The Age of Management:
Most periods of history are, to the participants, unusual at the time simply because they’re still happening, they aren’t history yet; but certain aspects of the one we’ve been living through for the last thirty years or so are particularly strange. Fortunately there are signs that this singular and curiously impractical conjunction of aberrations may be going out of fashion (I put it no more positively than that). As there seems to be no commonly-agreed label, let’s refer to this disastrous period as the Age of Management.
The function of a manager is:   to facilitate and co-ordinate the activities of the people who actually do the work. A good manager is of great benefit; unfortunately they’re as rare as good artists, and for the same reason. Those working in any field of activity appear always to divide up in much the same way: a tiny number of exceptional people, a larger number of competent, useful people, and the ruck who are simply clinging on for sheer survival, hoping not to be found out. This division is common across all fields; the outcome however is very different, in that a bad worker only spoils what’s in front of them, whilst a bad organiser’s spoliage can extend to the horizon and beyond.
There has always & everywhere been something referred to contemptuously as “bureacracy” because, as we know, everything has its own specific way of failing   -   so to speak, the “strange attractors” of the non-mathematical world, grooves of behaviour into which certain activites tend to drop more easily than others, “occupational hazards”   -   and the matter of organisational or office activity that underpins most areas of work is no exception. Lazy habits in furtherance of a quiet life, resistance first to change and then to common-sense, entrenched pettiness, working by the letter not the spirit, personal empire-building etc etc are all horribly familiar. The Age of Management however denotes something above and beyond this.
The majority of serious disasters originate in the unforeseen co-inciding of several smaller problems, none of which would necessarily have been crucial on their own. The Titanic sinking, for instance: even given the basics (the need for speed to impress financial backers on the maiden voyage, the prevalence of icebergs, the setting-aside of warnings etc etc), loss of life on that scale would not have taken place without the radio-operator’s earlier petty argument with the potential rescue ship nearby and that ship’s subsequent refusal to keep a radio watch. Or on the largest scale: would we have had the entire 1st World War (and thus the 2nd, and the entire ensuing shape of the twentieth century) IF the Archduke’s car had not been held up in traffic and THEN taken the backstreet shortcut to Sarajevo station AND the failed anarchist hadn’t by pure chance been walking home via the same backstreet? The Age of Management only achieved its impetus because of a strange and unlikely confluence of apparently conflicting notions from both the political left and right.
A defining characteristic of the viciously right-wing government of the eighties was an absurd over-valuation of something it called “business”, and it is worth pausing a moment to examine some of the implications of this.
What are the skills of business, or of making large sums of money? To start with, it should be obvious to everyone except those immersed in self-justification that there is no given relation at all between hard work and riches. A worker who works harder can make that little bit more, but no-one at all ever made millions this way; wage activity simply doesn’t scale up to that level. Large sums of money are made by spotting opportunities and exploiting them; sometimes the exploitation takes work (though rarely on a scale related to the work of wage-earning); frequently it’s merely a matter of setting things in motion. The incessant whinge of the very rich that it was all done by Sweat and Toil is a silly camouflage; it was done by being sharp and by wheeling-and-dealing. The skills necessary for this can be fairly minimal; often a certain quite narrow kind of sharpness or a practised nose for this bit of the game are all that’s needed. For every brilliant inventor bringing their new patent to market and needing a huge range of understanding of design, manufacturing, finance etc, there are a million semi-smart operators who were simply standing in the right place at the right time and managed to notice. It is not automatic that any of this can be brought to bear in areas outside their (to repeat: often narrow) competence. And if such a person is given power in some other, maybe public field, it’s a good idea to watch them carefully to make sure they aren’t acting merely in their own interest   -   after all, acting in their own interest is why you noticed them at all, it’s what they’ve been good at. The notion that this expertise can suddenly be placed at the disposal of you the public, that this person will now cease to act in their own interest and act unselfishly in yours, is just a touch naive, wouldn’t you say?
