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The holy grail of what constitutes "best practice" in management provides an intriguing set of new ideas. Unfortunately, however, these ideas are not often implemented successfully. A very real danger is the "graffiti response", whereby the managing director endorses an idea which is currently in vogue but there is no real substance or organisational commitment to the idea. indeed, the company may move to the next new idea before successfully implementing the previous one.
There is a proliferation of intriguing intellectual think-pieces for managers today. At any moment in time there appears to be a holy grail of what constitutes accepted dogma in management circles. If you ask executives in management development programmes to recite the holy grail, they have little difficulty doing so. For example, some of the ideas in vogue in early 1995 include:
* Activity based accounting
* Business process re-engineering
* Codes of ethics
* Core competencies
* Lean manufacturing
* Market driven and close-to-customers
* Relationship marketing
* Strategic alliances and networks
* Time-based competition
* Total quality management
Of course, it is interesting to wonder what happened to the holy grail of a few short years ago. Were these ideas proven to be false prophets or did they diffuse so widely that they lost their value? Many managers will remember such ideas as:
* Cash cows, stars, question marks and dogs
* Experience curves
* Generic strategies
* Management by objectives
* Portfolio management
* Matrix management
* Skunk works
* Theory Z
* Zero-based budgeting
A compelling initial question is the source of these ideas. There seem to be two driving forces on the supply side. The first is business school academics and the second is consultants. Both comprise a set of (usually) quite bright people who observe and analyse management practice. Both have the incentive to generate a never-ending stream of new ideas and consultants have the additional incentive to "brand" these ideas as a basis for seeking competitive differentiation of their firms.
On the demand side we find a receptive audience and a legion of willing adopters. Managers seem to be engaged in a perennial search for simple "branded" answers. They adopt TQM, IS 9000, JIT, market driven and other "brands" with fervour. But they also drop them with abandon and move to the next management fashion without regret.
A considerable amount of intellectual energy is devoted to the pursuit of the holy grail. Most of the prescriptions offered are logical and thought-provoking. However, most managers will never implement these ideas successfully. Indeed, it may even be that the most enthusiastic proponents of many of today's hot concepts are the least likely to use them to advantage. Darrell Rigby (1993a) of Bain has made the interesting speculation that: "The people who get a high from buying all the latest tools are the least likely to use them to do hard work." He also suggests that: "Inexperienced or underperforming managers have a predisposition for falling under the spell (of these concepts)."
It is not that the ideas encompassing the holy grail lack value, nor that we should discourage new thinking. The problem is that as these concepts are adopted by companies, they are often short on substance. They are superficially incorporated in strategic plans with little perspective on the difficulties of implementation. Furthermore, pursuit of the holy grail absorbs resources - time, funds and energy - and has a high opportunity cost if managers would have a better pay-off from pursuing activities with clearer bottom-line potential. Many managers are so infatuated with these ideas, or so threatened by them, that they spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to understand them or trying to be the first to adopt these ideas within their firms.
Furthermore, every action has a reaction. Introducing organisational change of any sort has consequences - both good and bad. For example: Johnson and Johnson dropped its broadbanding experiment when it caused a whole new set of problems. The promise was that by eliminating multiple salary grades, job improvement would be fostered leading to enrichment for employees. Instead, employees saw the elimination of a clear promotion path (Bleakley, 1993). SAS Airlines pursued a market driven philosophy with a vengeance in the late 1980s only to find that it allowed its costs to escalate unchecked. In 1989, then-CEO Jan Carlzon pronounced: "We have to identify and evaluate the business traveller's total service needs ... our mission is to take care of all their practical details." Two years later, Carlzon's philosophy had changed: "Everything that does not further the competitiveness of our airline activities must be removed, sold or turned into separate entities" (Moreno, 1991).
The Graffiti Response
Information and ideas diffuse broadly in international management circles today. The holy grail is remarkably similar, whether we read today's Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Handelsblatt or Nihon Keizai Shimbun. However, whereas awareness of these ideas is widespread, interpretation and meaning build slowly because they require intellectual energy and insight. Successful implementation, of course, diffuses most slowly of all because this requires behavioural change within the company.
Indeed, the most common response to the holy grail is lots of rhetoric and very little committed action. The graffiti response occurs when firms wittingly or unwittingly resort to jargon …