Management Theory Brings the Best Process for Change?
In these times of economic sluggishness - a period in which corporations face the grim realities of shrinking profits, restructuring, layoffs, cutbacks, downsizing, and overall belt-tightening - it would nonetheless seem to be an ideal time for rethinking / retooling a corporation's theory of management. And, what better time than during times of economic stagnation - when companies decide which workers to lay off and which employees to keep - to forge theories and policies that better prepare the corporation for future good times and bad times? Management theories that not only accept change, and plan for change, but theories that facilitate the process of change, would seem to be most applicable to today's gloomy economic landscape.
Meanwhile, new approaches and theories which potentially promote positive change - and could be beneficial to companies - are sometimes rejected just because they are misunderstood or untested, and that is too bad, Financial Times writer Simon London notes in a recent column (Business Day, 2003): "Not all new business ideas should be dismissed out of hand as nothing more than proto fads," he says. "If you accept this point-of-view," London continues, "today's pervasive cynicism about management theory starts to look just as damaging as yesterday's childlike credulity."
Abercrombie & Fitch, Sex, and Cynicism
Is there really a sense of pervasive cynicism in the business community towards management theories? Is it because so many theories have come and gone, like Spring fashions that look tired and outdated by the following year? What has happened to the myriad theories like Business Change Management, Business Performance Management, Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Six Sigma, Workflow, Orchestration, Composite Applications, Web Services Choreography, the Real-Time Enterprise, Agility, Systems Dynamics (Smith, Fingar, 2002)? Are these now just catch phrases, theories and terms that have been used and cast aside, or just did they each just fade away when the next new trendy cycle of theories evolved? Perhaps cynicism does exist, and can be justified, given the above-mention litany of theories, and given the hard times faced in 2003.
Certainly, there are some cynical management theories currently extolled and practiced by certain retailers, such as fast-growing international company, Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) - who place style over substance, sexiness over competence and ability. Indeed, a recent article in the New York Times (Greenhouse, 2003) points out that A&F's management theory, when it comes to staffing, entails an "aggressive approach to building a pretty and handsome sales force, an effort that company officials proudly acknowledge." A former assistant store manager for A&F, Antonio Serrano, is quoted as saying that A&F management "thought if we had the best-looking college kids working in our store, everyone will want to shop there." He went on: "If someone came in with a pretty face, we were told to approach them and ask them if they wanted a job." And the practice of hiring based on good looks - though potentially discriminatory against average-looking applicants and employees - is not unique to A&F, the Times' article asserts. "From Abercrombie to the cosmetics giant L'Oreal, from the sleek W. hotel chain to the Gap, businesses are openly seeking workers who are sexy, sleek or simply good-looking." So, the theory is that a sexy sales staff will help build branding, and help build the business, even in tough economic times? Give me a gorgeous blue-eyed babe who looks great in a sweater, has a nice tiny waistline and features charms that bedazzle any man walking into the store, and business will come bustling through the door in waves of males with wads of money? That seems desperate and shallow. And there already is one lawsuit against A&F, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, by Hispanic, Asian, and African-American applicants; they claim that they were offered positions in the stockroom, but not the sales floor. Some defend A&F's "beauty first" theory, like Marshal Cohen, a senior industry analyst with the market research firm, NPD group. "Being able to find a brand enhancer, or what I call a walking billboard, is critical...a guy wants to go hang out in a store where he can see good-looking gals."
And, albeit a superficial theory to be used when marketing a retail brand, the A&F philosophy of hiring gorgeous-looking women apparently works for young men, such as high school senior Matthew Sheehey, from Chicago: "If you see an attractive person working in the store wearing Abercrombie clothes, it makes you want to wear it, too," he said in the Times article. On the A&F Web site: (http://www.abercrombie.com/),one finds a shirtless, attractive man, wearing Abercrombie pants, and a nude, very attractive woman, wearing a huge smile, with her long wavy hair partially covering her right breast. Is this approach the wave of the retail future? Or a theory-based too much on base instincts? Actually, this theory of sexiness may be properly placed in the category of "Impression Management Theory" (Mendenhall & Wiley, 1994) - which is, the tendency to present oneself (or one's product) in a socially desirable way to others. And if it shows her bottom, will it also show a better bottom line?
General Electric & BPM
Meanwhile, there are non-superficial, non-desperate, much deeper and far more substantive theories emerging out there, designed to give companies a leg up - without showing a lot of leg - on the future. One practical, prudent theory which seems to stand out as the most up-to-date and most talked-about in the business community, is exposed in the best-selling book, Business Process Management (BPM): the third wave, by Howard Smith and Peter Fingar. In this book, the authors argue, the first wave was Fredrick Taylor's process management; the second wave was the theory that "processes can be manual reengineered through a one-time activity"; and now, in their third wave, BPM "enables companies and workers to create and optimize new business processes on the fly. Change is the primary design goal."
What the "third wave" is not (Smith, Fingar, 2002), they say, is: "business-process engineering, enterprise application integration, workflow management, or another packaged application." Rather, "it's the synthesis and extension of all these technologies and techniques into a unified whole." What does that really mean? "Do not mistake BMP for some new 'killer app' or fashionable new business theory," the authors warn. Instead, "think science!" What has changed, they say, is an "enhanced ability to recognize, discover and describe business processes, both in work practices and IT systems implementation." Indeed, on the subject of IT, according to a review of the book in Publisher's Weekly, corporate re-engineering was "a hot trend in the early 1990s, when businesses started streamlining to save money and 'downsizing' came into vogue." Now economic uncertainty abounds, once again, "...and managers are looking to shave costs while still dominating their sectors," the article continues. "Smith and Fingar want to give them the management tools to achieve that. The authors, both IT experts, insist their management theory and practice will guide business leaders through the next 50 years," the critique continues. And how will the book's theories help accomplish that colossal task? "While many companies are savaging their tech budgets to survive, for instance, Smith and Fingar hold up General Electric as a current ideal; the company has actually boosted its information technology dollars, as it sees the next wave of business automation as full of promise."
In GE's Annual Report for 2001, the company boldly lays out its IT theory: "Digitization represents a revolution that may be the greatest opportunity for growth that our company has ever seen." And digitization seems a world apart from the recent GE theory of "dealing with the bottom 10%" of employees, as a way to weed out the chaff and save the wheat; and its also a world away from the GE era of Jack Welch, CEO, who had a knack for mobilizing his workers behind big ideas like "the workout program," his "boundarylessness" and Six Sigma.
But, although the Jack Welch period is gone for GE, to describe the new GE era, authors Smith and Fingar reach back even further, to a relatively youthful Ronald Reagan, who, in the 1950s, was host of General Electric Theater on television. The GE slogan, made famous by Reagan, the actor, was "Progress is our most important product." Smith and Fingar, in an excerpt from their book, say, "If that [GE] program were to show today, the slogan would no doubt be, 'Process is our most important product.' Further," they go on, "successful business leaders have come to recognize that good processes don't make winners; winners make good processes." To illustrate their process theory, they make an analogy with CAD/CAM, which revolutionized the computer-aided design and manufacturing process by reducing time spend on production exponentially. "BPM seeks to transfer similar principles and techniques to the IT industry," they explain, "to create business process discovery, design, deployment, execution, interaction, operations, optimization, analysis and simulation to support work at all…