Making large amounts of money is on the whole not difficult; mostly what it takes is a complete personal uninvolvement in whatever is being done to ensure those large amounts accumulate. This mostly requires the doer not to notice the nullity of what they’re doing; ie to lack the imagination to be closely involved in anything. Of course, imaginative rich people do exist, but they’re in the minority; you can easily check this by observing the bored parade of uninspired fantasy clichés on which riches mostly tend to get spent.
As always: there is a positive and a negative version of everything. Broadly speaking, there are two quite different activities coming under the term “business”. There is skilled , “break-even” business, where someone is good at doing something, enjoys doing it, and needs to make enough money to go on doing it (preferably with a little surplus for comfort, but this isn’t the prime point). And on the other hand, there is an activity involving no skill or interest whose purpose is simply to make as much money as possible as fast as possible. These antithetical positions currently have to live under the same word, but the second has an enormous advantage: because no skill or interest is involved, it is a great deal easier, and attracts a certain kind of participant on this basis. The usual model rolled out in defence of “business” is that of the person who has a brilliant idea, starts a company and achieves “success”   -   the “Dyson” model. But this is comparatively rare; the successful business is much more likely to have invented nothing, instead employing a sort of devious low cunning to manipulate their chosen trading area into facing their way (often killing off any opposition with better ideas in the way that   -   for instance   -   Microsoft did whilst they could get away with it), or even making no attempt to have any product beyond mere gambling and trickery. The less we produce, incidentally , the more we transfer the word “product” to what were once called ideas or concepts (what exactly is a “mortgage product”?)
Someone who is good at their work and enjoys it makes the world a better place, both through what they make and by setting an example. What is the example set by someone with no skill doing nothing of interest and producing nothing useful beyond their own self-aggrandisement? What is the purpose of (say) a currency speculator? An activity without product, that fiddles about with the alignment anomalies between cultures, and exploits this simply to inflate the doer’s ego and bank balance (which the doer is anyway so existentially impoverished as to have conflated)?
Ignoring this contradiction, and (for good measure) simultaneously obliterating the distinction between a profit-making activity and a service, the Grosser government of the eighties [let’s not tarnish real hard-working grocers with the insult “grocer”; we’ll use instead the older verb “grossing”, essentially signifying the reduction of everything to counting] used a rhetorical approbation of the skilled, positive business world as camouflage, whilst in their actual behaviour they elevated the procedures of the negative business world to the status of an untouchable and uncriticisable paradigm. Business procedures are the ideal! Everything must play at being a business! People who suggested that the modus operandi of bodies which ran services (councils, governments) was   -   and had to be   -   essentially different from bodies whose prime aim was profit, that someone concerned with making a rural bus service work properly was going to operate in a fundamentally different manner from a publicly-traded company with a legal duty to put the profit of its shareholders before anything else, were ignored or shouted down with the usual “out-of-date, old-fashioned” jibes. Much mouthing was heard about “innovation”, mostly from persons whose only innovation was the clothing in which they contrived to dress-up some very ancient swindles.
This sudden canonisation of the negative business model created an equally sudden need for evangelists to spread the word and priests to officiate at its services. Overnight, almost anyone could be installed at the top of an organisation and given almost unlimited power on the strength of their “business acumen”. Ideology abhors a vacuum, and suddenly the ruck of the inadequates could see a way to make themselves felt. Nobody had to prove any previous adequacy in business (which   -   even on the rare occasion that they had any   -   they could not anyway do in the context of a public service activity such as, say, the NHS); talking the talk was quite enough. You laced your conversation with a few “good” words like “rigorous” or “robust”, mixing these with a morass of sporting clichés: “At the end of the day we must rigorously go down the road of taking on board being at the sharp end of the cutting edge. Let us ringfence an awayday about robustly moving the goalposts on a level playing field”. The word “parameter” enjoyed a sudden vogue amongst the barely-literate; nobody knew what it meant, but as it was a bit like the word “perimeter” they decided it must mean “limit” and used it accordingly (to the point where we now need a new word signifying “a category of measurement”, which is what parameter actually means).
