I was a delegate at the UCU National Congress this weekend and the word ‘managerialism’ was used over and over again from the podium to criticise both university managers and indeed the full time officials of the union itself.
We all seemed to understand what was meant by the phrase but when I thought about it a bit more and even did a quick bit of Google research I realised that the definition of the term seemed remarkably vague.
The popular concept of ‘managerialism’ appears to share some characteristics with the pejorative use of the term ‘bureaucratic’, but managerialism also seems to imply an inappropriate, ineffective or even dictatorial use of hierarchical power that is not inherent in the concept of bureaucracy. So maybe we could say that managerialism is always bureaucratic but not all bureaucracies are managerialist? But that doesn’t seem quite right either. So I decided to try and work out in more detail what I mean when I use the term ‘managerial’ – which I do quite often.
It is generally accepted that the term ‘managerialism’ refers to a culture of managing organisations and institutions that developed as a consequence of the idea that ‘management’ is a distinct discipline that operates according to universal principles applicable to all types of organisations.
It has been the global explosion of MBA courses modelled on the Harvard Business School, that have promoted this idea of ‘management’ operating according to distinct and universal laws that are applicable regardless of the unique values and methodology of particular organisations; that the same principles, values and methodology can be applied to managing a university, a hospital, a TV station, a car factory, a chain of coffee shops or an army.
This MBA model conceives the study and practice of ‘management’ as a distinct Social Science akin to Sociology, Psychology or Economics. This has lead to the development of pseudo scientific, ‘objective’ theories of management that value abstract statistical analysis above judgement and experience. Thus MBA textbooks and theories often resemble those of Economics in their reliance on abstract models and examples represented by graphs, tables and diagrams. This conception of management theory gives prioritises numbers and systems over human relationships and when it does address staff as human beings it often does so using the abstract, homogeneous and statistical methodology of Sociology and Social Psychology, thus reducing individual existential human experience to predictable statistical probabilities.
This global MBA culture has given rise to a hegemonic managerialist worldview with a shared set of moral values and epistemological assumptions. These include:
- A narrow definition of efficiency that prioritises resource management ahead of all other considerations – particularly the prioritisation of efficiency over quality.
- A faith in bureaucratic systems and numerically defined targets as necessary mechanisms for establishing the efficient management of resources.
- A faith in bureaucratic systems, processes and policies as the primary vehicles for fairly achieving efficient resource management. i.e. if processes are correctly followed efficiency and justice will inevitably result.
- A reliance upon hierarchical management as the only way of achieving resource efficiency – with the associated requirement for top-down decision making and hierarchical obedience – leading to a corresponding loss of autonomy for everyone and the irrelevance of staff views in decision making.
- The conception of staff as a resource like any other, as human resources, with the corresponding dehumanisation of relationships and the attempt to manage staff ‘efficiently’ as a ‘flexible’ homogenous material resource.
- The use of Performance Reviews and targets backed up by the threat of formal disciplinary processes, and ultimately dismissal, as the primary mechanism for motivating hierarchical obedience and adherence to bureaucratic processes and targets.
- A belief in perpetual change as a necessary precondition for achieving increasingly efficient resource management – Nothing is perfect so even if it works fix it.
- A pragmatic, instrumental response to ethical or moral dilemmas – based on minimising resource outlay.
- An aversion to risk of all kinds resulting in a corresponding stifling of creativity and innovation.
- The valorisation of trained managers as an elite cadre with access to a set of uniquely efficacious knowledge and skills – as opposed to sector specific practitioners with particular expert knowledge – leading inevitably to an increase in remuneration and status for managers and a corresponding loss of remuneration and status for practitioners.
- The almost total absence of open, democratic, reflective discourse around the particular and unique objectives and purposes of the organisation.
The alternative to managerialism is a management value system that recognises:
- That the methodology and values of management need to be determined by the methodology and values appropriate to the core activities undertaken by each organisation.
- That efficiency is an entirely contingent concept, rather than a universal one, and is absolutely determined by the objectives and core activity of the particular organisation. i.e. what is regarded as efficient is determined by what you are trying to achieve.
- That management is not the purpose of the organisation. Management is simply a form of support service whose structural function is to enable the core activities of the organisation – rather than a separate and superior activity that exists in a realm separate from those core activities.
- That bureaucratic processes are limited tools for managing human beings and that ultimately almost all management decisions are matters of judgement based on contingent epistemological assumptions and distinct moral and ethical values.
- That the knowledge and experience of an informed, engaged and motivated workforce is of great value to any organisation and that managers must seek to benefit from that wisdom by regularly consulting with staff using deliberative and participatory institutions of democratic governance that significantly determine final management decisions.
- That staff are people first and that for human beings to psychologically prosper in the workplace they need: financial and emotional security; a sense of their own competency; to be respected and valued as individuals; to be recognised and valued as part of a community; and to have a significant level of day to day autonomy in how, when and where they carry out their duties.
- That coercively micro-managing staff using bureaucratic targets and Performance Reviews backed up by the threat of disciplinary processes and ultimately dismissal, is morally objectionable as it reduces human beings to the status of resources that can be manipulated, measured and fine tuned as if machines, and is instrumentally ineffective because it profoundly demotivates staff and stifles innovation and creativity.
- That before asking how they will most efficiently achieve their objectives, any organisation must first ask what those objectives are and why – only then do discussions of how have any meaning.
- That any significant change to the underlying values, aims and objectives of an organisation should be agreed by all stakeholders – not simply imposed without discussion by the elite, priestly cadre of all-seeing, all-knowing managers.
So for me ‘managerialism’ is ineffectual and morally objectionable because it fails to recognise that managing is almost entirely about motivating fellow human beings and that from the CEO to the cleaner we are all thinking, feeling human beings and worthy of respect for that fact alone.
On a technical level ‘managerialism’ also fails for me because it fails to recognise that many types of organisation are in fact profoundly different both structurally and in terms of values and methodology, and that to manage everything as if it were the same is simply to misunderstand how the world is.
And finally I object to managerialism because it inappropriately valorises bureaucratic corporate ‘yes men’ as if they were some sort of priestly class of Ubermensch to whom the rest of us owe unlimited deference and respect and who deserve salaries of 20, 30, 40 or 50 times more than the people who actually undertake the core activities of the organisation.
So just in case you did happen to be wondering, that is what I mean when I use the term ‘managerialism’.