For and Against: management styles

Has self-organisation become a more effective way of running a business than the top-down approach?

Command and control, or top-down management, has its place for certain things: ensuring nuclear safety for example, or as a way of allocating scarce resources when demand for them is unlimited. The trouble is, organisations rely more on self-organisation among their participants to be successful.

Dr Manfred Hellrigl, an authority on 'social capital', says all organisations depend on self-organisation. The more complex the operation, the more true this is. The issue is how to promote self-organisation: the answer is to build networks. Hellrigl cites the difference between traffic lights (command and control) and roundabouts (self-organisation), where more reliance is placed on distributed intelligence.

Peter Senge, author of 'The Fifth Discipline', says that one of the keys to organisational learning is peer-to-peer networks. He cites the example of Hewlett Packard, where researchers found that as long as the networks were not disrupted, the team was still able to develop high-performing products and lead a technologically intense and fast-changing industry.

Command and control starts at an early age. Schools are organised using the mass-production model favoured'by our industrial forbears - they created the education system to provide labour. At school, we are taught the importance of tangible, logical, rational processing of information and facts. We are conditioned to favour this mode of thinking throughout our lives, and are expected to pick up social skills.

We might discover some hierarchies exist because of their main participants' need for status and power. Psychologist Abraham Maslow said that 'self-actualisers' - those who seek to become spiritually whole in their lives - are not invested in power over other people.

All this leads to organisations that are less conscious of networks than they are of hierarchy. They may be rather good at fighting fires, but have to allow a crisis to develop first.

Another consequence of top-down management is the development of silos, usually delineated by role and function. It becomes comfortable for employees to remain in role - the organisation struggles to achieve cross-functional coordination. The top management and its targets become the customer, and the result can be dismal.

History shows that in difficult times, those with strong networks thrive. They are best placed to adapt to change. Modern managers need to hone their effectiveness at forming, developing and drawing on their relationships within and beyond the workplace.

We are rarely taught explicit skills for relating to other people. We are expected to develop our interpersonal skills through experience. Examine a typical write-up on bullying in the workplace and you'll notice that it's completely silent on the ability of the employees to handle relationships effectively. And yet, that might well be the principal underlying cause of the problems.

The modern manager must often learn to exist in an environment that is explicitly command and control, and must simultaneously be wholly dependent on implicit networks. One of the most challenging but also liberating things we must learn is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind. Quantum mechanics illustrates this in wave-particle duality. Physicist Niels Bohr was fond of saying that the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth. In other words, many questions have not one answer, but two.

Science and engineering provides the classic example of the duality we need. That can mean loosening our grip through command and control mechanisms and allowing innovation and performance to emerge from self-organising networks. The modern manager will do well to place less reliance on command and control and strengthen the networks in a fast-changing world.

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