Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Danger of Inappropriate Management Speak

Perhaps the most stimulating thinker on organisations today is Martin Lukes whose bon mots appear epigrammatically--in the form of emails sent to colleagues and loved ones--in Thursday's Financial Times. Martin "touches base" with us with on how he gives "120%" of his available "bandwidth" to projects at a-b global. Two immediately come to mind, Creovation (tm) and Integethics (tm). (For those somewhat awed by Martin's conceptual artistry, the former is the synegistic configuration of creativity + innovation, the latter is integrity + ethics, both trademarked.)

While Martin is a master at whose feet we can learn, others who imitate him without undergoing a long and arduous apprenticeship can look a little foolish. This was brought to mind when a memorandum fluttered across my desk warning us, among other things, about the dangers of "silos" in the university. Since I am a mere tyro compared to Martin, and my linguistic and conceptual mindmaps are yet to be drawn fully, I was perplexed when I saw we had silos. Naively, visions of wheat, corn and intercontinental ballistic missiles drifted across my imagination. How stupid I was: of course the writer was referring, perhaps too opaquely, to the ways organisations give rise to little pockets of expertise that enter into discourse with themselves or similar groups in other organisations. (Sub-units form that don't have much to do with other sub-units, ie, turf wars.) The memo further contended that we should crawl out of our silos--well, not in those words, but that's what it meant--and engage with the entire organisational community. A gigantic brotherhood of communal scholarship, enriching, enlightening and maybe a tad entropic.

You may detect a hint of dissatisfaction on my part with this portrayal. Fair cop. Of course we should hold Martin Lukes in awe: he's bloody awful and represents everything, everything that's worst about organisations. The truly horrible thing about Martin's musings is that when you first read them, you take them seriously for that's how close to the bone they are. It takes a few moments before you realise that it's a joke. Rather like the way "Yes, Minister" used to pillory the mandarins of Whitehall.

When senior administrators in universities start talking about the silo mentality in their institutions, I wonder if they can see what it is that universities do and are. (And I should stress the memo was, unfortunately, no joke.) They are collectivities of intellectuals and experts who have undergone extensive and intensive intellectual training/education over many years with a view to creating and disseminating knowledge by research and teaching. They are not in the business of peddling creovation (tm). I mainly want to speak to colleagues and collaborators who are in similar research areas to mine. There are some within my own law school and others outside in different institutions. I may want to consider working with others in my university, but only if I so choose. It is pointless telling me that I ought to do so or that I have an obligation to so engage.

My law school, for example, has one of the best research reputations in the UK for socio-legal research. We have built up that expertise over a decade or so. Our aim is to maintain or, better, enhance that reputation, especially as measured by exercises like the Research Assessment Exercise (see earlier blogs). That philosophy may inculcate a silo mentality, although I wouldn't call it that. We are specialists who like talking to each other. If we are forced to become less specialised in order to satisfy the latest management guru's edict (the "One Minute Manager" comes to mind...), we diminish ourselves. We become dishonest. Our intellectual community is fostered by closeness and trust built up over time. It's foolish to let that dissipate. There are, however, times when it's right to connect with the public mind, but that is not our primary responsibility.

Before I wrote this, I looked through some organizational texts that discussed silos. Not one referred to universities. I wonder why. Perhaps Martin Lukes should put his immense intellect to it
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1 comment:

Aleksey said...

The pro tem problem
Being mayor pro tem, says City Councilman Tom Phillips, is "like being the greeter at Wal-Mart." He's got a point.
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