A Definition Of Managerialism?


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’.

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13 responses to “A Definition Of Managerialism?

  1. An interesting and well-constructed article! My trade union (GMB) has, to the best of my understanding, attempted to reduce its dependence on ‘managerialsm’, but the reality of providing a proactive service to members will sometimes require an effective management of ever-diminishing resources. One of the latest initiatives is the recruitment of recently retired members (many of whom will have been employed in supervisory or management roles) and organising their support for members as authorised reps, to make up for the reduced numbers of F/T union officers out there in workplace. I’ve seen the effectiveness of this initiative in action and it is a model that many other TUs are likely to follow. This also gives me the opportunity to give something back to my union and challenge some of the appalling examples of bad people management that just goes on and on and on…..

  2. IANAN – fine article as always. Well done.

  3. Take it easy Comrade. I want people to join us and being patronised by you is not likely to do that.

  4. Oh man can’t I have a little fun?

  5. In your comment above is patronise really the most appropriate word to use for this situation? To me it just doesn’t quite seem to fit.

    • Maybe patronise is too harsh but in any event the tone wasn’t quite right. I think the problem is it looks a bit desperate. You seem so astounded that anyone else reads the thing it comes across as a bit needy.

  6. On your article “a definition of managerialism” I must say you have a nack for absolutely dissecting a topic. Basically, managers are a necessary evil. Perhaps there wouldn’t be managers in an anarchy utopia but in the real world there will always be someone to tell you to do this or that. So there’s my simpleton explanation of managerialism.

    • Well, organisations need people to fulfil the functions managers fulfil but what I am questioning is the elevated hierarchical status of the people who fulfil those functions and the values that they use to make decisions. Being a manager need not involve ‘commanding’ it could involve ‘coordinating’.

  7. For anyone who wishes to blog on this IANAN site please do not let me (moelarrythecheese) scare you off. I’m really a nice guy who likes to “argue” (or perhaps “discuss” is a better word). I may appear rude or disrespectful but I like people and I like to tease and be teased. Somebody please tease me. Anyway, this site needs more contributors so if you’re reading this then SAY SOMETHING. I look forward to hearing from you.

  8. I see your point. Who wants to work for a Hitler when they can work for, let’s say, the Dalai Lama. This is all becoming clearer to me now that I’ve taken my medication.

