Monthly Archives: September 2014

Not-so Flat Management?

Today’s post focuses on the main ideas contained within Chapter 14 of Management Basics for Information Professionals by Evans and Alire. The chapter begins with the assertion that younger generations are more likely to engage in teamwork based on a more inclusive, team-centred upbringing. This is an idea that I would like to return to in a few moments and to discuss in relation to a social media generation.

However, before I do that, it is important to give an outline of Evans and Alire’s position in this essay. They put forward the argument that teamwork is more productive and effective than traditional management styles, so long as the teamwork is organised and set up effectively. This means that a clear goal needs to be established at the beginning of the task by an external team manager; that team members need to be then selected according to their skills, attitudes towards team work and their personal characteristics; once the team is selected, they then need to undergo some training to ensure that they communicate effectively, that they give feedback in an open, honest and transparent way, that they understand the concepts of accountability and empowerment, and finally that they are prepared to collaborate effectively within a team rewards system.

I am not going to go into the chapter details any further, but part of the argument is that this kind of structure should see traditional top-down management being replaced by a ‘flat’ system in which people collaborate on collective goals. However, I can’t help but to think that the model outlined by Evans and Alire is not so flat after all. I mean, it seems to me that there is a lot of management and organisation required to set up a team project. I would argue that their model is certainly ‘flatter’ than traditional models, but it is still highly structured and systematic at the same time, perhaps representing a more tightly packed hierarchy rather than an actual flat system. I am not altogether sure that a truly flat system is possible within an institution in that institutions rely quite heavily on pre-established rules and regulations.

Of course, as someone who is interested in postmodernism, I do believe that a flat system works best, but one in which true autonomy is granted to a group. This can perhaps only really happen with a new start-up company in which the parameters have not already been set; I believe there are many tech companies that qualify, as well as the open source movement. Teams within institutions are always working within certain parameters. Institutions can of course change the rules a little, but they never throw the rule book away. I don’t disagree with Evans and Alire. Their model certainly would work best within an already structured organisation, hence the need for so much planning and organising of human resources. Their essay needs to be considered within this context rather than seen as a truly flat model. However it is assessed, Evans and Alire’s model still retains an external manager who in turn may well be subordinate to a top-level manager also. Hierarchy still exists and the external manager is still responsible. If the team fails, then there will be questions as to whether or not it was set up effectively. The team of course will always be aware of this and so will, perhaps, not be as accountable as the external manager may like. It is a flatter hierarchy, but a hierarchy all the same.

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I would like now to return to the idea that younger generations are more prone to succeed at teamwork than their older counterparts. Younger generations certainly are more comfortable with the idea of community if we consider the range of social media that they/we (I am 33, do I count!?) engage with. But at the same time, is this really community? And does such social network community really prepare people for collaborative efforts?

Social media definitely does help people to connect, and does so while increasing cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness. But then again, think about the nature of social media. Most sites (twitter, Instagram, WordPress, etc.) are set up for people to become followers. Even Facebook’s ‘friends’ does not truly mimic a professional team in that you very often, within an organisation, do not get to choose your team. Is this model really conducive to being part of a team? I believe that Evans and Alire are promoting a team within which people do not simply follow, but who become co-leaders in the completing of a task. Social media ventures usually have people only engaging on a superficial, surface level. These platforms really lack the depth of personality that is required for effective teamwork.

I accept that Evans and Alire did not mention social media in their examples, but it is interesting to consider whether or not, as social media becomes more and more apart of how we connect, whether it is fostering individual innovation and responsibility, or whether it is simply another part of the ‘brain-drain’ of technology.

Information as ‘story’

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It is interesting that the past continues to steam roll into the present when you least expect it. I was sitting in a lecture on Information Theory when the literary theory of my past lit a fire in my mind once again. I had thought studying the MA in Library and Information Studies was a new departure into a different future, until I heard Dr. Lai ask “What is ‘information?'”. Of course, there was no response. We had just spent the last week reading theorists who had been studying the subject for decades and who had failed to come to a definite answer on the question. Dr. Lai answered the question for us: ‘Everything!’. That naturally did not really narrow it down all that much!

