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Tag Archives: bafflegab

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.

Regaining control
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.

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According to last Tuesday’s Irish Times, the following appears in an unpublished draft of the HSE’s spending plans.
“It is planned that the investment will take place in quarter 4, 2013 contingent upon the achievement of the PSA [public sector agreement] savings. A ceiling uplift is needed for these developments,” – http://irishtimes.newspaperdirect.com/screenprint/viewer.aspx

“A ceiling uplift”!! Jesus wept! Now, this kind of complete bollocks might be funny if it were not indicative of a parasitic scourge which prevents effective management. The parasitic element is usually distinguished from management by use of the term “managerialism”.

Whoever wrote the HSE draft should go and anyone more senior, who did not fire the draft across the room and insist that it be rewritten, should join him or her. Furthermore, the report itself should be disregarded because – being infected by managerialism – it will be self-serving. Its purpose will not be to improve the HSE or to serve the citizen. Managerialism doesn’t work like that; it uses a language deceptively close to the language of efficiency and business to ensure the prosperity and growth of its adherents.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language that is used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

However, many organisations could usefully look at their structures and staffing of about ten years ago and see what has been done to them as systems became central rather than service, as job titles increased and became bizarre, and as the language of effective management was reduced to complete bollocks.

The Higher Education Authority’s document, Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, can be accessed here: http://www.hea.ie/en/node/1497

While it is a disgrace, we can of course to have some fun. Complete bollocks invites derision. Ok, ok, ok, let’s play before getting to the serious point. As slagging goes, I think this will do:

A Prayer for The Landscape Process

For the sake of the stakeholders let us pray that the landscape process is robust and sustainable with sufficient key drivers, outcomes and benchmarks, that it is fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice, that its diversity of mission matches the diversity of needs, pathways, clusters and linkages and that its knowledge transfer services can keep pace with its rolling programme of thematic reviews. Amen.

Fun over! Jesus wept; this is the Higher Education Authority! Talking in bafflegab, unspeak or complete bollocks betokens managerialism which must be rooted out of the public service. The Minister for Education or the Oireachtas Committee on Education could take a stand by sending this report back marked “Unacceptable. Rewrite.” It is probable that without the scaffolding of fashionable buzzwords and phrases, the entire structure of the report would fall apart. Let’s put the question in a crude and easily understood form: without the complete bollocks is there anything of substance here?

 

I’ve written before about managerialism [i] (as opposed to management) as a self-serving, parasitic weight on a huge range of enterprises. The HSE seems to be particularly burdened. Here’s a quotation from Kitty Holland in The Irish Times (Saturday, October 13, 2012):

“A HSE spokeswoman says a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender. The packages include occupational therapy, physiotherapy and chiropody as well as home-help hours.

‘The arrangements commenced on July 1st, 2102, for a minimum of 12 months. The new arrangements refer to new packages to be allocated during that time,’ she says. A number of providers have won the contracts in each region, and about three-quarters of those are private operators.” [ii]

 

We’ve joked about management-speak or bafflegab [iii] for years; it is an amusing symptom of a deep malaise. However, it does help us to locate the malaise. When we hear of the composers of “mission statements”, “standard operating procedures”, “core competencies” and the likes, we should no longer laugh but approach the source with a view to excising it.

Anyone on the staff of the HSE who thinks that it makes sense when talking about home care to say that, “a procurement process had been completed this year for the provision of enhanced home-care packages for which private and voluntary operators can tender.”, must GO and go soon before they do any further damage. There must be some managers in the HSE who can be relied upon to manage in the meaningful sense of the word. It’s time they showed a little integrity and spoke up.

 

It’s not necessary for me to expand here on the difference between home-care and a standardised package which can be procured from competing operators because any thinking person is perfectly aware of the difference. One would have to be baffled by one’s own bafflegab, blinded by ambition, indoctrinated beyond the reach of common sense or plain stupid to think seriously that home-care is a product.

 

A leftist response might talk about this in terms of the move to privatise but privatisation is simply a consequence – a very profitable – consequence of what is happening here. Leftists would do better to think in terms of a powerful clique – even cult – having gained control over management and administration.

 

This is managerialism and its practitioners are confined neither to public nor private industry. When they assume control, the service or industry will be changed to operate in their interests. At this stage they are fairly large in number, so getting rid of them will cause unemployment but it will have to be done. They are redundant and should be treated as such. The problem will be finding real managers who can reorient an enterprise to its real purpose.

There are two linked errors in Tom Garvin’s article in the Irish Times of Mayday.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/education/2012/0501/1224315400547.html

Firstly, managerialism is not exclusive to UCD or to universities generally. It had infected and depressed many other industries before it arrived quite late in education. Secondly, Tom links managerialism to business and argues that business approaches have no place in university management. Now, the latter may be true but the former does not support it.

To get a hold in an organisation, managerialism must first oust efficient managers; it is no friend of business. The bizarre language used cloaks futile activity in terms that give the impression of innovation, progress and effective decision making. It also creates a layer of employees who live off information processes that effective management would never tolerate. It is a very, very serious problem and dealing with will be difficult because its adherents now hold key positions and because doing away with it would result in many job losses.

We need to begin to take seriously the pernicious effect of jargon, guff and blather on our lives. It’s certainly not new; Orwell’s “Newspeak” and Marcuse’s observations that “free” had come to mean “market” and that “intellectual” and “bureaucrat” had become terms of abuse spring to mind. Now that I think about it, Alice in Wonderland springs to mind too! There is of course a wickedly funny side to it. The, let’s call them, “goingforwardeers” and “drilldowners” provide hours of amusement. Recently a PR representative for Bus Eireann told a radio interviewer of plans to “roll out” new buses. Interestingly, the interviewer didn’t laugh.

The sheer scale of the balderdash, the confidence of its users, the lack of media criticism and the rise of a highly paid and unproductive elite suggest that perhaps something rather serious has happened.

It is of course a problem for public discourse when participants will not or cannot speak plainly. In most cases nothing very remarkable is being said; the jargon merely masks a vacuous lack of originality. What is remarkable is the lack of a challenging voice and the failure of media to clarify. It is worrying to think that there is a protective consensus around nonsense.

Anyone troubled by this consensus would be wide of the mark to blame capitalists or business. In trying to identify who gains, look not to the super rich but to a new elite who master the language of obscurity. These are the composers of mission statements, the change managers, the authors of impenetrable reports and pointless restructuring. They are many, they are relatively wealthy, they exhibit an extraordinary degree of solidarity and they are not subjected to public scrutiny. They are a nuisance – possibly, a menace – in that they smother innovation, creativity, and argument. A fake progressive and fake business lexicon is used to mask a layer of drones.

By all means let’s have fun with this. Let’s make the utterance of “key performance indicator” a capital offence! Let’s call for the closure of the Podge and Rodge School of Management! But, let us also begin to end this nonsense. Sooner rather than later searing clarity will be needed in government, business and the public sphere.