  9. Decoding Managerialism – A view from Africa

    The purpose of any managerial system is to extract value from a given bundle of resources. This resource conversion entails the application of a proven set of skills. The belief in and dependence on these skills and techniques of professional managers in driving this conversion process constitute ‘managerialism’. Ordinarily, the resources used are money, mind power, materials, and minutes and central to managerialism is the use of hierarchical power to ensure desired results.
    Managerialism may be moralistic or devoid of humanism. Managerialism ranges between maintaining the status quo and seeking change. It employs socialisation by discontinuity and by continuity – poor performance is discouraged while good performance is rewarded. These are some of the aspects worth interrogating but I will dispose of the different applications of managerialism where the differential is found in inspiration, focus and conception of value.
    Institutional and individual behaviours will be seen to range from philanthropic managerialism, social development through to crass capitalism. Pure philanthropy is a spiritually driven practice of voluntarily giving material, moral or financial aid to individuals or communities. Mother Theresa who founded the Missionaries of Charity at Kolkata, India, devoted her entire life to working with the poor and disadvantaged, mainly in India. She received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 2003, barely three years after her passing on. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest missionaries of the twentieth century. The charity she formed continues with her work to this day.
    Institutions such as the world famous Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Medecins Sans Frontiers are inspired to save human life and to alleviate suffering. Their unconditional altruism makes them acceptable interventionists in any war situation and in particular, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies often act as go-betweens in hostage situations. Only rarely do they receive hostile attention.
    Other institutions occupy the ‘hospice’ niche through offering respite to the terminally ill and also ensuring that they pass on with dignity. There can be no worse trauma than the helplessness the terminally ill experience and especially the agony of watching oneself wasting away irreversibly, sometimes far from family and friends. Hospices lessen this isolation so that one dies in love and warmth, rather than in isolation. A hospice also wades into the pain of the bereaved, giving them a shoulder to cry on.
    How about the state? Where does it place itself? The primary objective of any government is to bring about social cohesion and development. However, in many instances this managerialism is compromised by various dysfunctions notably ineptitude, bureaucratic ossification, fear of change, fiscal indiscipline, suppression of opposing views, corruption, short-termism, politicking and unconscionable abuse of state machinery, especially the military. A good measure of the effectiveness of state managerialism is the mortality rate of development projects. Some countries are renowned for the high number of stillborns like roads that do not reach anywhere and bridges that cannot be crossed. Yet others are notorious for illusions of grandeur such as vast armies when there is no war to fight and opulent edifices when what the citizens really need is electricity, clean water, food and medicine.
    Taking off with a people-centred revolution in 1980, this country recorded impressive gains in health delivery, housing, education, agriculture and infrastructural development. Peaceful political transitions have historically been a rarity in former colonies; many of the liberation movements have not been able to transform into democratic institutions. In contrast, the demobilisation process in this country effectively dispossessed liberation war cadres of weaponry. Elsewhere, the preferred strategy has been to maintain militias that honour a ruling party or tribe, instead of creating an integrated, national army. The departure of colonial masters has not at all times resulted in nation building; in the cases of Angola, Mozambique, Nigeria and the DR Congo, among others, national bloodletting dominated long periods of self-rule. Lately the Central Africa Republic has gone into internecine fighting not experienced even in the brutal days of its former ruler, self styled ‘Emperor’ Jean Bedel Bokassa.
    The leadership in this country accomplished the heroic feat of successfully moulding a national army out of the former adversaries – the Patriotic Forces and the Rhodesian army. The Patriotic Front is only one of a handful of movements to have armed its membership, fought a protracted war and then productively reintegrated thousands of those cadres into civilian life. This reintegration and the accompanying requisition of fighters and weaponry to state barracks worked to remove the possibility of post-colonial conflict and lawlessness. At the same time, significant progress was made in international relations, giving the local economy legroom to grow. For a while the government’s gallant reconciliation policy would be the envy of the world.
    Now and then the ubiquitous entity called a non-governmental organisation (herein after abbreviated to ngo) steps in to augment the state’s social development efforts. Many of these ngos have a permanent umbilical link with their home government and so have to walk a particular talk. The problem with such talk is that it may be at cross-purposes with policies of the host nation. As a consequence the ngo may become an enemy of the host government and in fact many ngos have found themselves being viewed as instruments of re-colonisation. For many hosts, the main source of discomfort is the ngo’s preoccupation with human rights and democracy issues.
    Initiatives to regulate the ngo sector are spurred in large part by differences in political rather than developmental ethos. Three cases come to mind, the first is the Ethiopian government’s response to the growing clout of ngos operating within its borders. Recognising that the majority of ngos were heavily reliant on foreign funding, the government literally went for the jugular with the ‘Charities and Societies Proclamation’ of 2008. Under this law any ngo receiving more than ten percent of its funding from abroad would henceforth be classified as ‘foreign’. Given that nearly all ngos in that country fell in this category and also since the Ethiopian constitution barred foreigners from taking part in domestic politics, this law effectively deleted matters of governance and human rights from the programmes of most ngos.
