Friday, 17 October 2014

The Times (they aren't a-changing)

One of the arguments in the book that has caught the most attention is my claim that the rhetoric of unprecedented change, and its use to justify organizational change, is bogus and, moreover, that attempts at change management usually fail (pp. 90-100).
In this context, I had an interesting experience this week whilst stuck on a delayed train for two hours, during which I read The Times from cover to cover. In particular, I read two articles that seemed to sum up this issue (they are pay-walled, so I can’t give links as I usually do). The first was part of a special section on ‘The Agile Business’, and was entitled ‘Change is necessary to survive and grow’ (Charles Orton-Jones, The Agile Business Supplement p.3, The Times, October 14 2014). Here, all the clich├ęs I enumerate in the book were present: incessant improvement is vital in today’s world, an incoherent nod to Darwinism, some examples from the software industry, a lot of wordy rhetoric about the 'oblivion' awaiting those who don't heed the message. So far, so boring – although it does bear saying that since this kind of talk has been around for 35 years or more then the torpid, flaccid corporations it is supposedly aimed at will invariably have been the ones that embraced the same message before. So, truly, this is the revolution that never happens.
Be that as it may, the other article that caught my eye was ‘Watchmaker that defied the passing of time’ (Jenny Hirschkorn, The Times, October 14 2014, p.49) which told the story of luxury Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe. In the 1970s and 1980s the received wisdom was that mechanical watchmakers had no future in the face of quartz watches; that European and US watch markets were finished and the future was China; that watchmakers must diversify from production because the future was retailing. Patek Philippe ignored all of this (the article calls these “counter-intuitive decisions”) and as a result is now prospering as the demand for mechanical watches increases, the China market collapses, and keeping out of retail has enhanced the exclusivity of the product. That the firm was family-owned may be significant; that it remains so surely is; that it is the last family-owned watchmaker in Geneva even more so.
It’s easy to see that had Patek Philippe followed the change mantra it would now no longer exist, except, perhaps, as a brand name shell, like so many British businesses that took the prescribed path. This is one of what I would argue are many cases where the criticisms of ‘critical management studies’ are actually highly relevant to the practical concerns of sustainable businesses. We will never know how many companies have gone to the wall by following the breathless mantra: change or die. But we can be sure that those who champion the mantra of unprecedented, constant change will continue to claim it as an unchanging verity.

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