The terms “critical” and “management” emerged in the management literature in the 1990s. (Fournier and Grey, 2000). The sub-discipline “critical management” obtained by combining the words critical and management has become an important subject of debate in the management literature in recent years. (Fournier and Grey, 2000). Critical management studies provide evidence in clear contrast to earlier thinking by mainstream management researchers. This paper aims at providing a critical evaluation of the differences between the two sub-disciplines: critical management research and mainstream management studies. Section 2 provides a discussion of the differences between critical management studies and mainstream management studies, while section 3 provides some conclusions and recommendations.
- Critical Management Research vs Mainstream Management Research.
Management disciplines are predominantly understood to be devoted to the (scientific) improvement of managerial practice and functioning of organisations. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Mainstream management research assumes that questions indirectly connected to efficiency and effectiveness are central and that knowledge of management is of greatest relevance to managers only. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). The above can be seen from the management literature, which more often than not present managers as carriers of rationality and initiative whereas others are regarded simply as objects of managerial action. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Critical management studies portray a complete different picture of managerial practice. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). According to the Dictionary of Human Resource Management (2008) “Critical Management Studies (CMS) is an approach that is critical both of management practices and what is regarded as positivist orthodoxy in management research”. Writers of CMS tend to be more often than not critical of management. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). They consider management to be oppressive, intrusive, unethical, and exploitative. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). Moreover critical management researchers suggest that the surveillance of employees is rising. They are critical of the management of culture as well as other initiatives taken by mangers to shape worker values and beliefs to enable employees to pay more attention to customers as well as being committed to their employers. (Dictionary of Human Resource Management, 2008). For example, Critical studies show how teamwork routinely reinforces established class and authority hierarchies as well as oppressive gender and ethnic relations. (Adler et al., 2007). Critical research has also sought to understand the various mechanisms that make teamwork attractive for many employees notwithstanding its negative effects. (Adler et al., 2007).
Critical management research offers a wide range of alternatives to mainstream management theory with the view to radically transforming management practice. (Adler et al., 2007). The common core is deep scepticism regarding the moral defensibility and social and ecological sustainability of the prevailing forms of management and organisation. (Adler et al., 2007).
While mainstream management research sees managers as being “an exclusive preserve of experts” critical management research takes cognisance of the fact that managers are in some respect paid to determine actions in uncertain circumstances, to create order out of chaos. (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). Critical management studies argue that management research should be regarded as a way of accelerating the process of understanding, and thus should not only lead to a better understanding of management but also to a better understanding for managers about how best to go about their work. (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). Easterby-Smith et al (2002) suggest that mainstream management studies often focus on describing, coding and counting events often at the expense of understanding why things are happening. These studies focus more on using quantitative methods to determine, for example, how many people hold a particular view about an issue, as well as how corporate performance can be measured. (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). On the contrary critical management studies favour the use of qualitative methods which concentrate on exploring in much greater detail the nature and origin of people’s viewpoints or the reasons for, and the consequences of the choice of corporate performance criteria. (Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). This favour for qualitative management research is reinforced by Gummesson (2000) who suggests that counting and classification cannot provide all explanations concerning the view points of different individuals. For counts and classifications to be significant, they require meaning and interpretation and such meaning and interpretation can only be assigned through the use of qualitative methods. (Gummesson, 2000).
Mainstream management studies tend to regard management from a rational perspective. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1996). For example, Casey (2002) suggests that the analysis of production has been dominated by the idea of rationalisation. Modern organisational analysis assumes that organisations as a set of general principles operating in systems are “manifest” or agents of societal modernisation. (Casey, 2002). However, critical management studies consider management from a different perspective. Critical management studies view production organisations as sites of “capitalist” social relations of “class struggle” and not as “inevitable, irrefutable” agents of a universal modernisation. (Casey, 2002). Mainstream management studies consider managerial authority to be firmly based upon objective expertise uncoloured by sectional values and objectives. However, Alvesson and Willmott (1996) argue that it is not necessary to represent management as a predominantly technical activity because of the neutrality created by such representation. Mainstream management theory is considered to be sanitised and management practice is distanced from the structures of power and interest that, inescapably, are a condition and consequence of its very emergence and development. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1996). Critical approaches to analysing and understanding organisations refuse the “singular legitimacy” of the managerial mainstream, as well as its “imbrications” with instrumental rationality. (Casey, 2002). Although some critical analyses display the hallmarks of rationality, many critical management researchers raise concerns over the limits of technological and instrumental rationality, and defend social and cultural aspiration of organisational practice which differ from those of mainstream management research. (Casey, 2002). Unlike the more mainstream approaches, critical management studies tend to be more concern with the socio-cultural interests of humans working in, or affected by, organisational activities in societies and communities and within the planetary environment. (Casey, 2002). It would perhaps claim to be ‘holistic’ rather than atomistic in approach. For example, Adler et al. (2007) argue that much mainstream research either ignores, or views as pathological, the solidarity of teams in pursuing their own agendas and priorities—perhaps in resisting autocratic foremen, making work more meaningful, or simply having more fun at work. On the contrary, critical management research portrays teamwork as a management technique that can result in the oppressive internalisation of business values and goals by team members, who then begin exploiting themselves and disciplining team peers in the name of business performance and being “responsible” team players. (Adler et al., 2007). This is especially the case when management corrals teamwork towards business goals. (Adler et al., 2007). The resulting conformism suppresses democratic dialogue about the appropriateness of the underlying values and goals. (Adler et al., 2007). The motivation for critical management studies is the social injustice and environmental destruction of the broader social class and economic systems that managers and organisations serve and reproduce. (Adler et al., 2007).
