I’m reading through a series of blogs on the Harvard Business Review and a European conference site about the Drucker Forum that will happen in Vienna later this week. Steve Denning wrote back in May about how The Internet Is Finally Forcing Management to Care About People. Denning’s position is summed up pretty well by the title of the article, namely that digital transformation will help drive humanist management.
Overall, Denning starts with a lament that all the humanist ways of thinking about management over the last 40 years have pretty much led nowhere because rewarding CEOs for shareholder value creates an impetus for command-and-control management over humanism. In Denning’s view, the shift of power from seller to buyer, from producer to consumer, will create pressure to create “new and better ways to delight customers”, beyond just price and volume. He also sees the digital transformation in the workplace, as it “shreds vertical supply chains”, and forces the businesses into the world of virtual meeting places and horizontal management rather than vertical command-and-control structures. With those premises in mind, he argues:
While armies of dispirited bureaucrats, driven by command-and-control, simply can’t get this job done, the enabling management practices and metrics of humanistic management are well suited to it. When the goal is the inherently inspiring goal of delighting customers, managers don’t need to make employees do their job. With managers and workers sharing the same goal—delighting customers—the humanistic management practices of trust and collaboration become not only possible but necessary.
I’m not as optimistic as Denning. Command and control structures do not simply exist because it was backed by a focus on the bottom line. Command and control, generally, is a direct result of the complexity of organizations and attempts by individuals to force order on apparent chaos, to bring their internal environment to heel. Government is a perfect example — many Departments are fully seized with their “clients”, partly because there is no profit metric to measure. It’s all about the client. Yet command and control, and bureaucracies in general, are rampant throughout these organizations.
In addition, Denning argues that “Education systems must support greater entrepreneurial skills and life-long learning to prepare people for the new world of work” while “Greater support must be provided for individuals to start their own businesses.”. In some ways, these are in direct opposition to each other — one, a service provided by the state; the second, a DIY mentality for business.
He also feels that the argument for treating customers with respect is already won. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite. If Amazon’s business model has taught people anything, it is that ruthless dehumanizing of the client is incredibly profitable. Sure, they make fast delivery to “meet their needs”, but their customers are not being “respected”, just ruthlessly served because it’s profitable, particularly if you can increase volume and decrease purchase friction.
Doesn’t scream humanist management to me…