber of big companies where empowerment is truly practised remains pitifullysmall: as Robert Waterman, co-author of In Search of Excellence and a respectedguru in his own right, says sadly, most managers remain Taylorists at heart,seeing people as units of production, hands rather than brains, not to beentrusted with responsibility or initiative. Whatis new today, in many cases reinforcing the old arguments for Theory Y, thehierarchy of needs and the rest, is the emphasis on the development andpotential of the individual. Here is a sampling of some of the ideas that mayhelp shape future HR thinking:–Human capital. “The way we think of human capital and the way we managepeople is changing,” says Don Tapscott, the Canadian cyber-guru who hasidentified a fundamental shift caused by the Internet – that companies now haveglobal access to skills and talents without having to own them on the payroll.Corporatehuman capital is now much more elastic. Amazon.com, for instance, could includereaders and reviewers in its human capital because they help its marketing byposting opinions on its website. Individuals can also control their own humancapital, even putting themselves up for auction to the highest bidder onwebsites such as eBay, bid4geeks.com and talentmarket Monster.com. –A new moral contract. This is a theory proposed by Sumantra Ghoshal, professorof strategic and international management at London Business School who is nowinvolved in setting up a new institute of management in his native India. Hethinks that the most sustainably successful companies respect their key peopleas creators of value and believe in helping employees to develop their bestpotential. Sucha “contract,” he suggests, is the way to capture and retain thefootloose Net Generation in corporate work. Out of 148 students he taught on amanagement course in 1998, only six wanted corporate careers.–Fair process. Trust in decision-making. A key component of Ghoshal’s moralcontract, this has been the theme of research over 10-15 years by a pair ofrising gurus at INSEAD, the international management school in Fontainebleau,France. W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne studied 35 manufacturing companies inthe US in which a culture of trust had been built up and found it hadcontributed substantially to increased productivity and innovative ideas.Kimand Mauborgne label this a “fair process” and claim it reaches intoareas of human psychology that are little explored in conventional theories ofpeople management. They discovered that people in an organisation release theirfullest creative abilities only when they completely trust the processes bywhich corporate decisions are made and carried out. Unlike the Japanese beliefin consensus, this does not necessarily mean agreeing with decisions, but understandinghow they were reached.Oneof their case studies is Gerhard Schulmeyer’s management of change at SiemensNixdorf Informations system AG. Schulmeyer, a former ABB manager under theremarkable Percy Barnevik, chose culture change ahead of process change at theGerman software company when he arrived as CEO. From the start he involvedthousands of staff in explanation and consultation about what the company wasdoing and the tough decisions that would have to be faced. The dynamic of thechange programme came entirely from the employees and it was accomplished inmonths.–Empathy and self-awareness. Emotional intelligence or EQ, a concept meaning theability to empathise with others, and popularised by the psychologist DanielGoleman, is now established as a key quality of leadership. Hard on its heelscame the idea of “spiritual intelligence” or SQ, in which thepsychiatrist Danah Zohar argued that part of the human brain is naturally wiredto be receptive to vision and values.Otherright-brain attributes are competing for attention in the ideas market.Intuitive skills are being taught in business-school courses, some of them onthe verge of self-parody, such as UMIST’s executive course in horse-whisperingand Cranfield’s Praxis Centre retaining a couple of professional psychics. ThePraxis course also features a former catering manager and MBA turnedBenedictine monk, Father Dermot Tredget, who is attracting a growing number ofmanagers and change management consultants to his own weekend retreat-seminarson spirituality at work, heldat Douai Abbey near Reading, UK. Thecourses are based on the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, which teaches thatwork should be an extension of spiritual values and sets out how a community ofmonks should be led; a system that Tredget says can be applied to businessorganisations.Tredget’saim is to encourage more “soul-friendly” working environments, not somuch through faith-based spirituality – the courses do not require religiousbelief – as through a greater understanding of people’s longing for deepermeaning in their work. It is one of several strands of inner developmenttraining, not all spiritually based, currently on offer to executives in searchof themselves, from the Findhorn community in northern Scotland to somethingcalled “Inner Leadership,” which teaches its students how theyperceive themselves and are perceived by others. As the veteran leadership guruWarren Bennis has been saying for years, to be an effective leader of others –or an HR manager, for that matter – you first have to know yourself.  JohnSeely Brown, the charismatic chief scientist of Xerox PARC and philosopher-kingof Silicon Valley, has a simpler prescription, but one that he admits is rarelyfollowed. “I would argue that one of the greatest skills today islistening. That is why the learning organisation doesn’t work becausemanagement is very bad at listening. We expect to talk, we expect to lead, butwe don’t understand that the essence of the thing is to listen, learn and lead.”last_img read more