Mainstream management studies view management as a “socially valuable” technical function, normally acting in the general interest of workers, employees, customers and citizens alike. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Teamwork is considered in a large body of the mainstream management literature as a means by which managers can more effectively mobilize employees to improve business performance. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). Teamwork enables the reorganisation of work in such a way that better accommodates task interdependencies and provides team members a margin of autonomy to decide on how these autonomies should be handled. (Adler et al., 2007). This makes teamwork a “win-win” policy because it makes work more satisfying for employees and more effective for business. Mainstream management studies often consider issues such as workforce diversity to be capable of facilitating or impeding effective teamwork. (Adler et al., 2007; Grey and Willmott, 2005). Moreover, these studies suggest that if diversity impedes teamwork, then research addresses how the problem can be solved. (Adler et al., 2007). On the contrary, critical management studies consider the practice of teamwork as well as the mainstream management theories that portray it as problematic. (e.g., Sinclair, 1992; Barker, 1993; Ezzamel & Willmott, 1998; McKinley & Taylor, 1998; Proctor & Mueller, 2000; Knights & McCabe, 2000; Batt & Doellgast, 2006 cited in Adler et al., 2007).
Contrary to the above view, critical management studies postulate that management is too potent in its effects upon the lives of employees, consumers and citizens to be grounded by a narrow instrumental form of rationality. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992).
Critical management studies are interested in organisations as social practices which reflect dominant agencies as well as cultural contests occurring in society and even mainstream management researchers have began acknowledging some of these concerns. (Casey, 2002). The modern corporation is said to be posing a lot of problems to its environment as well to society as a whole. Thus portraying management from the rationalist perspective as mainstream management researchers are doing seems illogical. Alvesson and Willmott (1992) suggest that the rapid expansion of academic departments, faculty positions and students in the field makes the task of critically examining management perspectives a more urgent one. This is as a result of the increasing social, political and ecological significance of management decisions within the modern form of organisation. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Consider for example, the following quote from Deetz:
“the modern corporation has emerged as the central form of working relations and as the dominant institution in society. In achieving dominance, the commercial corporation has eclipsed the state, family, residential community, and moral community. This shadowing has hidden or suppressed important historical conflicts among competing institutional demands. Corporate practices pervade modern life by providing personal identity, structuring time and experience, influencing education and knowledge production and directing entertainment and news production”. (Deetz, 1992: 2).
The above quote suggests that organisations, through the influence of their managers, have a significant role to play in shaping the direction of the society and its members as a whole. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). Organisations affect the government, the family, the residential community, etc. They determine the career paths chosen by young people operating in society. In so far as management has a productive role to play in organisational work, it would be unwise and inconsistent with critical theory to exaggerate or assume its importance. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Management is not limited to facilitating the innovation and distribution of valuable social goods. The organisation and its management also “manufacture” people: workers, customers and citizens. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Societal needs, wishes, beliefs and identities are shaped and promoted by organisations and their management. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992; ). This is evident in advertisements and consumer marketing, which create, maintain and reinforce gender stereotypes, problematic identities and make self-esteem precarious. (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). Corporate activity through management decisions also fosters and promotes a materialistic and egoistic lifestyle. Moreover, companies promote environmental damage as a result of their manufacturing and waste disposal activities. They continue to promote the emission of toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide and CO2 that go a long way to deplete the ozone layer thus increasing the risk that future generation may not be able to survive in this planet.
Despite the differences between critical management studies and mainstream management research, both approaches tend to have a wide range of analytical methods and interpretations in common. (Casey, 2002). Many organisational researchers, regardless of whether they are affiliated to critical management theory or mainstream management theory and irrespective of whether they stem from sociological, psychological, economic or management science traditions, receive these assumptions as “discourse givens” now setting the terms of the debate. (Casey, 2002). Importantly, assumptions continue to be shaped by the spectre of systems theories and “functionalization”, which shadows all forms of contemporary organisational analysis. (Casey, 2002). A mix of theoretical assumptions and analytical methods derived from an inadequate scrutiny exists even among social approaches and neo-rational managerial approaches which reject systems notions. (Casey, 2002). Casey (2002) suggests that this hybridisation and strategic utilisation of competing assumptions is a primary source of dissent in the critical management perspective of organisational research, although a managerial mainstream adeptly incorporates or discards depending on their use, the knowledge of critical discourse.
- Conclusions and Recommendations.
The above discussion suggests that a number of differences exist between mainstream management research and critical management research. The main difference between the two research philosophies is the fact that mainstream management research looks at management from a rational perspective and considers managers as an ideal unit of the organisation that contributes positively to the needs of society. On the contrary, the critical perspective adopts a critical approach to the study of organisations. (Grey and Willmott, 2005). The critical perspective focuses attention on the contributions of management and organisations to the society in which they operate. The critical perspective observes that while management contributes positively to society’s needs, it also plays a significant role in increasing the social cost to society. The latter finding suggests that there is a trade-off between the benefits provided by organisations to society and the costs inflicted by the organisation to society. This paper agrees with the findings of the critical theorists because organisations are basically interested in making absolute profit rather than in satisfying the needs of customers, employees, and citizens. Organisational management will only take action to benefit society only if such action will in turn benefit the organisation’s shareholders. Management is focused on satisfying the needs of shareholders and not those of employees, customers or citizens. Customer needs are satisfied simply because the organisation depends on them for sales. The organisation will only conduct a project to improve the environment it which it operates if such improvement will lead to increase business in the community, perhaps through positive PR and publicity. Thus the organisation and its management is simply out to exploit employees, customers and citizens as a whole to achieve its selfish desires of profit maximisation. The policy implication of this paper is that before accepting an organisation to conduct business in a particular location, the cost and benefits to the society and the environment from the existence of such an organisation should be assessed. If the benefits outweigh the costs, then the organisation should be given the go ahead; otherwise the organisation should not be allowed to operate.
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