Postmodern Management

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Management can be defined as human action, including design, to facilitate the production of useful outcomes from a system or organisation. Managers manipulate human resources and technology within organisations to achieve desired objectives for the organisation. Management can be seen as having a linear relationship with the capital and functions of a company, just as a thermostat can be seen as having a linear relationship with a boiler: managers are required to exploit the capital in an organisation productively, for profit.

Management is a twentieth century phenomenon, and its history is tied in with the growth of modern organisations and organisational theory. It is a field, however, which is curiously untouched by the advances in theory in the twentieth century. Management is a purely functional school of thought, designed to maximise profits by exploiting capital. Whilst there are many management theories, all are based on this principle, that capital must be exploited for profit, and that is the role of a manager. Management is a Modern theory and vocation, a product of modernity just as Ford’s production lines were. However, industrialisation has never been treated as a text and management has none of the experiments with form or self-consciousness of Modernist art, poetry or architecture.

John Lanchester, in his book explaining the world of finance, Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, explains: “Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the 20th century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English.” Poetry changed forever in the Modern era with the publication of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. No text has changed management in this way, from a linear, assuredly coherent function within an organisation to one that is radically redefined, with none of the false coherence of Enlightenment or Rationalist thought.

Let us attempt a deconstruction of management. Firstly let us work with the definition of management as exploiting capital for profit. The underlying assumption of this definition is that we are all productivists. There is a class relationship between managers and labour withing an organisation with the managers directing labour to the accomplishment of desired goals. But again, the assumption is that profit must be maximised. In traditional views of management there is a direct and linear relationship between the managers and the capital and labour. Is there a postmodern theory of management that can reposit the definition of management?

It could be that information technology has changed management in the postmodern world. Most information systems are autonomous and do not require human intervention, indeed there are web companies which have little or no “bricks and mortar” capital besides a few virtualised servers. It could be argued that the capital is directed and exploited by information systems, and that this role in management has been surrendered to the computers, just as many argued that in the postmodern world humans are caught in a losing battle with invasive postmodern technologies. Business functions, business logic and business decisions are all made by computers in most medium to large enterprises. The capital is intelligent enough to direct itself.

Many companies features office space filled with people sitting behind computers. The role of management may well be the supervision of these people to make sure they are using their time productively. It could well be that the next phase of businesses that come out are completely virtual with no human employees. Perhaps this is where business should go, and businesses with human employees are simply trying to retain the relevance of business to humanity in a way that is obsolete. If this is true, then humans, and their attendant managers, are obsolete in business. The future of business is companies with zero employees and no human resources whatsoever. Business has evolved from being a past time of humans with a view to creating capital into something that can be done virtually with no human agency whatsoever. Of course businesses will always exist with humans in them, who need to earn a living, but perhaps a paradigm shift should happen whereby business is not viewed as the realm of humans, but as a mathematical game that should be played by computers.

It can be seen that management is suffering a crisis of definition in the postmodern era, labouring as it is under the assumption that business are run by human agency. Many businesses are, but most enterprises use enterprise software to run their business, and employ people redundantly, just as a butterfly might fly for the first time with its chrysalis still hanging from its tail. Management is a form of human behaviour, and like most things humans do, it is facing redundancy in the shape of postmodern technology. Postmodern technology surpasses humans. It may be that the game of agency on earth should be passed from humans to machines forever someday.

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