July 22, 2008

Tom Davenport has cast the cold water of sanity on those who conflate management with command and control and venerate bottom-up spontaneous self organisation. The trigger is the much talked about shift of IBM from knowledge management to knowledge sharing, something claimed by IBM as a “philosophical repositioning”.

Now I take this claim not just with a pinch of salt, but the whole god damn cellar and ideally most of the mining output of Cheshire, especially the its not about the tools its about the people claim given that most of the PR seems to be around IBM’s technology or technology-enabled services. Now IBM is no exception to any other large company in this respect and its good to see my good friend Luis Suarez getting some exposure within Big Blue so don’t take my comments as a criticism per se. The reality is that the official practice in IBM has finally caught up with the reality of informal networking that was far more important than the KM databases, CoPs, etc. that IBM enthusiastically adopted behind the market curve when I was there.

The point is (to complement Tom) that IBM really has not given up on management nor are they likely to at any point in the future. Yes, they have freed up blogging etc. within their firewalls and should pick up a gold star for that, but that was a management decision. A lot of management is about determining boundaries and IBM have shifted those a bit. Micro-managment of all actions, command and control in the popular sense (which implies micro-management) is rarely in play in any modern organisation. It was a management decision that provided the technology and funded the team that manages (that word) again the process. Yes, sharing will take place, but they have not moved from management to sharing just a different management focus.

Tom makes the point that the two extremes of anarchistic or chaotic self-organisation and micro-management of command and control are just that, extremes that rarely exist in reality for any length of time. In effect, all management is complex, a system of constraints in which behaviour modifies the nature of the system itself over time. OK, it would be good if managers stopped failing to manage outcomes and recognised that success is better achieved by managing constraints and connectivity with a view to coherence. Killing sick stigma and other anally retentive process & outcome-based targets would help a lot as they are examples of contextually inappropriate management techniques. But does anyone seriously argue that an organisation can survive without management?

Readers of this blog will also remember that the origin of management is meneggiare, the ability to ride and train horses. So lets give up on silly statements about the end of management and focus instead on changing management practice.

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