Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Julian Birkinshaw: Reinventing Management (“There must be a better way of running large companies”)


   I’ve posted on Julian Birkinshaw and his work at MLab quite a few times previously:


Well, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Julian’s latest work, Reinventing Management.

It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, mainly concerned with the need for companies to develop a ‘Management Model’:

“A Management Model is the choices made by the executives of a firm regarding how they define objectives, motivate effort, coordinate activities, and allocate resources – in other words, how they define how work of management gets done.”


Julian’s main point is that organisations need to define what their Management Model is, and his suggestion is that each Management Model consists of these four dimensions (whilst recognising that this is not a comprehensive list):


I totally support the need for employers to clarify how their organisations are going to work and support anything which encourages this, so I generally feel very positive about the book.

I particularly like the way Julian shows that web 2.0 can be combined with real-world activities – something that I’ve been arguing for within this blog.

I also like the focus on developing strategy (or ‘Management Model’) from looking at what’s working in the organisation ie through a process of understanding, evaluating, envisioning and experimenting (which Vineet Nayar at HCL Technologies labels an inside-out approach – see my arguments with Dave Ulrich & co on this).

And I like Julian’s thinking on emergence: “If you provide very few rules and very little structure, most people will figure out for themselves the best thing to do, and the best way of coordinating their activities with those of others” – I can see lots of opportunities for this, for example in performance management.

Having said this, I’m also pleased to see that he suggests that employers can still control social activities within the organisation too – not everything needs to be down to emergence: “Emergent behaviour is necessary for experimenting with new opportunities but it needs to be coupled with processes for harnessing and focussing effort” (I’ve got a blog post on this coming out shortly).

Similarly, with hierarchy: “Hierarchy is not going away.  Large organisations will continue to be an important part of the business landscape, and large organisations need some level of hierarchy to function.”


However, I do also have a number of quite major reservations about the book.

I don’t agree that Julian’s ‘Management Model’ is a useful place to start a management reinvention.  The Model is simply a set of aligned activities – you still need something to align these activities upon.  You’re much better off starting with a particular outcome, whether this is a set of values, a BHAG etc (I suggest ‘mojo’).

And I’m also not completely convinced about some of the dimensions in the Model.

Hierarchy and Collective Wisdom in particularly, don’t seem to me to opposite ends of a single scale.  Julian claims “Hierarchy assumes that the boss always knows best” but it doesn’t have to – it’s simply a way of organising responsibilities.  And the opposite of hierarchy is flatness.

Similarly, bureaucracy and emergence - the opposite of emergence is control.


I also don’t agree with the way Julian distinguishes management from leadership.

The book is supposedly about management – about how companies implement their plans.  It’s therefore intended to avoid ‘more alluring themes’ such as leadership, change and strategy.  However, I don’t think this it does.  This becomes particularly clear during the review of IBM’s Values Jam – if there’s anything more focused on leadership than this, I don’t know what it is!

The required distinction isn’t between management and leadership, it’s between internal and external, or the organisation and the business.

To me, Julian’s management model isn’t a model of management vs leadership, it’s a model of the organisation vs the business.  I’ll explain more in my next post.



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