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Change management is an integral part of business studies curricula and has a massive literature. It is a multidisciplinary subject making use of human behaviour and psychology. As well having academics, who carry out research, it has practitioners who make use of it or specialise in it. Anyone pursuing a career in HR will have studied change management.

The surprising thing about a large amount of this subject is that it is based on approaches that encourage empowerment, participation, teamwork, cooperation and both organisational and individual learning. This stands in contrast to the competitive environment which businesses inhabit (Anthony op. cit.). It is a though business has a dirty little secret: people are naturally social and cooperative and treating them well leads to better performance. Nevertheless it still actively supports competition, is often openly partisan with its political contributions and can put an extreme case through its advocates like the Adam Smith Institute or Institute of Economic Affairs. If one was to by cynical about this one would could say that the good nature of people (at work) is being put upon in order to maximise shareholder returns. Leaving that aside we can be sure that it (i.e. empowerment, participation, teamwork, cooperation and both organisational and individual learning) would not be used if it did not work.

Now the caveats,

  1. There are those who reject the notion of planned or managed change altogether – to me this seems like ideological overspill from neo-liberal economics, nevertheless some people, excited by the “new economy” expect us all to be Thriving on Chaos (Note: Thriving on Chaos)– which sounds great unless you are one of the people in 5 below.
  2. We have to remember that management use the term human resources which shows that, in the end management just regard people as another resource. This may explain why the good practice eluded to above is not more widely adopted, some managements chose to sweat their assets and when they do they excuse it on the grounds of competitive pressure
  3. A business will use its power to impose change if it needs to, as anyone who has been through a restructuring will realise this and no matter how many times you are told it is not personal it always feels personal
  4. If you are a well paid professional, a specialist or a manager in a world class business you are much more likely to experience the velvet glove than if you are a worker in some extended or remote part of its supply chain (e.g. in a factory owned town in China)
  5. If you are one of the people forcibly classed as self-employed you are experiencing the rough side of what was advocated as the necessary design for a highly competitive world. This has its origins long before the internet enabled world of Task Rabbit and Uber; it is formally known as the core-periphery model (Note: The Flexible Firm)

There is within management theory just as much advocacy of contingent or contingency management as there is what we might call normative or humanistic management. In contingency management one uses whatever technique will work, so if time is short you can, if you are able to, use simple position power and not bother with the niceties of consultation. Here is an example, presented with with remarkable understatement;

“The sharpest contrast is between “best practice” and the “contingency” models. The “best practice” models, albeit in their different ways, put a premium on the quality of the human resources. The “contingency models”, by contrast, admit a number of possibilities, some of which are very far removed from the quality option” (Note: Contingency Management)

So, what to take from this? What we need are the things that will help us move towards the vision. To bring in a political economy that enables people to achieve their potential, where politics is collaboration to achieve good governance and where business increases the common wealth. 

Here are the things that the I have learned from management literature that are relevant to a holistic political economy

  • Planning & Organisational learning
  • Involvement and Commitment
  • Facilitation, Team work & problem solving
  • Communication

Planning & Organisational learning

There has to be a balance between planning and the ongoing process. A plan sets direction but needs to be capable of constant change in the light of experience. The idea of a plan as a straight-jacket (sometimes referred to as a lockstep plan) is not going to work, but to dismiss direction setting by government by reference to the failure of state planning in the now defunct communist regimes is to fight yesterday’s battles. It is quite possible to set direction, have measurements, feedback and evaluations that lead to changes in the detailed execution by which we stick to the longer-term goals. When this direction is achieved we can use autonomy and self direction at the lower levels - show people the way to do it for themselves and trust them to get on with it.

In short, we need to think about change as a process to be managed, no invisible hand here.

Involvement and Commitment

Business knows that involving people builds commitment, the literature shows it works. Because of exiting power relations however there is that caveat, noted above of contingency management. When it deems it necessary, management will dictate rather than go to the effort involved to build commitment. And in the last 30 years having subdued the trades unions management is much more ready to exercise its right to manage and people who are just glad to have little choice but to put up with it.

We don’t have to have this caveat in politics, if we are to be a democracy with equal citizenship then we need to be  encouraging involvement and building commitment all the time.

Facilitation, team work & problem solving

When commitment and involvement are needed or deemed worthwhile there is a vast literature on how to proceed. This boils down to some fairly simple things that are easy to comprehend. Facilitation is used to make sure everyone can have their say and that all ideas are captured. Teams are routinely used to solve problems

Communication

And the whole process is underpinned by communication, what is planned, what is happening now, what results are in from things that just happened. Change programs in business put out very sophisticated communications aimed at all the different stakeholders ranging from senior management to shop floor workers.

And so...

There it is, hiding in plain sight in the heart of the competitive business environment, a body of knowledge, practice and experience that clearly shows how to bring the best out in people. An important set of templates and building blocks for holistic political economy, just waiting to be pressed into service.