Picture a log covered with large red ants wending its way through river rapids during a storm. Most of the ants exert a great deal of physical and mental effort to maneuver the log safely through the treacherous water.
At times it seems to some of the ants that the log responds to their efforts. These observations lead them to develop theories and suggestions for "navigating river rapids." Some theories are published, others become seminar subjects, and many are simply integrated into the ant's store of experience.
What forces shape your company? In some ways, the development of management theory and its real-world application follows the parable of the ant-covered log. Many controlling forces that propel businesses today are difficult to identify and even more difficult to quantify.
The people involved try to determine the dynamics of the organizational process, so that they can communicate their findings to influence and/or modify the existing paradigms of practicing managers.
This tends to divide real-world managers into two major categories:
1) Those who are overwhelmed by the volume of management ideas and don't know what to do. This confusion worsens when the managers recognize conflicts and inconsistencies between the various ideas, such as downsizing and total quality management.
2) Those who understand the "parable of the ant-covered log." These managers realize that we are a long way from having an integrated universal management theory where one theory fits all companies. They also realize that the management field is made up of a number of good ideas or building blocks that can and must be assembled differently, depending upon the situation. Such real-world managers also understand that the composition and arrangement of the blocks and their structure must be updated from time to time to remain compatible with overall environmental trends.
No certainties but change. One such trend is the continuation of the change in organizational environment and structure. From a steady and stable environment, organizations increasingly modify their environments into places that (1) slowly change with some predictability, then (2) increase their rate of change with less predictability, then (3) change rapidly with little predictability, and then (4) adopt chaotic change with no predictability.
The less predictable environments (3 & 4 above) will be the norm in the 21st century. These environments will require organizations that are flat, flexible, focused, adaptable, and capable of rapid response to change. Within such a workplace, all employees must understand the organization's vision and be given appropriate discretion to make decisions. In addition, they will be electronically linked, customer sensitive, supplier allied, and knowledge sharing. This trend has many implications in terms of employee education, training, retention, career paths, life styles, expectations, and the introduction and acceptance of change.
The manager's job is, and will continue to be, especially difficult. To be successful, managers must continually use their intelligence and wisdom to identify, understand, adopt, and adapt the right building blocks to fit their situation.
For management, navigating the river will continue to be rough sailing.
Ask the Manager
Q) I don't want to be an overwhelmed and confused manager. How can I identify, understand, and adapt the right building blocks?
A) Start by reading publications that can provide some ideas, such as Business Week, Fortune, and others. Perhaps you could ask others to review one publication.
Project experience counts. Share what has been learned, both the good and the bad, from the projects your organization has completed.
Attend or send employees to seminar courses. Have participants share and discuss what they learned that may help your organization.
Hire consultants. Qualified professionals can lead in-house seminars, out-of-house seminars, workshops and group facilitation.
Q) Do the management ideas you mention have anything in common?
A) Some of these ideas offer different perspectives of reality as championed by various practitioners, academics, and consultants. Consequently, themes they share include a trend towards flatter organizations, greater employee empowerment, and more authority and responsibility at the fewer remaining levels in the firm. Cross-functional teams, reduction of barriers between departments and job functions, benchmarking to identify world-class performance, and eliminating tasks that do not add value are other examples.
These ideas ask companies to evaluate themselves. Can companies eliminate political resistance, overcome bureaucratic mind-set, or encourage free-flowing information across functional and business boundaries? Will they be able to offer relevant and updated training, instill a common vision, develop a network-type organization, or focus on customer needs?