The inexorable march of the managerialists is creating resentment and social division.
The Armed Forces have fought several wars in the past 15 years, dealing with a Ministry of Defence staffed by people who know nothing about war Photo: Hulton Archive
By Charles Moore
Recently, a man got in touch with me who works for the defence services contractor QinetiQ. He wanted to complain about the way it was run. The company, in his view, suffers from “managerialism”.
Managerialists, he says, are “a group who consider themselves separate from the organisations they join”. They are not interested in the content of the work their organisation performs. They are a caste of people who think they know how to manage. They have studied “The 24-hour MBA”. There is a clear benefit from their management, for them: they arrange their own very high salaries and bonuses. Then they can leave quickly with something that looks good on the CV. The benefit to the company is less clear.
I also spoke to a former senior employee of QinetiQ. He corroborated my informant’s points with gusto. He said managerialists were particularly unsuited to industries such as QinetiQ’s, where scientific knowledge is all. He put it simply: “People who are making bits of technology, or servicing them, should know about technology.”
Skills are not infinitely transferable. “You used to be the editor of a broadsheet newspaper,” he said to me. “How do you think a former chief executive of Ford would perform if he suddenly came and edited a national title?” (or, he politely didn’t say, if the reverse were to happen).
The lack of knowledge at the top of a firm obviously creates a practical problem – “You don’t have people to get under the bonnet. They can only kick the tyres and change the oil.” They don’t understand the needs of the core customer. It also, in his view, creates a moral problem. The workers cannot respect their bosses. Management becomes “not symbiotic, but parasitic”.
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I do not know whether these men are right about QinetiQ. I have no experience of the company and no technical expertise. One must also allow for the fact that, in any organisation, there are people with axes to grind. But I did find the way they talked striking. It seemed to accord with so many things I hear about life in so many organisations.
It is a big complaint, for example, about the modern National Health Service. Nowadays, on the dubious principle that all businesses and services are essentially the same, managers are a non-medical breed. The effect can be laughable. I heard of a case in which the managers told the doctors in a big hospital to save money by sending all their instruments away to a centralised off-site sterilising unit. Fine, said one mischievous consultant, but in that case may I have a second set of instruments so that I can work on my patients in emergencies? The managers, having no idea about his instruments, thought he probably could. “That’ll be £2 million then,” he said.
Comparable problems afflict the Armed Forces. They have fought several wars in the past 15 years, dealing with a Ministry of Defence staffed by people who know nothing about war. More generally in the Civil Service, it has become common to reduce specialist skills – language training in the Foreign Office, for example – and to move able people around from department to department. The present permanent secretary of the Home Office had never worked there before she took her present post at the beginning of last year. Since it is a department of fantastic complexity, it is perhaps not surprising that it has recently taken a series of tumbles on such issues as deportations and borders.
You find this hollowing-out everywhere. In schools, the head who does not teach is now a familiar, indeed dominant figure. University vice-chancellors, instead of being dons who move from their subject into administration for a period of their lives, are now virtually lifelong managers, with hugely increased salaries to match. It is even commonplace for charities to be run by people with no commitment to the charity’s specific purpose, but proud possession of what they call the necessary “skill-sets”, such as corporate governance.
With the rise of the managerialist comes a special language – a weird combination of semi-spiritual banality (“unlocking energies”), euphemism, and legalese. If you want to see the difference between people steeped in their trade and people steeped in managerialism, compare the testimony, at the Leveson Inquiry, of the Murdochs, father and son. The wicked old man spoke in the language, simultaneously sharp and blunt, of people who know and run their business. The evasive son adopted the locutions taught in business-school courses, honed by big law firms, footnoted by anxious compliance officers.
My friend at QinetiQ draws my attention to some of the usages which predominate where managerialism rules. The system of internal communications becomes a platform not for sharing knowledge but for propaganda. Human Resources invent things like the Personal Improvement Programme, which is really a means of punishing staff. “Consultation”, he says, is a word meaning that managerialists “tell you what they are going to do, 30 days before they do it”.
These habits are now pervasive across industry and the public services. “Diversity” is always “celebrated”, but it never means diversity of thought. The people who tell you they are “passionate about” X or Y are usually the most bloodless ones in the outfit.
In such cultures, just as the experts, the professionals and the technicians bitterly resent the managerialists for neither understanding nor caring, so the managerialists secretly detest the professionals who, they believe, get in the way of their rationalisations. They are desperate to “let go” of such people. Very unhappy organisations result.
A few weeks ago, after Dr Rowan Williams had given notice of his retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury, there was a story about his potential successor, Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York. Dr Sentamu’s critics, apparently, had been saying that he was too much like an African tribal chief. Friends of Dr Sentamu were angry at what they saw as a racial slur.
But it struck me that the qualities of a tribal chief are now shockingly rare in big modern organisations. They might be just the job, and not only for the poor old C of E. The point about a tribe is that it unites its members by ties that are very hard to break. Tribalism, for sure, can be a bad thing, but a tribe understands matters of life and death. It recognises the importance of yesterday and tomorrow as much as today. It maintains the interest of the whole over that of a particular part. The chief of the tribe is not a manager: he is a leader.
No one sensible thinks that a large organisation can exist without being managed. Old stagers in companies, regiments, professions and, in my own experience, newspapers, easily over-romanticise their achievements and are unfair about the poor “bean-counters” who make the sums add up. But management should not dominate. As Lord Slim, who brilliantly led the British Army through the Burma campaign, put it: “Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.” We now have unprecedented numbers of the former, not so many of the latter.
Because, since the credit crunch, Everything Is Different Now, this problem is causing real social division. It explains much of the rage about executive pay. It is not so much the numerical difference between the top and the bottom which causes the anger, as the sense about why that difference exists. It has been arranged by the managerialists. It may even be the chief purpose of the managerialists’ working lives, as they edge towards the exit with the largest portable share of the takings available.