Excellence

Patrick Wright

  • Creating excellence: Managing corporate culture, strategy and change in the New Age by Craig Hickman and Michael Silva
    Allen and Unwin, 305 pp, £12.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 04 658252 5
  • Intrapreneuring: Why you don’t have to leave the corporation to become an entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot
    Harper and Row, 368 pp, £15.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 06 015305 9
  • The IBM Way: Insights into the World’s Most Successful Marketing Organisation by Buck Rodgers
    Harper and Row, 224 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 06 015522 1
  • Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage by Richard Foster
    Macmillan, 316 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 333 43511 7
  • Ford by Robert Lacey
    Heinemann, 778 pp, £15.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 434 40192 7
  • Company of Adventurers: The Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company by Peter Newman
    Viking, 413 pp, £14.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 670 80379 0
  • Augustine’s Laws by Norman Augustine
    Viking, 380 pp, £12.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 670 80942 X
  • Peak Performers: The New Heroes in Business by Charles Garfield
    Hutchinson, 333 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 09 167391 7
  • Going for it: How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur by Victor Kiam
    Collins, 223 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 00 217603 3
  • Take a chance to be first: The Secrets of Entrepreneurial Success by Warren Avis
    Macmillan, 222 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 02 504410 9
  • The Winning Streak by Walter Goldsmith and David Clutterbuck
    Weidenfeld/Penguin, 224 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 297 78469 2
  • The Roots of Excellence by Ronnie Lessem
    Fontana, 318 pp, £3.95, December 1985, ISBN 0 00 636874 3
  • The New Management of Local Government by John Stewart
    Allen and Unwin, 208 pp, £20.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 00 435232 7

Bryan Carsberg of Oftel smiles up in soft brown light as he dangles in the mirror on a green office wall. Michael Meyer of Emess Lighting is dissected by the blinds that cut across him and then reassembled from outside – his shirtsleeved figure looming like a target in the formulaic eye of some Hollywood assassin. As for London and Scottish Marine Oil’s Chris Greentree, all that remains of him is a severed head shining above the water as the sun goes down over drilling rigs beached by the receding North Sea tide.

The magazine Management Today has developed a distinctive style of portrait photography in recent years. Here is a constant stream of successful business figures, but here also is a problematic redundancy of appearance: how can one promote the entrepreneurial spirit as a revivifying force by running endless mugshots of the man in a grey flannel suit? So the photographers go to work, decentring the figure, absorbing it into its own reflection, dismembering and scattering it about the place. Unlikely angles proliferate as the background is picked over for relieving features which can be drawn into the newly vacant centre of the image: anything from the fluted pillars and wrought-iron gates of some nearby Classical architecture to the futuristic technology of the working environment.

Keen to escape the predictable routines of business appearance, these photographs certainly don’t withdraw into a romantic focus on personal character. It is no part of their intention to seek out the distinguishing signs of wisdom, skill or experience in the unique lines of any individual’s face. Altogether lighter in approach, they treat their subjects as provisional appearances which can be animated and defined from outside – reassembled as part of the situation in which their significance is to be found. This is a portraiture of prospect and position rather than of indwelling personality, and it accepts the loss of traditional subjectivity without the slightest trace of melancholy.

The business imagination has been coming into its own in other ways as well. Management Studies may still be considered disreputable in some quarters of the university, but it is no longer that makeshift department of Nissen huts kept off the well-tended preserves of the traditional academic disciplines. The liberal academy’s green-belt areas are now well on the way to being broken up and redeveloped. The architecture of the ‘self-financing’ management institute is encroaching steadily, and even the stretches of parkland that remain seem to be infested with moles. The business schools have been covering the ground with Malcolm Bradbury, Martin Wiener and Correlli Barnett. Their audit of the nation is complete. Confirming old suspicions about the degeneracy of the sociology department, it has also brought out a newer truth about English culture and its responsibility for the decline of the industrial spirit. Doubtless the westward flight of professors will continue as the Social Sciences and Humanities are incorporated into the new curriculum: a series of two-day courses in market research and letter-writing skills.

If management has been conquering the university in recent years, it has also found its own uses for that old totem of liberal culture known as the book. Books on management aren’t just pouring out: they are also becoming more confident. Gone are the studious attempts to constitute management as a properly boring academic subject, or to justify recommendations and prescriptions in terms borrowed from more respectable disciplines. The leading ‘management thinkers’ are no longer trying to bring the movement of enterprise under a rational description which might identify professional management with stable administrative functions of planning, resource allocation and control. Far from trying to take the guesswork out of the corporate game, the tendency now is to celebrate it. Unlike the welfare capitalists who tried to gentrify the jungle, the more recent books urge us to face it as it is.

