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Tag Archives: management information

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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I wrote recently about how concern over commercialisation of the universities was masking the larger problem – and frankly, the scandal – that is the usurpation of conventional management. A relatively new elite have changed the objectives of the universities to their own interest. In doing so they have used a familiar lexicon to disguise their efforts, to make them appear efficient and business-like. They have misused access to information systems to invert the relationship between management information and management objectives.*

My reason for returning to the topic so soon is that reaction to the original piece, while oddly favourable, has missed the point. Many of those who’ve spoken to me about the piece assumed that it was taking sides in the entirely bogus debate that is frontline workers versus administrators. It’s worth emphasising that what has been done to university management is common to many – perhaps most – organisations. I’ve had lecturers and post grad workers say to me that I was right to comment on the growth of admin. staff and the decline in academic staff. I made no such comment.

With the rise of electronic and the decline of paper systems three things were inevitable. Firstly, many of those who operated the paper systems would have to go or adapt. Secondly, the electronic systems would require technical and user support staff. Thirdly, the increase in data production would create a need for more administration. In short, it’s not in the least paradoxical that more efficient systems would demand staff increases. All of this can and should be managed. Change is not a recent phenomenon and has always had to be managed. The contrived specialisation of the likes of “change management” is as much a fetish as the production of management information for its own sake.

Setting frontline workers – be they doctors, firefighters or academics – against administrators suits those who are the real problem. They will side with the frontline workers and condemn administration in the language of efficiency. If successful, they are so well entrenched that it is they who will decide which administrators will go and what is best done by contractors. Thus, aided by their apparent critics in academia, their grip on universities will tighten at the expense of poorly paid staff and those remaining managers who might have offered some opposition.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/cui-bono-the-commercialisation-of-universities-is-more-complex-and-durable-than-many-critics-imagine/

Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/culture-shock-stark-lesson-of-imposing-market-values-on-third-level-1.1766771 It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/change-one-thing-bureaucracy-is-strangling-third-level-education-1.1708345

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It 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 needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

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 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 (in this case a university) 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 a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.