We don’t need a rethinking of management. We need a reworking of work.


I saw a link to a 2009 Harvard Business Review piece by Gary Hamel, the well-known management theorist, in which he calls for a new era of management thinking:

Gary Hamel, Moon Shots for Management

Equipping organizations to tackle the future would require a management revolution no less momentous than the one that spawned modern industry.

Management was originally invented to solve two problems: the first—getting semiskilled employees to perform repetitive activities competently, diligently, and efficiently; the second—coordinating those efforts in ways that enabled complex goods and services to be produced in large quantities. In a nutshell, the problems were efficiency and scale, and the solution was bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, cascading goals, precise role definitions, and elaborate rules and procedures.

Managers today face a new set of problems, products of a volatile and unforgiving environment. Some of the most critical: How in an age of rapid change do you create organizations that are as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient? How in a world where the winds of creative destruction blow at gale force can a company innovate quickly and boldly enough to stay relevant and profitable? How in a creative economy where entrepreneurial genius is the secret to success do you inspire employees to bring the gifts of initiative, imagination, and passion to work every day? How at a time when the once hidden costs of industrialization have become distressingly apparent do you encourage executives to fulfill their responsibilities to all stakeholders?

To successfully address these problems, executives and experts must first admit that they’ve reached the limits of Management 1.0—the industrial age paradigm built atop the principles of standardization, specialization, hierarchy, control, and primacy of shareholder interests. They must face the fact that tomorrow’s business imperatives lie outside the performance envelope of today’s bureaucracy-infused management practices.

Second, they must cultivate, rather than repress, their dissatisfaction with the status quo. What’s needed is a little righteous indignation. Why, for example, should it take the blunt instrument of a performance crisis to bring about change? Why should organizations be so much better at operating than they are at innovating? Why should so many people work in uninspiring companies? Why should the first impulse of managers be to avoid the responsibilities of citizenship rather than to embrace them? Surely we can do better.

Hamel wrote this in 2009, and kicked off MIX (Management Innovation eXchange) which I don’t think has had any real impact outside of the rarefied world of HBR authors, professors of management, and upward-striving management consultants, at least as far as I can tell.

The mismatch is that while Hamel points out 20th century business practices reaching the end of their utility, he couches it as a call for the discipline of management to re-design itself, instead of something more innovative or revolutionary.

I maintain that what is needed instead is a reworking of work: a comprehensive, top-to-bottom recast of the work ethos, and the creation of a new deep culture of work, one that invalidates a number of management practices, and subsumes the rest.

The loudest unspoken premise of Hamel’s thinking is that we must continue in the division of management and labor. However, as he points out in nearly his first words, management was devised in the early industrial era to deal with the coordination of semi-skilled laborers to perform repetitive tasks, and to make that work approach scale through deskilling craft work and instituting the logistical control of supply chains.

What Hamel does not explicitly say is this: In the postnormal era where we now live and work, the great majority of work performed by people is non-routine and cognitive. The routine and non-cognitive work is rapidly being handled over to robots and software, and there is a reëmergence of craft work where artisanal craftspeople can command a premium for high quality goods.

The creative, cognitive work that most workers perform is increasingly indistinguishable from what managers do, except the creative/cognitive worker is managing their own work, and cooperatively co-managing the work of those that they are connected with. Some of these people are called managers, but less so all the time. Management is becoming a distributed and emergent property of people working in social networks, instead of an extrinsic and imposed property of hierarchy.

Hidden behind Hamel’s words is the unexpressed fear that ‘management’ — as a cadre of people, as a discipline — is just as likely to be emphemeralized in the postnormal era as taxi and truck drivers will be once autonomous vehicles are commonplace. Some other examples? Claims processing clerks will be replaced by Watson-level AI systems, and the failures of management theory in human resources management will be overturned by actual data analysis. (That’s why Google stopped asking those brain teasers of its candidates: they turned out to not be a good predictor of job success once Google started to dig into the data.)

So Hamel and the MIX community are building a fortress for management and it is all about innovation. But everybody has to be innovating in business, not just a cadre of managers. I’m not saying that all people should be innovating all the time, every second. But every person should be free to innovate in their work, because all work is personal. And because all work is also social, work networks need to innovate to stay ahead of market conditions, respond to client demands, and offer new ways to deliver higher value more quickly.

The days when an isolated group of efficiency or innovation experts owned that — plotted new processes out at the ‘Planning’ group at headquarters, wrote them into manuals, and then trained staff in official processes and procedures — is long past.

So we don’t need a rethinking of management, we need a reworking of work: one that is in tune with 21st century realities and not the last echoes of 20th century management dogma.

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