Very quickly, this huge influx of the inadequate reached a critical mass. Whatever kind of person is in the majority on employment panels, will hire more of itself; and now these people were, and did. People outside this system, who could see the immense harm it was already doing, began to speak of “Unskilled Management”. We used to have “unskilled labour”, mostly people with no understanding beyond the muscular; if you wanted something dug or lifted, you pointed them at it and they dug or lifted it. Of course, they were all killed off or told to crawl away and die in the de-industrialisation of the eighties, when the Grossers decided it was more honourable (and much cheaper) to get our digging and lifting done in Taiwan or Eastern Europe where we didn’t have to see it. But our unskilled muscle had at least been comparatively cheap, something which could not be said of the new breed of Unskilled Managers which replaced them. Thanks to the “critical mass” effect, these people hiked each other’s salaries up to astronomical heights, the while talking of how this was necessary to attract “the best” people, ie more like themselves. Failure was invariably rewarded.
Another strange and wholly delusional characteristic of the time was that management was now regarded as a portable skill. It was assumed that no knowledge of what you were managing was required; “management” became a kind of pure concept, akin to pure mathematics, unsullied by contact with any real occurences out in the nasty messy complicated world. Whilst this works for mathematics, only the incorrigibly impractical and inexperienced would suppose it likely to work in the world beyond their board meetings. But now you could move from managing a hospital to managing an arts centre, from a supermarket warehouse to a university, without an eyebrow being raised. Once again, those puzzled souls who said, “Look, only about 12% of management skill is portable, the rest depends on understanding what you’re managing, and that can only be done with inside knowledge, acquired experience and the judgement that goes with it” were all shouted down. Of course, they were now a minority; the Unskilled Management revolution was a way for every nobody to be somebody, and there will never be a shortage of nobodies who urgently desire to become somebodies.
If you have no skills, no grasp of what you’re trying to organise, no feel for what goes on, what do you do? Why, count things of course. Anyone can do that.
The Grosser government was in no mood to consider that counting things, like the whole of logic and reason, is just a tool, and (like all tools) cares not what it is applied to. Tools have no moral or discriminatory component; what you do with them is up to you. You want to use a chisel as a screwdriver, fine, it’ll work for a little while; nothing to do with me, shrugs each item in the toolbox, your problem, chum. Knock a nail in with me, yawns the hammer, or knock in a skull, up to you: garbage in, garbage out. The Grosser government did not want to be told that counting things is not a substitute for understanding them, that unless you properly understand what you’re counting, the act of counting itself is likely to do harm by conferring upon the counter a comforting illusion of adequacy. No, they were in love with the business model they’d set up for worship and they needed their priests asap, please. How do we deal with a situation where those responsible for running things don’t know anything about what they’re running? Give ‘em some targets! Stuff to count! In place of all that patient hanging around picking up the feel of things, all that skill, expertise, understanding, we’ll have counting instead; it’ll be cheap as well, doesn’t need expensive training, people can usually do it already, more or less.
Assembling a bunch of people only capable of counting, and then making their careers dependent on meeting “targets” over things they didn’t understand, was obviously a perfect recipe for disaster; but the ideological blinkers ensured this went unnoticed. Practices arose which can only be characterised as insane, such as the fashion for “root cause analysis” (a technique based on the premise "for any problem there is one and only one root cause", devised for trouble-shooting in car manufacturing plants; it works well enough in closed, completely knowable systems of that kind, but is disastrous when applied by the ignorant to open, shifting, unknowable systems such as   -   for instance   -   mental health. But it had an impressive-sounding sciencey sort of name well-suited to posturing and ego-massage. Cf the paragraph on co-incident causes of disasters, above).
Around this point, thoughtful people began to hope for some move from centres of education against this patently fatuous nonsense. Surely the academics will help us against ideological takeover?