    The Ethiopian government argued that the proclamation was merely building on an existing law, while ngos regarded it as a tactic to muzzle reporting on the political front, coming as it did on the heels of national elections. Some commentators believed the government was right because ngos must concentrate on pure philanthropy. Others thought that in the process, local ngos would be forced to wean themselves from foreign funding and presumably from foreign manipulation.
    The second case is the Russian government’s dogfights with the cultural arm of the British government, the British Council. It is the Russian government’s belief that the British Council is no more than an agent of British imperialism. This stems from that council’s support for opposition politicians in Russia, whose agenda is Western-style democracy. To Russia, the council is a troublesome institution, bend on exporting notions that are inconsistent with the country’s political and social values.
    In instances ngos have been accused of operating like a mongo, meaning ‘my- own-ngo’ in the sense that they appear to exist for individual gain. Inspired by dreams of ‘free’ foreign currency an individual wakes up one morning and registers a ‘development agency’. In no time the individual is living large through manipulating donor funds. Well meaning sponsors can easily be duped especially where they operate by remote control. Critics need to be excused for mistaking the ngo sector as a gravy train. Adverse perceptions can only go away when communities experience meaningful and sustainable development.
    Other ngos make it a point to replicate home country conditions in the host environment, primarily for their own comfort. It may be argued that this is normal self-preservative human behaviour; however it raises questions of whether ngos are coming in to empower locals or to create overseas employment for kith and kin. There is usually no attempt to transfer ownership of the intervention to locals; instead expatriates preside over development work in perpetuity.
    One of the hotly contested issues is the ngo’s obsession with attaching conditions to aid. The most prominent conditions are adherence to good governance and respect for human rights. While initially well meant and also positively received, these demands have gradually lost credibility because of the alliance that inevitably forms between opposition political parties and ngos. The ngos begin to operate like agos – anti-government organisations. The ruling party can justifiably convict the ngo of furthering the opposition’s regime change plans.
    Sometimes relations between the state and the ngo deteriorate to the point where aid is blocked by the government or withheld by the ngo. Whichever way, it is the ordinary citizens who always suffer. When lives are lost because of a fall-out over elections or other issues, the ngo cannot claim a moral upper hand over the state. This is the context in which it is argued that aid with strings is itself a crime against humanity.
    In many cases the aid recipient of today is no longer the illiterate one of the 1970s. Even in war ravaged and impoverished Somalia or Darfur, there is a strike back at ngos that impose their agenda on natives. Inside these communities are socially and politically conscious individuals fighting to assert local plans. It may be recalled that in 2007, the Chadian government arrested members of the French ngo Zoe’s Ark, who tried to smuggle to France nearly one hundred infants ostensibly for their safety because they were ‘orphans’. Investigations later showed that the children were destined for the overseas commercial adoption market.
    Another form of managerialism is what in its conception of value can only be called ‘crass capitalism’. At its starkest, this regime is a soul-less approach overwhelmed by the singular value of profit taking. Crass capitalism defines itself as the world. As a result it makes no pretence of serving society, except of course where that society is inseparable from itself. This is the sort of ideology, which considers it imprudent to invest in anything outside the search for wealth.
    Crass capitalism sometimes mutates into a rent seeking behaviour, in the class of ‘responsible capitalism’. This humanistic ‘façade’ is motivated by moral rationalisations and recognition that the firm can become financially stronger through social correctness and accountability than from barefaced Shylockism. In later sections we will show how sub-themes such as industrial democracy, relationship marketing, quality management and corporate social responsibility express and project corporate conscience.
    Another nuance of capitalism is the family-run enterprise. Most researchers have tended to lump it together with non-family businesses, thereby missing critical learning. While this country boasts of dynasties that have withstood the vagaries of political, economic and social change and each town or village has its testimony of old money, each centre also has its share of ruins and rusting or deferred dreams.
    The family business has blind spots as well as significant advantages. At face value the focus and inspiration is simply to make a profit, but this type of business has peculiarities requiring special attention. Family business is a credible entry point into value creation and empire building, but it has tended to get compromised by family sensitivities. On one hand family businesses take off from a platform of strong social ties, and thus have a ready-made basis upon which to build trust and unity of purpose. On the other hand, they sometimes collapse from the weight of these ties. Family money can insulate the business from expensive capital markets but is itself more open to abuse.
    The conception of value is often skewed towards perpetuating family bonds. Thus the punitive side of corporate governance is distasteful and difficult to enforce in a family business, family does not punish family. Similarly, family favours rewarding its own ahead of ‘outsiders’ even when such outsiders are more deserving. There is also the secrecy and inclination to personalise matters: decisions are arrived at in bedrooms and then brought to the boardroom for ratification. These factors tend to discourage or prevent competent but non-family professionals from working for dynasties.
    The final port of call is the academic estate. For many the university is a place where people go to study almost anything. Nonetheless the inner workings of the university remain somewhat nebulous to most of us. Despite the fact that for instance geology students can comprehend the tectonics upon which the university is built and medical students can cut and stitch-up human life, there is much that remains off their radar. The university’s pre-occupation is with teaching, learning, research, publication and consultancy. Collectively these activities constitute scholarship, a process in which national development is the inspiration, focus and conception of value, particularly for state universities.