I have to admit I was frustrated by the readings that week. It seemed to me as a first impression that information theorists are stuck back in a time before post-structuralism, still theorising circles around each other in the pursuit of a definitive definition of the word ‘information’. And all for what? So that more regulation can be introduced. So that the word, the idea can be further controlled. There was a sense in all of the readings that each theorist believed they were being objective. I remember thinking, the more they try to narrow it down the more out of control and expansive the word becomes. That is because every attempt to define the word resulted in more being added to it. For me, the heterogeneity of the word is where its strength lies. Lets not try to tie it down. Why not let the word grow organically? Let’s explore its possibilities so as to create more space for innovation to emerge. Let’s finally learn that narrow definitions that lead to stricter rules and regulations actually destroy creativity.

And then, with those thoughts, came rushing back a new answer out of the past. Dr. Lai was right, information is everything. But, what is everything? The answer……’story’, or narrative. The key terms that define ‘information’ revolve around data, process, knowing and communicating. There emerged the idea in the lectures and readings that information is essentially manipulated data, that is, data used in specific contexts by people with a specific agenda. Poststructuralist linguistic theory determines that the same word spoken by two different people results in two different words. Why? Because words are not just lines on a page, or sounds vibrating through the air. Words are experiences with context and subjectivity build into them and that ‘experience’ of word changes in mid air and is transformed the moment it leaves the speakers lips. What it transforms into is another, different experience that depends on who is hearing it. It might sound strange, but no one word is the same. So in this sense, or more accurately, in my own sense, information is narrative, a never ending game of Chinese Whispers spiralling out of control because no two people in the game speak the same language…….

1984: O’Brien’s Totalitarian Management Style

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O’Brien from Orwell’s 1984 may seem like an unusual choice for a post on a fictional manager, but in many ways, O’Brien takes a Composite Approach to management in that he adopts key features of a variety of management styles and perverts these styles to extreme degrees in order to achieve total control over the minds of his employees.

O’Brien is manager of the History Department in Big Brother’s world. He instructs, organizes and manages employees in the re-writing of history so that all references to any revolutionizing strands within human civilization be erased from memory, thereby quashing any interest or tendency towards rebellion. Or in O’Brien’s own words, “who controls the present controls the past”. In the same way that O’Brien is perverting history, he is also exploiting some key concepts within management theory. Mahonee, Jardy and Carroll argue for three functions of managers in that they practice technical, people and conceptual skills. O’Brien does fit in to this model as a middle manager. He is technical in his exposition of linguistics in the re-writing of history; he acknowledges the importance of his interactions with people insofar as they are a threat to totality; and he also retains some conceptual skills in explaining to Winston that all history is essentially fiction, accepting of course that O’Brien is a product of Big Brother’s will.

O’Brien’s management style bends to a number of approaches that allow him a methodology for corrupting the minds of his employees. At the same time, he completely denies any approach that may lead to employees’ independent thinking. For example, the Scientific Approach to management seeks to eliminate the distrust that exists between managers and employees through establishing clear parameters and rates of pay. O’Brien acknowledges that there must be ultimate or supreme trust between himself and Winston, but can only see this happening if he can control Winston’s mind by deceiving him into a false rebellion and then torturing him for it.

The novel also asserts a deeply Administrative Approach in that O’Brien has extreme disciplined policies and rules, a unity of command and direction under Big Brother, organizational over personal interest in the abolition of free-thinking through the use of the thought-police, and centralization. At the same time the more human sides of the theory like equity and initiative are completely restricted by O’Brien, thus resulting in another perversion of the approach.

Added to this could be the psychology of the Behavioral Approach in which O’Brien uses Rose to motivate Winston into thoughts of rebellion. Not to mention the Scientific Approach in which he models specific outcomes prior to exposing Winston in order be sure of the final result of his experiment, resulting of course in the events of Room 101 in which Winston finally submits to O’Brien’s will.

Of course, there is a key failure in O’Brien’s style of management. The fact remains that while Winston succumbs to the power and authority of Big Brother, he also never betrays Rose. For budding managers out there, the lesson is that you can never completely control an employee irrespective of how minutely one manages every detail of a project. O’Brien’s management in this sense is a distortion of management theory itself.