But just at this time, by malign mischance another ideological movement was in full swing, this one fondly imagining itself to be impeccably left-wing and well-meaning: anti-élitism.
We all know the argument: people who can do things make people who can’t do things feel stupid. We can change this by levelling everybody either up or down; but “up”, for some unaccountable reason, appears to be difficult, so we mostly opt for “down”.
This notion is never, by the way, invoked for football and other sports, nor when you’re seeking a surgeon to make complex repairs, nor when you’re in urgent need of an aeroplane flown or a bridge built. As soon as these immediate needs recede, however, the world spins sideways like a stage-set revolve and a wholly different value framework slides into view. Good at music, dancing, writing? Away, vile élitist! Bothered to acquire some serious understanding of something that might genuinely help the world’s pain? How dare you put on such airs! An academic qualification? Soon sort that out, we’ll have degrees in everything so everybody’s got one, what could be fairer?
Back in the sixties, Sociology had the reputation of a joke subject invented for people who didn’t know why they were at university; but it now looks like a hard science compared to what came along afterwards. Degrees in hairdressing obviously won’t impress academically, but a number of subjects were specifically devised both to appeal to this new market and to pretend to look like real degrees. If you felt vagely artistic, you had Media Studies; but for those who would follow the new religion, you had Business Studies, the MBA.
Why would anyone need a qualification in business? Like performing an instrument in public, you can either do it or you can’t. Nobody ever, at all, anywhere, asked for the performer’s qualifications before buying a ticket to their gig; and nobody, ever, at all, anywhere, would only agree to trade with you commercially on the basis of your flaunting the right letters after your name. Look through your CD collection; do you see anyone on the credits putting A.Mus TCL (or suchlike) after themselves? Look through the FT at the world of cut-throat trading; see any quallys lurking about? No? So why is it held desirable in Unskilled Management? Surely it cannot be that the participants feel slightly embarrassed at their lack of ability and need to compensate (like those trivial candyfloss songwriters at the bottom of the compositional foodchain who feel better if they’re part of an “Academy”)?
Not so long ago education (leaving aside the people who were simply thrown away) used to be divided into: the Technical world, where you learned an immediately practical skill from an expert who already knew it; the Academic world, where you learned things with a background theoretical base attached, still from somebody who’d done it for longer than you but who (however much expertise they had) was there on a basis of “we’re all investigating the unknown together”; and lastly a strange middle region of studies that were both theoretical and dirtily hands-on practical at the same time, mostly concerning the arts and medicine, which didn’t fit in anywhere else and had their own specialist establishments. There is a lot of hard technical study in medicine with enough solid technical facts to make assessment possible, and there is a reason for having medical qualifications: some attempt has to be made to assess your lilelihood of doing people harm before you get a chance to do it. There is often a lot of hard technical study in the arts also, but there is no reason for having artistic qualifications; doing it well is the qualification. Business however demands neither hard technical study nor qualifications. In business, as in the arts, no one cares; Can you do it? is all that counts. But as the worship of “business” was an ideology not a practicality, the priests weren’t operating in this framework; in the absence of any visible skill, something was needed to confer prestige, and MBAs were born.
And inevitably, just as it became a major academic aim that everyone should be qualified and no plant should stick up beyond the clipped hedge line, what should arise but the realisation that we already had a Theoretical school so perfectly suited to supporting this attitude that it might have been invented for the purpose? What this school told us, philosophically, was: nothing has any meaning, nothing has any value, “doing” is of no consequence, if this particular person hadn’t had this particular artistic or scientific idea at this particular moment then someone else would have done, ideas are bound to arise on their own at certain times and there’s no particular credit in going and finding them. The only people who counted, of course, were the priesthood of superior Theorists who could explain to us from the heights of their Godly understanding the significance of the scurryings of all those pathetic “doers” scuttling about with dirty paws down in messy actuality. It takes no especial insight to note how this maps perfectly on to the emerging position of Unskilled Management.
