Companies and investors are spending a lot of money on change. And engagement. And innovation. So, how are they doing? Anyway you look at them, the figures are startling. Or depressing. Or both. 

  • 90% of startups fail
  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 66% of change fails
  • 66% of UK Millennials are looking for a new job
  • 50% of UK employees want to change their job
  • 3,000,000 Americans quit their job in December 2015 alone
  • 800,000 UK workers are on zero hour contracts

How have we got to this state of affairs? How has decades of research and investment produced record levels of disengagement? Widespread anxiety? A desperate need to find something meaningful to do? So much so that at least half the working population is looking for something else. 

The reasons are complex. And difficult to capture in a blog. But I can point a finger or two.

A Brief History of Management Thought  

Management science is roughly 100 years old. Frederick Taylor is the original guru. The man who made management scientific. Before Taylor, workers determined a factory's output.  When the workers thought they had done enough, they upped tools and left.  To drink. Often for days. Then, out of money, they trooped back to work. And the process started again. 

Taylor wanted to build an industrial society that gave the workers more meaning. The owners more profit. And far, far less wasted time. So he measured everything to do with work. By measuring how a "good" worker performed, he believed could work out how all workers could perform. Then pay a fair wage for that output.

The owner is happy because his output is predictable and better than it was. The workers are happy because they are earning more. They can plan for the future. Buy a little house. Find a little wife. And have some little kids. 

Scientific management was trendy. To a level we'd struggle to believe today. Once, over 60,000 people turned up to hear Taylor speak at an exhibition. It was everywhere. A managerial revolution to support the industrial revolution.

Because of Taylor, management became a profession. The running of the factory was no longer at the owner's whims and fancies. Instead, professional managers applied scientific methodologies to exactly measure output. And improve it.

Taylor proved that a professional class of managers could run companies better than owners. The owner was financially and socially detached from the needs and skills of his workforce. He should not have to comprehend and run the complexities of a professional organisation. Meritocracy based on pure science!

Taylorism ultimately failed. It could not deliver the meaning it promised. It delivered a value and ethics free workplace. Where only measurement and efficiency mattered. Indeed, some theorists argue it contributed to the horrors of WWII. Its value-free efficiency informing the construction of the concentration camps. It lacked an ethical component. Other than the aristocratic assumption that all a worker needed to be happy was a little house and a family.

So, other forms of organisation came into being. Each of which was  found lacking too. As each form began to fail to provide enough meaning at work, it was superseded by another. Each promised a different type of meaning as a reward for commitment at work. 

  • Scientific Management (1900s-30s): Meaning at work - promised a fair wage for work done and the possibility of a better standard of living
  • Human Relations (1930s-50s): Meaning at work - promised identity, stability in the job and job satisfaction
  • Systems Theory (1950s-80s): Meaning at work - promised learning opportunities and the possibility of feeding back and contributing to the development of the organisation
  • Strong Culture (1980s-today): Meaning at work - promised a value-driven community of work based on long-term affiliation and loyalty

The last great boom was that of strong culture, which still influences today. Research has shown it is not effective. Instead of the loyalty and commitment it promised, it produced irony, sarcasm, cynicism and anxiety. But it persists. And, as I will explain, management science is in no place to challenge it. 

The Detachment between Thought and Practice

In the 1950s, a group of American academics decided to take control. To design an established management discipline. Brilliant and ambitious, they pursued two strategies. To make management a taught subject at universities. And to make management a rigorous science. 

In one respect, it succeeded. Perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. It ensured all organisational types were under its umbrella. You can be in charge of a prison. Or a school. Or a hospital. Or a hi-tech, whizz-bang operation. No matter. The same theories apply. Management is a theoretically-pure, cross-discipline skill that can be applied anywhere. No matter the size, shape and type of organisation. And this assumption informs MBA training. From Harvard Business School downwards. Bar a few special cases. 

However, there's been an unexpected side-product. Despite this effort, management science was not taken seriously by other university disciplines. It still isn't. Consequently, it has an inferiority complex. It has become obsessed with academic rigour. Its findings are pretty much unreadable, jargon-filled theory-fests. Supporting complex models. The interpretive effort for the average manager is far too high. So it never gets read outside of the academic realm. 

Thanks to this detachment, a great gap exists for less-rigorous, populist models to fill. There are a number of popular models that dominate practice that really, really shouldn't. For example:

Whilst the really interesting and critical research remains out-of-reach, populist research dominates. Most of it assumes you can recreate success by top-down planning. It spreads into MBAs because business schools have to earn money. So they have to teach populist theories and ideas. Careers can be built on making them seem more rigorous. And palatable to academia. So it gets legitimised and spreads into practice. Despite reservations. And creates horrible conditions to work in. 

As we know, MBAs are everywhere. However, thanks to the above, MBA-style management pays no heed to practical realities. It applies rational, top-down decisions that will work. In any industry. Except they don't!

We know this. We see teachers, nurses and doctors struggling to cope with assigned targets and costs that have no relation to good care of patients. They must spend copious amounts of time filling out ridiculous amounts of irrelevant paperwork. How does that help the practice of teaching or healing? Other than letting a manager know his back is covered.

And it's everywhere. Just ask engineers and software developers. As evidenced by Dilbert and Wally. Or creatives. See Clients From Hell. Or pretty much any organisational cynic or ironist. 

Where Has This Got Us?

If management thought allows such theories to dominate, despite evidence they are fraudulent or do not work as suspected, then what is the point of it?

Are we better off? CEO pay has risen 997% since 1978. Average worker pay by 10.9%. Zero hour contracts are commonplace.  Independent contracting is all the rage. Long-term jobs are almost non-existent. So, no. 

In fact, these are exactly the same conditions that inspired Frederick Taylor to make management scientific. One man running the organisation completely detached from the realities of the employee. Check. Leadership as charisma. Check. No workplace stability. Check. No guaranteed income. Check. Possibility of the fragmentation of society as a result. Check and mate!

So, 100 years of management science. Creating exactly the same conditions that inspired its rise. Wonderful!

Do we manage any differently?  We are seeing the dominance of measurement.  KPIs abound. Big Data everywhere. Your personality is tested and measured. As is your engagement. On an ongoing basis. Every project has thousands of targets, deadlines and measurable processes. Data, data, data. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Measure, measure, measure. 

Taylorism for the hi-tech generation. A model we know does not work and does not motivate, but one we've re-embraced anyway. And we wonder why there is no meaning or engagement at work. 

Have we moved forward at all? We are currently experiencing a bastardised hybrid of strong culture and scientific management. Two completely alien systems of thought uncomfortably bolted together. One that we know doesn't work. And one that is in long decline. That are applied everywhere, no matter the nature of the organisation. In an environment of fast-paced and constant change. Take this into consideration, and the figures at the beginning of the article don't seem so bad! 

We cannot hope to deliver a healthy technological society if we rely on outdated or declining modes of thought. Yet, thanks to the detachment between research and practice, we allow under theorised ideas, with no evidence to support them, grab popular consciousness. 

We can't allow this to continue. The organisational form is the dominant form in today's society. If it fractures, then society will fracture too. Our future will be dystopian. So, we need to rethink organisation. And rethink it fast. Or it will be too late. 

Management thought does still have some power. There are some great ideas around. Some are making their way into practice. But is it enough? Have we gone too far down the populist route? Can management science reinvent itself? 

Big questions that deserve some answers.