The death of modern management: How to lead in the new world disorder

Author: Jo Owen
ISBN: 047068285X

The cover picture of a resigned but bleary-eyed manager type wedged in an old-fashioned metal bin caught my attention. As did the title – who doesn’t dream of the death of managers? Apart from managers, that is.

Published in December 2009, the book is very much influenced by the credit crunch, working on the premise that the recession affected how we work, once and for all.

Regular readers of these reviews will know how much store I set by case studies and anecdotes. And this has some goodies. The anecdotes have a distinctly historical tone – chapter one alone features the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, Adam Smith observing specialisation among the pin-makers of Gloucester, and Henry Ford launching the first mass-produced car. While it may smack of historical overload, the use of anecdotes such as these bring real colour to a topic that might otherwise be too dry for all but the most determined reader.

The case studies are good, too. I know that I probably plough through more business books than most, but I am tired of reading about Coca-Cola. They’re here, but so too is Lego.

HR readers will find one chapter especially interesting: ‘Organisations: from compliance to commitment’. There’s some real insight into ‘best practice’ – author Owen points out: “Firms which copy best practice are, by definition, followers, not leaders. By the time they achieve best practice, the leader will have moved on”.

I also liked the section on theory X (people are lazy and untrustworthy) and theory Y (they are capable and committed, and simply need to be encouraged), based on earlier work by Douglas MacGregor in 1964’s The Human Side of Enterprise. Owen uses a good Procter & Gamble case study to illustrate the power of theory Y.

The issues around skills, and lack thereof, are also covered. Owen makes much of the importance of values to today’s workforce – he believes the credit crunch was a failure of values, rather than a failure of regulation. But he’s not optimistic, comparing the regulators’ avoidance of addressing values with “treating measles with spot remover”.

Chapter nine, ‘Employees: from slavery to freedom (and back again)’, sees Owen claiming, contrary to what so many HR people are saying, that the psychological contract between employer and employee is no more. He says: “If we let our employer control our destiny, we become slaves who are likely to be cast aside at the whim of the employer”. Well said, Mr Owen.

I quite liked this book. As with so many business tomes, it’s not one to read from cover to cover, but well worth dipping into, a chapter at a time.

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