This post will try to engage with some of the ideas that Ralph has set out as a way of keeping the discussion going and as a further invitation to anyone else to join in. Of course, the thoughts below are only what struck me from his post.
Without actually using the word in this piece, I think Ralph is pointing to the ideological nature of the dominant discourse. By claiming that a lot of management is practised according to taken-for-granted assumptions which are unreflectively taken up there is an implied ideological hold. The dominant managerial discourse becomes pervasive by being taught in a variety of different edcational contexts and is replicated every day by managers who are graduates of business schools as well as by consultants who have been similarly educated. It permeates daily practice.
In trying to understand how the dominant discourse comes to dominate, how it becomes ideological, I have found the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of ideology helpful when he says that ‘ideology is the mask worn both by the dominant orders and by order itself.’ So this helps explain something about the taken-for-grantedness of many of the management concepts which are so pervasive. In order to join the management club, to play the game, it is a requirement to demonstrate a fluency with the concepts and language of the contemporary management discourse. More and more management graduates make the game more widespread and pervasive. This leads to a kind of isomorphism: organisations which carry out very different types of work, be it public, private or voluntary sectors, begin to look and sound alike. A facility with the concepts allows for the kind of mutual recognition which enables more and more people playing the game to locate themselves in it, to find a way of participating with each other and to be successful in the game. If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being ‘anti-management’, an accusation that I have heard on more than one occasion levelled at the body of ideas we are calling complex responsive processes of relating. The moment one has a stake in the game it becomes much harder to call the game into question, as participants on the DMan course discover.
One theme of discussion that I begin here, then, which will no doubt play out over subsequent posts, is how to maintain a stake in the game and call the game into question at the same time. How might we rethink management from within the practice of management itself? In this post I will continue exploring the ideological nature of the current management discourse as a way into this question.
Another characteristic of ideology according to MacIntyre is the attempt to cover over contestability and conflict and present things simply as ‘facts’: the way things are is the way they need to be. So the ideological claims of the contemporary management discourse would be that the concepts are undoubtedly flawed and imperfect, but they are the best we have for now. So what is the basis for this polemic against current management concepts and systems theory, and why the obsession with Mead and Elias?
I want to keep going with MacIntyre for a bit longer because I think he is helpful in clarifying my own thinking on these matters. So in order to function as an ideology, he argues, a theory must express a partial truth. If a set of ideas was absurd it would not stand up as ideology because it would not achieve resonance with a broad enough group of people. The partial truth is being taken up ideologically in order to achieve domination and cover over contestation. In addition, it is not only the dominant social interpeation that has the monopoly on ideology: oppositional bodies of ideas can also be staking ideological ground. This leads me on to reflect upon what the ‘partial truth’ might be that managerialism is laying claim to, as well as enquiring into what the ideological claims are of my own oppositional position.
In calling the dominant body of ideas ‘magic0-mythical thinking’, evoking Norbert Elias, Ralph is claiming that they are, in Elias’ terms, insufficiently reality-congruent. But at the same time something very important may be happening in human terms when people make plans together, dream of a better future, or idealize leaders and their capacity for predicting and/or controlling the future. Is it here that we might find MacIntyre’s ‘partial truth’? There is a profound expression of human freedom in being able to start something anew with others and to act with intention: not simply to be at the mercy of what Martha Nussbaum calls ‘the fragility of luck’. This, I think, partly explains the stong reactions that the ideas of uncertainty and unpredictability evoke in groups of managers who have have an understanding of professionalism as being about knowing, rather than the paradox of both knowing and not knowing, about being in control, which is one of the claims of managerialism. The accusation that current management practice amounts to ‘magico-mythical thinking’ can sound as though it is a critique of making plans or making any attempt to act in concert to achieve things together. Another characteristic of how bodies of ideas come to dominate, then, is the strong emotional investment we begin to have in them, whether we are supportive or oppositional, because it is through engagement with the concepts that our identities arise. In calling for a rethink of the dominant discourse, it seems to me that Ralph is also asking them to think of themselves differently, to question their identities as managers: to rethink management from within the practice of management.
So what are the ideological claims of a body of ideas which we are terming complex responsive processes? I would propose that what is ‘truth’ and what is ideology as far social interpretations are concerned can only be worked out between a group of engaged discussants, and that is also something which can only be explored in practice. But what I take from what Ralph has written implies that there is nowhere to stand outside of what it is we find ourselves doing with others in organisations, no matter how much this interdependence obliges us to engage with terms which might make us feel uncomfortable. Ralph’s invitation to take our daily experience with others seriously will mean that we are, in contemporary organisational life, obliged to engage with concepts such as visions and missions, and with ideas which are dominant in the discourse. To mount a critique of managerialism does not amount to replacing it entirely with something else, which I think can also be frustrating for managers who are provoked by an alternative view, but are looking for an alternative set of certainties. One of the ideological claims of Ralph’s position, or is it a partial truth, is that it is only in the engagement with and acknowledgement of difference that management practice will move from within the practice of management itself.
Rather than covering over contestability, this particular body of ideas sets a premium on it. One characteristic that is shared with scientific method, then, is to invite contestation of what it is we think we are doing as a way of moving on thinking. By enquiring into what we think we are doing together we are rethinking management from within the practice of management.