There is an understandable temptation to take the view that the increasingly pervasive notion that we are experiencing a period of unprecedented change is somewhat overdone. After all, it has been pointed out that the late 19th century saw a similar coming together of information technology and speed – in that case, brought about by the arrival of the telegraph and the railways – to produce a revolution in the way in which things were done. And then there is the lingering suspicion that all those management consultants who seem intent on taking over the world have more than a slight vested interest in convincing managements that change is happening like never before. Indeed, it takes little sophistication to realise that consultants are far more likely to be in demand from people who feel their world is caving in than from those who generally feel in control. Certainly, with revenues at many firms expanding at rates that are well into double figures, these huge shifts in the equilibrium of whole industries are not without their benefits. But, while it is possible to get a little carried away by all this excitement, there is still little to gain from pretending that it is a figment of management consultants’ imagination. The Internet and e-commerce are, for instance, very real. At the same time, potentially far-reaching changes in the way that organisations operate – signalled by such developments as BT’s announcement that it aims to have a tenth of its 100,000-strong workforce teleworking in short order, and Lloyds TSB’s determination to make flexible working an option for almost everybody, rather than just for working mothers – throw up some immense management challenges. As Stephen Redwood, co-author with two colleagues at PricewaterhouseCoopers of Action Management – billed as “a practical guide to successfully managing corporate change” – points out, there are “irresistible forces” out there. “You can’t avoid them. You have to learn to adapt to them,” he says. Both “learn” and “adapt” are operative words in this arena. Hitherto, much of the thinking espoused by gurus and consultants has had what might be termed a macho feel to it. The messages have centred on tackling change head-on and on driving initiatives through, the implication being that the key is strong leadership at the top of organisations. Several years on, this sort of approach is showing little sign of success. In the view of Peter Senge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic who played a central role in spawning the “learning organisation” industry with his book The Fifth Discipline, the problem is that organisations are being too mechanistic. People think in terms of having a broken company and setting out to fix it by hiring mechanics, he says, pointing out that this accounts for the perceived need for “change agents” and leaders who can “drive change”. Instead, Senge, whose latest book The Dance of Change aims to deal with the challenges of sustaining momentum in learning organisations, says we should think of companies as living organisms. He is, of course, not the first to suggest this view. A number of thinkers, including Arie de Geus, whose book The Living Company appeared a couple of years ago, have come to the same sort of conclusions. But he is perhaps breaking new ground in suggesting that a situation that has largely been caused by man’s ingenuity in coming up with technological developments should be dealt with by biology rather than something more mechanical. Senge’s belief that change should be “cultivated” rather than driven – on the grounds that it requires a more complex relationship than that associated with, say, changing the tyre on a car – also puts him at odds with the idea that chief executives need to take charge of change programmes. Organisations that take such a line are at once implying that their chief executives and often other members of the “top teams” are beyond the learning that they deem necessary for everybody else. As a new book from the Industrial Society points out, one of the tell-tale signs of a true learning organisation is that top executives are as likely to take part in learning programmes as anyone else. Redwood and his PwC colleagues, Simon Street and Charles Goldwasser, also realise that leadership can occur far beyond the boardroom. Among the 10 challenges discussed in their book, Action Management are how management can develop leadership skills and how leaders can teach others to lead, how to enlist middle-management support and how to – in an echo of Senge – “cultivate” support for action with the help of human resources specialists. But the basis of the approach is – as it should be – in the book’s title. Though this might be misread as suggesting that dealing with change is all about expending lots of energy here, there and everywhere, it actually means that actions should be managed properly. At the top of the authors’ list of priorities for dealing with change are strategy setting and other aspects of establishing a plan of campaign, and allocating resources with the aim of making the plan work. The corporate world is littered with examples of change initiatives that have failed because they have lacked direction, failed to engage staff or simply been usurped by equally doomed schemes. But this does not mean that organisations should ignore what is going on. The rallying cry “adapt or die” has never been more apposite. Senior executives need to acknowledge that they do not hold all the answers and so encourage ideas to bubble up from the operating units of their businesses. They would also be well advised to accept that handling change is not something that can be “rolled out” like a new corporate identity. It is messy and unpredictable and probably best attempted in one place at a time, not least because of the need to see real, if limited, progress, rather than an all-consuming mess. Roger Trapp is management editor of The Independent and Independent on Sunday and author of Blunderboss.
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