I get as much fun as the next person from the kind of language referred to as bafflegab, management-speak or simply, complete bollocks. I’ve gone considerably further, however, in suggesting that its users be sacked or at least demoted to positions from which they can do less harm. This can strike some people – perhaps, most people – as extreme, so I’d best explain.
The explanation has two parts. Firstly, I’ll talk about the takeover of management by a new and self-serving elite which changes the objective of a business or organisation. Secondly, I’ll explain why a tendency for a senior staff member to talk in riddles should lead not to jokes but to remedial action.
i) The drive to measure rather than produce
It’s important not to misunderstand the target of my attack. What I’m saying has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism versus socialism or business versus public service approaches to problem solving. Neither has it anything to do with the traditional clash of interests between worker and manager. In other words, I’m not advancing anything remotely like a left-wing argument.
I am contrasting the relatively new parasite that is managerialism with old fashioned business and management. Management as it is usually understood is directed towards the objective of an organisation – be that profit or service. However, when the objective of those in control has less to do with the purpose of the institution/organisation/company which employs them and more to do with the common cause of similarly placed people in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.
The managerial parasite works by making the production of management information the primary purpose of an enterprise. Again, there is a need to clarify because I’m not assaulting the production of management information or indeed effective management. Management information is both essential and costly. Its production diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production too needs to be tightly controlled. As with any product, if the distinction between production and control breaks down, management has broken down.
To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers. Then it creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. Despite its cloaking image it is no friend of business.
The bloated salaries within this expanded elite are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles. New structures are created which facilitate high level appointments. Most affected companies will have seen an expansion in the numbers appointed to what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”). Most obvious is the recourse to a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided – the complete bollocks which is often termed, management-speak – as if a real manager would ever have need of such nonsense.
ii) Bafflegab as affiliation signal
There was a time when I assumed that the function of talking in obscure management-speak was to provide cover to a wasteful system by way of constant use of seemingly businesslike and efficiency oriented words. That is to say, I thought the bizarre language was a device to cloak futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making.
The problem with my early view of course is that the bizarre language is so transparently false. No thinking person would be fooled and the familiar reaction is laughter and derision. With the possible exceptions of some particularly dense practitioners, the speakers must be aware that people are laughing at them. It is certain too that they get the joke and know full well that they are talking bollocks. This prompts the question of why they persist with it.
Borrowing from anthropology, a plausible explanation is that the silly manner of speaking or – to be blunt – the complete bollocks is an affiliation signal. The adoption and use of the latest buzzword, the elimination of clarity, the overblown expression and the rest that go to make up management-speak is a signal that the speaker is a member of the new elite, will adhere to conventions, will not criticise, will support and promote his/her fellows or that the speaker aspires to membership.
This ease of identification is possibly the one advantage that a manager might have in trying to eliminate the problem in a company or organisation.
Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this waste and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping an organisation of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems.
Then there is the opportunity presented by the affiliation signal. A reforming CEO or group of managers could first purge senior levels of those who are signalling membership and gradually work downwards. Once it becomes clear that new, reforming management is taking back control of the organisation and that the managerial elite is under threat, aspiring members will stop signalling, cohesion will be lost and the organisation should ever so slowly – perhaps too slowly – begin to revert to purpose.
Moreover, this will gradually confer a mixed blessing on the rest of us: we’ll be subjected to a little less complete bollocks, we’ll be aware that businesses and services are being liberated, and allowed to flourish but at the cost of making the fun of bullshit bingo a thing of the past.