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Published: October 1, 1997

 
 

"Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management" by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Frontiers of Management by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (320 pages, Harvard Business School Press, 1997)

There is understandably some suspicion that when an academic produces a volume quietly dubbed by the publisher "The Essential ... ," he or she is making a final pitch for immortality. At the same time, isn't it easier just to reassemble old bits of work than to embark on something fresh and new?

To say this about Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of America's best-known management thinkers and author of such seminal works as The Change Masters, When Giants Learn to Dance and World Class, would be unfair. Ms. Kanter is a much sought-after speaker, consultant and interviewee, but she is most unguru-like in her modesty, approachability and charm. More than most, she is entitled to stand back because she has been a prolific writer for the past 20 years and many of her ideas have stood the test of time.

She has, moreover, a rare ability to champion the cause of the manager at the sharp end of business while rightly retaining her academic detachment. She revels in the detail of case studies and nitty-gritty examples, yet never loses the bigger picture. And while full of individual prescriptions, she resists the temptation to make it all sound easy, rather urging managers to remember that ultimately success will depend on their own "balance" and judgment.

The essays in Frontiers of Management — all, with the exception of the World Class excerpt, taken from the Harvard Business Review over the last 15 years — cover familiar Kanter themes, from strategy, innovation, customer focus and empowerment to strategic alliances, compensation systems and community responsibility. Reading them, she hopes, will help managers create the conditions inside their companies that make productive change "a natural way of life." Such "change-adept" organizations, as she dubs them, view change not just as a departure from the past (the conventional definition) but see projects as a way of improving their fitness for thriving in competitive markets in the future.

Ms. Kanter's previous book, World Class, argued that globalization was not the threat often perceived by Middle American smaller and medium-sized companies. It developed the idea of a breed of globetrotting "cosmopolitan" businesses rich in the "three C's" — concepts (knowledge and ideas), competence (the skill to operate anywhere at a high standard) and connections (the ability to form good and fruitful relationships as well as gain access to resources around the world). These now familiar three C's reappear in the introduction to Frontiers as defining characteristics of the change-adept organization. But the power of the thesis is undiminished — those that fail to develop these assets are surely condemned to inward-looking isolation and defensiveness, and will be swept away, or at the very least bypassed, by international economic forces.

The first of the three C's, concepts, highlights the imperative of innovation, not least in service industries, where new technology can just as easily be deployed to revitalize an old formula. Look at the way the airline industry, for example, has used computerized reservation systems, frequent-flyer programs, arrival lounges and new seat designs to transform what could have been a commodity industry into a dynamic and flourishing sector. But the trouble, as this sector graphically illustrates, is that the need for improvement never ceases -- today's competitive advantages are tomorrow's industry standards.

 

New concepts can stem from many functions beyond the R&D department, with distribution channels a particular focus for companies like Dell Computer, and the Internet a huge opportunity for those who can find the right key to exploit it. Ms. Kanter is full of useful examples and has a shrewd eye for the failings of cautious corporate bureaucracies. My favorite maxim of management, if not of life: "Everything can look like a failure in the middle.''

The second C, competence, involves more than raw skill; it extends to the organizational routines that permit people to use their skills to a very high operational standard. "If 'do it right the first time' was the mantra of zero defects, 'do it better the second time' should be the slogan for the change-adept organization," Ms. Kanter writes. Here, programs like Total Quality — which Ms. Kanter likes when they allow for genuine employee involvement — can be significant. Professional training, empowerment and social networks that exchange knowledge with or without the aid of information technology should all serve this purpose of making competence an organizational asset, rather than an individual attribute.

Connections is the third of the three C's and refers to the way far-sighted management understands the strategic importance of relationships: in some companies, senior executives and whole departments are dedicated to the management of alliances and partnerships. Much has been said about the boundaryless organization, as Jack Welch calls it, but Ms. Kanter's contribution is typically pragmatic and rooted in common sense. Purchasing, she observes simply, has suddenly become "global supply chain management" in the wake of the growing collaboration across territories, both inside and outside companies. "The tricky step for managers to master is how to dance with dissimilar partners without stepping on any toes," she writes.

Ms. Kanter has made much in pre-publicity interviews of her frustration at the frequent lack of sensitive management in the 1990's — something she attributes to a combination of the recession (which often brutalized relationships between management and employees) and the basic imperfection of human nature. In typically optimistic style, she believes that the more role models are wheeled out, the more the new conventional workplace wisdom is paraded, the more likely it is that conservative managers will change.

I disagree. Bad habits remain deeply ingrained in many large organizations, and it was perhaps this implict admission that moved her focus in World Class to the more dynamic possibilities for small and medium-sized knowledge-based companies.

I doubt that there is much point in middle to senior executives reading this book (they will either know it all, which is fine, or say they know it all when they do not). I very much hope, though, that the down-to-earth lessons that Ms. Kanter has collected over a generation will reach younger managers before they are confused by too much "cutting edge" research.

Reprint No. 97410


Authors
Tim Dickson, formerly the management page editor of the Financial Times, is publisher and director of the FT Mastering Management Review, a monthly journal published by the Financial Times Group. He is based in London.
 
 
 
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