The leading management books of the Eighties have been American, and ‘excellence’ is their creed. Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman Junior’s In Search of Excellence[1] appeared in 1982 and it quickly established itself as the best-selling management book ever. Here was an unambiguous riposte to the Japanese economic miracle, that Pearl Harbour of the Carter era. Excellence didn’t need to be imported from over the Pacific. Drawing on their experience as consultants with McKinsey and Company, Peters and Waterman Junior insisted that it was a native quality of American enterprise.

Peters and Waterman Junior certainly display the trappings of their own worldly success, but as authors they have old-fashioned sweat on their temples. Delivered in a style that combines hucksterism with the forceful sincerity of the big tent, their book puts across a Message of the large evangelical kind. Beneath the spirit-crushing rules of the administered corporation, there are people trying to fight their way through. Indeed, if American corporations fail, this is probably because they have smothered the creativity of their own people. This is not another semi-therapeutic attempt to manage the unconscious impulses of Organisation Man, that time-serving drone who – discovered by William Whyte in the Fifties – came fully fitted with the miserable wife, brattish children and off-the-peg infidelities of a Joseph Heller novel that was yet to be written. The creed of excellence has a sun-bleached Californian feel, but it is also tuned into the spiritual tradition of ‘Let my people go.’ Excellence replaces the measured outputs of the coerced and managed work-force with the unpredictable creativity of small risk-taking teams to which ‘rulism’ and corporate planning mean only death. The advocate of Excellence sighs with relief as the regulated work-place-factory, cotton-field or centralised office – is consigned to the scrapheap of history. In place of this brutal and dehumanised scenario comes a cult of diversification, limited decentralisation and self-management. The drone used to be managed into reluctant productivity with the sticks and carrots of behaviourism. Excellence turns away from this and starts with the reborn figure of the ‘turned-on’ American worker – fired by the ‘high’ of his situation as he rides Toffler’s third wave towards the post-industrial shore.

The excellent company knows that the pace of ‘change’ – one of management thinking’s catch-all reifications – is escalating, and also that constant innovation is the prerequisite of success. Knowing that the people most likely to break new ground are the ones who would be coded ‘weird’ and ‘delinquent’ under the rational model, it gives oddballs their head and accepts false starts as essential to development. The excellent company looks after its potential ‘champions’, but it has no more time for the imported welfare bureaucracy of the Personnel Department (which turned the American citizen into Organisation Man in the first place) than it does for the laborious machinery of trade-unionism. If excellence is all about modernisation it is also about getting back to the real essence of the capitalist process. With the defeat of welfarist ideologies the distance between success and failure has been restored: once more, there is a wide open range for the cowboys, campfires and makeshift settlements of the entrepreneurial revival. Thanks to new technology, the spirit of enterprise is also being freed from the worst imbecilities of the factory system. Excellence is a New Age utopia which offers its own recovery of history. When the 21st century breaks there may still be cowboys everywhere, but we will also be seeing the market restored to the purity of Adam Smith’s description, excavated and cleansed of encrustation after a hundred and fifty years in the industrial bureaucratic swamp.

In Search of Excellence was an immediate million-seller, and its success unleashed a flurry of like-minded books. Tom Peters teamed up with Nancy Austin to restate the main arguments in A Passion For Excellence[2] – a second-try book which set out to be a little more practical in its recommendations and which also tried to counter the macho-zen bias of the first book by speaking to the burgeoning field of women’s development in management. Claiming real ‘hands-on’ experience, Craig Hickman and Michael Silva published Creating excellence, a book which was pleased to go beyond business school prescriptions and to concentrate on the pragmatics of vision and culture – vital resources which need deliberate management within organisations. Gifford Pinchot III’s Intrapreneuring extended the case for flexible temporary structures and competitive entrepreneurialism within consolidated organisations. By allowing employees to form teams and make competitive bids internally, large companies would harness creativity, reward internal initiative and reap the full benefit of their human resources. Like all the best yields of the new management thinking, this is a development from which no one stands to lose – what Pinchot III calls a Win/Win situation.

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[1] Harper and Row, 386 pp., £14.96 and £6.95, 1982 and 1984, 0 06 01502 4.

[2] Collins/Fontana, 437 pp., £12.95 and £3.95, 1985 and August 1986, 0 00 217529 0.

[3] Esprit, December 1984, translation in Telos No 64, Summer 1985.