Service Communautaire d'Information sur la Recherche et le Développement - CORDIS

The creation of European management practice: Institutions of management knowledge and the convergence of European business Practice

CEMP research has shown that management practice has evolved in waves, which differ significantly in terms of the dominant ideas, the focus of management attention, and the role of top managers. A first wave occurred in the period from the 1880s to the 1970s with a major expansion between the 1920s and the 1950s. The focus during that period was on the production unit and the dominant ideology was scientific management developed by Frederick W. Taylor. During this wave the role of the top manager was primarily that of a specialist.

However, already in the 1920s a second wave started, although its major expansion did not occur until the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. In this wave the focus was moved from the production unit to the corporation. The dominant ideology concerned strategy and structure rather than scientific management, and the main proponent of the ideology was Peter F. Drucker. The role of the manager was no longer that of a specialist but that of a generalist. This wave has not yet finished, although it is on the decline.

The most recent shift has emerged in the last two decades and became increasingly dominant during the 1990s. In this period the emphasis started to shift from corporate organisation and strategy towards the management of internal and external relationships. The co-ordination and control of such intra- and interorganisational networks is partly enabled through the fast development of information technology. A number of new management practices, concepts and tools have rapidly evolved at the same time, as there has been a tremendous rise of the management knowledge industry. However, there are differences between the fields in terms of their reaction to the changes in management practice. While popular management publications and consulting seem to be first in capturing new trends, there is more inertia when it comes to academic publications and management education.

One of the distinctive features of the most recent wave is the polarisation within each of the three fields of the management knowledge industry. While the national level is gradually losing influence, the global and the local levels are becoming more important. On the global level each field is characterised by the emergence of large and highly visible actors pushing for convergence. CEMP data show that consultants and a few media conglomerates are most advanced in terms of acting on a global level. There are also a few international business schools. However, in general, management education remains nationally driven. At the same time, parts of the management knowledge industry, especially the small consultancies, are very active on the local level.

When it comes to content, the research points to a gradual blurring of the boundaries of the fields. The blurring occurs because some actors belong to several fields and the fields are increasingly overlapping. For instance, consultants have started to co-operate with business schools by organising joint events. At the same time business school are offering consulting- type services in the form of tailor-made programmes for specific companies. Media companies have also expanded their education-related activities. Some publishing companies have started to organise training events. They are also influencing education through ranking of business schools. In the same way companies are increasingly influencing educational institutions through external academic funding and the participation in accreditation projects. As a result of all these developments, there is a tendency for the management knowledge industry as a whole to use the same labels and to diffuse similar ideas.

In terms of diffusion, CEMP research confirms the importance of management education, media and consulting. However, their function is not limited to the transfer of management knowledge. In the third wave of management practice companies have to defend their action in relation to various internal and external stakeholders, especially players on the global financial markets. The legitimisation function of the different institutions within the management knowledge industry has therefore increased significantly. At the discourse level there is also strong evidence for a growing importance of these institutions in the promotion of convergence. They especially contribute to the creation of a common management language and its translation to a local context. For the latter, local actors play a significant role as translators for global models.

Overall it is clear that consultants and parts of the media are the most important actors promoting convergence. They do this by diffusing standardised labels globally and by translating them into local and national contexts. In comparison education is still dominated by national institutions, which means that they have less of influence on the convergence process. Due to the blurring of boundaries the labels and underlying ideas are becoming increasingly similar across all of the institutions. However, despite these strong tendencies for convergence, there is considerable room for variation at the organisational level. This is due to the possibility of actors to de-couple labels from practice as well as the translation occurring at local levels. In this context it should be noted that neither de-coupling nor translation are necessarily smooth and uncontested processes.

CEMP research also shows that most of the dominant and visible actors at the global level in consulting and media, but to a more limited extent in education, are of American origin and ownership. This means that the role models and the providers of labels and underlying ideas for European actors are coming from the United States. The main role of the European actors seems to be the translation of these labels and ideas into the local context. Thus, some of the ideas originating in European management practice might be packaged and sold back to Europe by dominant US actors in the management knowledge industry. The fact that most ideas are packaged in the United States might also be behind the extent of de-coupling and the friction occurring in the translation process in Europe.

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Lars ENGWALL
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