Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Management again

Getting the overseas edition of the papers is sometimes an advantage, you spot things that you would never see otherwise. In my case yesterday this was an item on the business pages of the Observer, usually the first bit to be dispatched to the bin with a curse. This time, something leapt out at me; an item on workplace skills.

The skills agenda is one source of the Government's current educational neuroses and Adult Education is being sacrificed on the altars of work-related skills training and employer engagement. I am hugely sceptical about the efficacy of these, as well as having a sense of despair at the damage currently being done to the area to which I have devoted the bulk of my working life.

Simon Caulkin's piece is critical of what he sees an overemphasis on individual performance at the expense of collective organisation and in doing so he takes on the sanctity of the Leitch Report, currently deeply influential on government thinking on education.

Take the Leitch report on workforce skills. Now nearly two years old, it was an attempt to scare us into improving competence at work. The focus is strictly economic and it is full of exhortations about world-class competition and threats of what will happen to people if they don't 'raise their game' - skills as instruments of economic warfare and social Darwinism. As such, Leitch offers little that is new: it is the latest in a line of hand-wringing reports going back at least 150 years linking the UK's poor productivity record with our shortcomings in education and training and attempting to solve the first problem through the second.

He then provides a rather nice, though utilitarian and economic, justification for liberal learning:

Now, it goes without saying that improvements in individual literacy and numeracy are vital and welcome, not just for economic reasons but for making sense of the whole range of what the world has to offer, including the aesthetic and the emotional. In fact, the aesthetic and emotional aspects, although ignored in the report, are equally important, both for their own sake and because of the need for collective endeavour.

Caulkin and I come from very different perspectives, but I like the way that he describes the importance of management as a form of co-ordination (please note; co-ordination not command, "harnessing, using, and nurturing individual skills", not measuring, incentivising, ordering or bullying – no, "nurturing"). It is what good managers do, though I would add others to the list, like respecting the expertise of the workforce and empowering them within the workplace. I would also emphasise the role of collective organisation amongst workers. Without power, the nurturing of workers is purely a voluntary gift of a benign autocracy.

Where Caulkin goes with this analysis is that his contention is that the real failings in the British economy are collective, through the inadequacies of management rather than the individual skills deficits of workers. Inherent in this, is a critique of institutional conservatism and hierarchical management.

At this point, Caulkin and I begin to diverge. He favours complementing "Leitch's primary emphasis on low-level skills with an equal focus on the higher-level 'meta-skills' that are essential for getting the most out of the individual ones". I don't think that this is just about management skills; it is about structures and ideology.

Managerialism and the cult of leadership are there just to help executives feel good about their rocketing pay and for governments to be able to pretend that they are in control. The structures they create are ones that produce de-motivated and disempowered workers, a recipe for failure. How about promoting the notion of a democratised, collaborative workplace, based on shared power rather than the exercise of authority, as an alternative to the managerialist orthodoxy that has infected many areas of our collective endeavours? A practical, egalitarian agenda like this could be a vote-winner for a social democratic political party. Just watch Labour ignore it.


Shuggy said...

How about promoting the notion of a democratised, collaborative workplace, based on shared power rather than the exercise of authority, as an alternative to the managerialist orthodoxy that has infected many areas of our collective endeavours?

It sounds a splendid idea but could we make this a more violent social eruption please? That way we could shoot those responsible for the crimes against the English language you mention above. It could be fun - a sort of bullshit bingo/Russian roulette affair?

Preceded by a show trial, of course, where samples of their work could be produced as evidence.

Anonymous said...

Shoot, Shuggy? Couldn't we just choke them with their motivational posters?

Anonymous said...

That is the problem with so-called Jurists like suggy so-called: Always willing to give criminals a second chance. Back to the Daily Beast for me ...

Incidentally there was an excellent short opinion on BBC Radio Three's "Free Thinking" yesterday (?) by Jane Davis on the importance of the written word.


Anonymous said...

Collectivised decision making in businesses only works if someone is responsible for making the decision and for putting questions up for decision or at least participatory comment. We risk exposing ourselves to chaos and madness and many-headed Beasts of Biblical proportions if we remove all responsibility and leadership (which would lead to the need for ubermenches). I dont want to be ruled by dictators or collapse into a collective.

Father Abraham had many sons......