Past tense, future perfect?

The technologies may have moved on, but office politics and the career struggle are perennial issues. Ross Bentley asked three...

The technologies may have moved on, but office politics and the career struggle are perennial issues. Ross Bentley asked three management gurus to look at the past, the present and the future

How things have changed in the organization
Ian Turner
, head of graduate business studies, Henley Management College
Turner says the organisational landscape 35 years ago was characterised by "corporate man". Beset by corporate politics, he inhabited a company with a complex hierarchy and layers of middle management.

However, the 1980s heralded an era of deregulation which brought with it intense competition. Companies responded with waves of corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions. Activities known as "delayering", "downsizing" and "outsourcing" were commonplace.

The use of IT brought many changes. It extended the manager's span of control. Before the widespread use of IT it was generally thought that a manager should have no more than seven people reporting to them.

As the hierarchical corporation ebbed away, the shape of the organisation became flatter. However, this new structure has brought with it new problems in career management as there are fewer opportunities for promotion. Managers have had to find other ways to reward staff. It also means that people are more likely to find themselves working in a variety of roles at the same level or rank rather than slowly climbing with each job change.

The stripping down of management layers and the outsourcing of many functions also means that staff tend to be experts and people with special skills. This new workforce structure has brought new management challenges. People with talent do not respond to the traditional form of command and control management. They are looking to be engaged, inspired and challenged.

Top graduates used to be drawn to top brand companies such as Proctor and Gamble or Coca-Cola. It was thought that if you had one of these respected companies on your CV it would stand you in good stead.

While this is is still the case - leading graduates still go to the top consultancies and the likes of Microsoft and Cisco - the dotcom era changed this concept in that it lowered the barriers to entry. It signalled a shift away from the notion of the corporate ladder towards the idea that you could be the master of your own destiny and define your own strategies. This idea predates the dotcom explosion but this period saw many top people making choices between the two routes.

Things have not really changed in IT
Chris Edwards
, professor of information systems, Cranfield School of Managemen
According to Edwards, in the 35 years since IT became a recognisable industry the technology has come a long way but the underlying issues have remained the same.

He says senior management were not involved in IT at all in the 1960s and they are still not. You are more likely to see middle managers and accountants work with IT to run off statistics.

Edwards believes direct interaction between IT and senior management will not happen until it is commonplace for a representative from IT to sit on the board. There may be many senior people in IT with the title of director but they are not in the inner circle and do not have direct access to decision-makers.

Then, as now, the perceived wisdom was that the next round of technology would provide the answers to all our problems. If you are always looking to the the next generation of technology you are not focusing on the here and now - it is not an avenue that takes you very far. It gives people an excuse to delay action.

Whereas then it could have meant waiting for extra processing power from a main server, today it could be the expectation caused by Linux. All this acts as a distraction. Millions of staff hours are spent trying to keep up with the latest technology rather than looking at how we can use what we have got now.

In IT the emphasis is still on getting the code written or the project finished by the deadline. This obsession with getting the job done and going into minute detail about code deflects attention away from thinking about how the business can be changed.

It is easy to concentrate on a program but trying to reinvent business processes is a lot more painful. ITers talk about wanting to change the way business works but do they want to drive it?

Finally, the jury has never really come in on whether outsourcing is a good idea. Over the years outsourcing has changed its name. It used to be called "using the bureau". While the name has changed, the principle of "sending punch cards for processing to the bureau" remains the same and we are still debating whether it is a wise move or not.

What does the future hold?
John Knell
, director of futures, The Industrial Society
Knell predicts that intangible assets such as people skills, ideas, creativity and intellectual assets will become increasingly important in the future.

There will be intense competition between organisations to recruit staff with these skills as they strive to create value from "weightless activity". Knowledge management, product development, awareness of patent law and strategic alliances will all be vital areas.

The work/life balance debate will intensify. Studies show that the dissatisfaction felt by workers with the amount of hours they are required to work is mushrooming. Mobile working will come under the spotlight - the double-edged impact of this technology means that, while people have more flexibility, they cannot get away from their work.

The pace of adoption of new technologies will increasingly depend on cost and how prepared users are to take it up rather than on the rate of technological development.

We have learnt from the miserable take-up of e-commerce that what may seem like a brilliant technological and business idea is not necessarily in tune with cultural habits.

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