So an academic movement that started from a misguided but genuine desire to be helpful to “those who do not respond well to information”, the ones who were “simply thrown away”, was instead pressed into service supporting the rise of the Unskilled Manager, for whom it came like Divine Accreditation.
It is remarkable, the depth of poisonous resentment which is held by certain of the unskilled towards the skilled. That they themselves could also have acquired skill, had they bothered, never seems to occur to them. This is not, of course, encountered amongst the delvers and toilers proper; rather it is found in those who consider “doing” beneath them and who feel themselves entitled to social preferment purely on the grounds of being them   -   they always knew they were special.
Putting all this together, the totality that emerged can be seen to have been a gigantic, accidental, unholy alliance between political left and right, between sharks and carers. It was in the (ostensibly opposed) interests of both to downgrade “skill” of any kind. And circumstances were right; there was enough economic surplus to support it all. Like mould in a warm damp closet, it penetrated everywhere. Nothing worked: the country that invented railways could no longer run a railway, the country that invented the NHS could no longer run a Health Service. To disguise this, there was a tremendous upsurge in Marketing and similar smoke-and-mirrors trickery; dishonest shiny glitz covered over the yawning chasms where the understanding had been leeched out. Board meetings, committees, working groups everywhere were full of expensive glossy publicity material demonstrating how well everything was going regardless of any possible facts; osteopaths were deluged in tsunamis of business treating discs misaligned from all the self-congratulatory back-slapping.
Examples are everywhere. Railways have already been cited; what imbecile decided to separate the delivery system (track, signalling, stations etc) and treat trains as a unitary product? It just about works for electricity, gas, water, which are simple unitary products; but trains are complicated. To suppose that such a practice can only have been proposed by someone utterly ignorant of railways would be quite correct; the managers at privatisation were drawn from petroleum, gambling, food-and-drink… but railways, never. In my own field of the arts, one encounters all the time pompous statements about how we have “the best arts management in the world”, ignoring the desperate shrinkage of opportunity for young artists, for whom getting going is now almost impossible without becoming some sort of circus-trick funding-poodle and limiting your art accordingly.
The most serious example remains the NHS, Balkanised almost to extinction, qualified practitioners leaving in disgusted droves, unable to work properly in the face of an imbecile, bullying, clinically-ignorant management obsessed (in the absence of professional understanding) with counting things. Huge quantities of management are there purely to facilitate parts of what was (and should be) a unified organisation playing a gigantic macabre game, not of “doctors and nurses” but of “businesses and markets”; the buying and selling of services between the butchered gobbets of an organisation dressed up as independent business entities, in a context which was never a business in the first place but a service (S.E.R.V.I.C.E , remember? those things we used to have? Whose prime point was to do things for people, not to make money?) The political right has always hated the NHS, and in Unskilled Management they finally found the perfect tool to destroy it from the inside, an ideal recipe: create the structure with its management demands, watch the results getting worse and worse, wring your hands in public about how the NHS is becoming unmanageable and non-viable, wait till everybody’s got used to this idea, then kill it, finish it off; job done. And then we can all go back to those Victorian values (cholera, typhoid, die-if-you-can’t-pay) which the Grosser government vaunted so much back in the 80s.
But things may be changing. As noted above, to support a vast infrastructure of useless deadweight (no, deadweight would be an improvement; this stuff is active not passive in its obstruction) is a luxury requiring a large economic surplus to maintain, and since 2008 we don’t have one. Whilst there are few signs of actual conscious understanding, bankruptcy concentrates the mind wonderfully. The 2008 crash, largely brought about precisely by the uninformed, unskilled activities of those here portrayed, was a form of poetic justice wherein they made their own position impossible. Let’s see what the on-going Euro-crisis brings.
Note: For a detailed, specific example of hard outcomes in the real world, please see “Making a Killing   -   a case study in NHS management”, which is intended as a companion piece to this essay and illustrates almost point-by-point the attitudes, procedures and contextual situation portrayed above.
© David Humpage 2015