    While the government has overtaken older nations in terms of chartering new universities, there remain serious challenges in constructing and equipping structures as well as in financing each of the scholarship components. In addition, the established universities have to contend with disrepair and obsolescence of equipment and facilities. State funding for both capital and recurrent expenditure has been steadily declining, more sharply so since the advent of economic structural adjustment. There may be universities in abundance but the lack of funding has compromised the sector. Business subsists on profit and government draws funding from mandatory taxes but the university principally depends on the charity of government and other donors. This reality is not advantageous whether to the private university or to state owned institutions, and clearly the position of state universities is more invidious. The strain on the academic estate is often obvious.
    Scholarship comes from a learning environment where learners and staff are focused on learning, laboratories and libraries are well resourced, there is a manageable teacher-student ratio, and there is stable staffing, career development and an over-arching, independent quality assurance process integrating the institution into international best practice. Although some professional bodies have a say in how certain programmes are conducted, for example the Law Society of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers, the Zimbabwe Medical Association and others, this falls short of the regimentation that exists elsewhere.
    Quality assurance needs to extend to teaching methods, pass rate, course completion rate, and research and publication standards, acceptability of graduates, internal relations, and conditions of service as well as promotion policies. Additionally Councils of state universities, which are at present only accountable to the state president, must be scrutinised by an independent academic body, if they are to renew the universities under their charge.
    In response to retreating support, some state universities resort to increasing student numbers so that they maximise on per capita grants from government. Other universities have innovated into full fee paying schemes – following the Makerere University model- resulting in the trend of visiting and parallel schools. This approach’s celebrated quick win has been of course to increase revenue. It has also brought to the fore what has always been known about the academic estate: that massification overruns seminar and tutorial contact and thereby renders the student invisible and inaudible to the teacher. Eliminating dialogic methods creates little difference between the university experience and what obtains in the nearby high school. Scholarship cannot proceed by way of lecture only, there ought to be discussion as well.
    Teachers handling large classes cannot be expected to administer the full spectrum of course assessment. They may discourage long essays and resort to quick fixes such as multiple choice questions and problems requiring short responses. Anything involving long preparation and follow-up such as projects, field case studies or role-playing falls off their list of things to do. These large numbers also exert pressure on libraries, laboratories, recreational facilities and other amenities. Whereas previously canteen meals and accommodation were offered at subsidised rates, this is no longer the case. Instead full cost recovery is now the preferred choice. This unfortunately is being practiced on already disadvantaged students who can hardly pay the fare back to their homes. But then some of these metrics are not in the public’s view and so scholarship suffers quietly.
    There could be quick wins in all these actions but quick wins have a way of reversing themselves and emerging as a slow puncture. In this case it is scholarship, which is compromised. There are no easy answers but the pseudo-capitalist managerialism sweeping through universities needs revision. At any rate cost recovery strategies that pauperise students and demotivate teachers are unlikely to build a learning environment.
    The international trend has been one of forging partnerships with industry to preserve the academic estate. Now since industry is predominantly indifferent, it may be time for radical moves like imposing a tax to rescue the university system. The legacy of scholarship is far too precious for any nation to let go. The real punishment is in the dearth of home grown critical thinkers who can shape the cultural, social, scientific and economic destiny of the country. This gap could be filled with imported teachers but then expatriates have their limitations; they cannot develop another country’s social and cultural values. They may not improve indigenous knowledge systems; instead they usually replace these with their own.
    The corporatist experiment has struck a distinct discord with the core university processes and thus it is time to return to basics. Universities as icons of intellectual development require an academic-driven administration. Whereas corporatism considers seminars and tutorials as superfluous, academia’s very existence is rooted in these engagements. And whereas corporatism resolves the funding predicament through massification and the resultant quick financial returns, academia’s stock falls with this immediatism. Also whereas corporatism scores points with cost recovery, academic impoverishment settles in and scholarship, which is the one and only privilege of university teaching loses its glitter.
    Notwithstanding these challenges, higher education opportunities have increased significantly. The scourge of economic sanctions has served to slow down progress but the sector’s trajectory is steadily upward. It is not public relations but reality that alongside the telecommunications sector, the universities have grown into a distinct industry, ready to serve other industries. While the widespread adoption of the parallel and visiting school modes first introduced by the Midlands State University is indicative of cross-learning and benchmarking, there is also fierce competition between the institutions.
    Although state universities took off from the University of Zimbabwe template in terms of structure and regulations, each university has established unique competencies and advantages. Many new programmes are now available and campuses are being set up in regions previously lacking localised access to higher education. There are also innovative solutions to staff retention and development and the never-ending problem of staff and student accommodation. Overall, the tremendous diligence applied by various university leaders and their staff must be acknowledged and celebrated.

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