Thursday, July 10, 2008

Does “Management” Mean “Command and Control”?

Does “Management” Mean “Command and Control”?

I read recently that IBM was abandoning the term “knowledge management” for “knowledge sharing.” According to an article on the KnowledgeBoard site (thanks to Chris Johannesson from NBC Universal for suggesting that I blog about it), Chris Cooper, knowledge sharing solutions leader at IBM Global Business Services (GBS), deems it a “philosophical repositioning.” Cooper notes, “Management suggests control: control of process and control of environment.” Another GBS knowledge specialist, Luis Suarez, notes in the same article, "Command and control corporations are no longer going to be there. People need to be freed to share what they know."

Hmm…better tell all the world’s managers, schools of management, management consultants, etc. The term “management” is apparently a synonym for “command and control,” and we know that’s bad. “Command and control” is top-down, mean and nasty, and headed for extinction; “sharing” is bottom-up, nice and friendly, and the wave of the future. Maybe the Yale School of Organization and Management, for example, should become the Yale School of Sharing.

OK, I have no problem with giving something a new name when you are adopting a new emphasis. I don’t even have that much of a problem with the term “sharing,” although it is somewhat reminiscent of kindergarten. However, I do have a problem with overly simplistic characterizations of knowledge management, and management more generally.

Let’s talk about the more limited issue of defending knowledge management. As I said, I don’t really care what you call it, but if your organization really cares about creating, distributing (I’m sorry—“sharing”), and applying knowledge, you need to manage it. The last time I checked, “management” of knowledge could include some relatively structured, “here’s the knowledge we really need to do our jobs right” approaches, as well as some more emergent, Enterprise 2.0-oriented ones. If you only do the former, your knowledge workers will probably feel a bit stifled; if you only do the latter, things will probably feel a bit chaotic. If I’m a NASA astronaut, for example, and I’m sitting on the launch pad when something goes wrong, I’d rather have people looking for a solution in structured knowledge bases than mucking around in blogs and wikis.

But the broader issue is whether “management” is an outdated concept, or whether it’s the same as “command and control.” Frankly, I think those are nutty ideas. There may sometimes be a need for less directive approaches to management, as I argued with respect to knowledge workers in my book Thinking for a Living. But the right style of management, like the right approach to knowledge management, varies widely based on a number of factors—including the people being managed, the society in which you’re managing, and the task at hand.

In fact, I think we should ban the term “command and control.” It’s simplistic shorthand for a stereotyped approach to management. The world of management is much more subtle and multi-faceted, and any synonyms for it should reflect that complexity.

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