Management theory has moved forward by evolution rather than revolution in recent years. Everyone should be grateful for that, because there are only so many fads and fashions that hard-working executives can handle in any quarter.
“We have to get past the idea that some huge new idea is going to come along and change everything,” Julian Birkinshaw of London Business School told the closing session of the recent Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna. Rather than the theory, Prof Birkinshaw went on, what is changing is the practice of management — which, as it happens, is also the title of one of Drucker’s best-known works.
The problem with the vacuum of theory is that would-be theorists need no encouragement to rush to fill it. This year, the forum tempted otherwise thoughtful contributors with the overarching title “The Power of Ecosystems”. As a result, the word was so drained of meaning through overuse by the end of the conference that I started mentally removing the prefix “eco” to retain my sanity.
There is the seed of a useful idea floating somewhere at the bottom of the swamp of mixed metaphor.
Business leaders certainly need to operate in a world of “new, flexible and adaptive networks of enterprises, jointly pursuing ambitious purposes”, as the introduction to this year’s forum put it. Like the ideal technology system described by internet pioneer Vint Cerf of Google, the healthiest such networks are combinations of “stability, interoperability and adaptability to change”.
Author and academic Amy Webb pointed out that metaphors could be a useful way of thinking through complicated concepts. The challenge is “we tend to talk about things in layers of abstraction”.
In fact, Drucker used to describe himself as a “social ecologist”, who studied man-made organisations in the same way a natural ecologist studies the biological environment.
The Austrian-born management writer, though, “used language like a well-honed sword”, Anika Marie Kennaugh told a session where young finalists of the forum’s annual essay contest pitch new ideas. “Our arsenal of words,” she pointed out, is now decidedly blunt.
Contributions to the pre-conference blog claimed ecosystems could be a silver bullet, they ought to have a value chain — or possibly even be part of one — they should be “leveraged” to “maximise value and achieve competitive advantage” or “populated with new addressable customers”. “If you orchestrate it and tie the ecosystem on to a platform, you’re really resolving the customer problem holistically,” enthused one panellist.
This mess matters and not only because mixed metaphors confuse management objectives. Management thinkers, and even a few practitioners, quickly become bogged down.
This kind of talk is also a gift to consultants on the prowl for new opportunities to explain their version of ecosystems to baffled boards and business leaders. Axelle Lemaire, the French former minister who is now a partner at Roland Berger, declared happily that half of all candidates applying for jobs at the consultancy mention “the ecosystem model” in their letters of application.
The ecosystem quicksand sucks attention away from the important question of how people fit into business, in the same way that an obsession with “matrix” management — a way of structuring multinationals — took up leaders’ time in the 1990s.
Over the years, the Drucker Forum’s focus on the human side of modern management has yielded the richest insights. Last year’s conference theme was “Management — The Human Dimension”, and the 2017 forum was brought to a close by the thinker Charles Handy, who fulminated against the digitised company as “a prison for the human soul”.
This year, the most useful and engaging discussions of interconnected systems concentrated on the people at their core. I perked up when one speaker started talking about how BASF had helped shrimp farmers by coordinating different participants in the shrimping supply chain, or when Rick Goings, emeritus chairman of Tupperware, reminded the audience of the millions of women who make up the group’s networked sales force and whose advancement the food storage company has tried to champion.
Jargon distracts from real problems, and this is why its spread is more than just a comic problem of management-speak run amok.
There is another fundamental reason why “ecosystem” is an unhelpful business buzzword. We live in a natural system that man-made change has all too obviously thrown out of kilter. A true ecosystem cannot be “designed”, “built”, let alone “led”, but we all know how easily it can be destroyed.