Little Red Blogger

This blog looks at radical politics(with a libertarian socialist slant), music and culture. Marx to Mises, Girls Aloud to Steve Reich...

Location: Wiltshire, United Kingdom

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Management, Power and the Abuse of Language

Recently on the Observer’s business pages there has been a debate concerning what’s wrong with current management language, technique and practice. It was an interesting and well written article illuminating how modern managers and their accompanied gurus try and use language to control reality(to which there is an equally interesting reply). Like the French deconstructionists the modern high priests of management theory holds all is text, and that there is no escape from language. To the modern manager every power transaction is mediated and massaged by language and by having control of the language they therefore have control over their relationships with underlings and with the customers of their company. As Baudrillard once tried to deny that the Gulf War ever happened the modern manager tries to deny the last hundred years of union organising ever happened…...

What then are modern examples of management abusing and distorting language to their own ends? Well a short look at any type of ‘customer service’ focused organisation would provide many examples of how to call white black, or to insist that 2 + 2 really does equal 5 and that any attempt to deny this is just the bolshie employee being ‘negative’. A good example of this is how many people’s jobs have had the word manager appended onto them or the rise of the dreaded ‘facilitator’ the preponderance of ‘teams’, workshops and other pseudo-consultative facsimiles of democratic worker participation in their own workplaces. In the world of software people are sold ‘solutions’ and ‘packages’ with the idea that people sell products and services being seen as hopelessly old fashioned (and more to the point unprofitable)

Language, and in a much more strong sense the written word is a techne. A form of technology a means of interacting and defining the world and like history it is organised and defined by those with power. So in one sense the Foucault’s and Derrida’s of this world were entirely correct to focus on how important language is as a tool of constructing and defining the world around them and thus of power relations between different groups in society. So how have the powerful used language to cement their position and freeze out their opponents? One example of this is the idea of ‘Shareholder Value’, this innocuous and oft-used phrase is the excuse for a variety of wrongs done to the ordinary worker and customers of large company.

The idea of ‘Shareholder Value’ is that being the owners of the company the shareholders are therefore entitled to the majority of the profits. Thus working back from this conclusion management theorists recast every action by a manager in terms of how it could increase ‘shareholder value’ this also led to the idea that by granting managers share options you would align their interests with that of the shareholders and hence lead to an increase in share price….needless to say the Enron and Worldcom financial disasters along with other studies have shown how true that theory turned out to be. The idea of ‘Shareholder Value’ recast how language was used and abused throughout an entire organisation. This led to the consultants and theorists talking of ‘releasing’ value. The use of the world ‘release’ is in itself an interesting in that it implies that this so-called value is being held against it’s own will and that once freed it will as return to it’s ‘natural’ home…the ever deserving shareholder rather than that of the worker who generated the value in the first place. All debates within a company were framed in this language everything measured against this over-arching ideology, alterative views and approaches were frozen out.  

So language is used to obfuscate and hide the mechanics of power within organisations, who has it and how it’s used. It is used to falsely align the interests of the workers with that of those who own the businesses, to divide and rule and work against any idea of workers acting collectively in their own interests. A recent study by the GMB union noted that the UK had one of the highest numbers of managers as a proportion of the work force in the industrialised world, leading to the all to plausible idea that many jobs are having the word manager shoe-horned in there as a sop to their workers and to make the senior manager feel better about themselves. Technocratic apologists for this state of affairs responded to this report by saying that modern service industries need this level of management to actually function properly which in itself is a highly debateable proposition…

Employees are not stupid and do realise on the whole when management is trying to pull a fast one and many subtly resist the increasingly stupid diktats from above, the ceaseless re-organisations, re-naming, re-engineering and messing around of their own working lives. Large companies are organised on command and control lines akin to how the soviets organised their own industries. Practising a kind of ‘black planning’ they suffer many of the same problems as their Soviet counterparts. Any large organisation relies on feedback loops and quality information being transmitted to the planners, the most efficient means of conveying this information being some kind of market. Due to the size of these organisations markets simply won’t work, consequently means of monitoring and controlling the workers who actually do the job (and have some idea of what they’re doing) are needed. This is done via statistical analysis, neo-Taylorist time and motion studies, and meaningless target setting. As those wonderful hucksters McKinsey’s like to say if it can be measured it can be managed. The wilful and semi-deliberate abuse of language is all part and parcel of how these large organisations actually work, a natural consequence of their dysfunctional over-sized nature. This situation will not stop till workers actually have some democratic control over the companies they work in.