Having experienced, at first hand, the style of people management methods amongst some of the biggest American corporations (Exxon, Ford, GE, GM, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Texaco) it always struck me that any success they achieved was in spite of, rather than because of, their people management. The evidence to support this view has been growing steadily over the years (and is presented throughout this series) but to get to the heart of what is wrong in American management one only has to look at America’s inability to learn from its own mistakes.
This is most clearly manifest within the very institution that should be promoting learning – the ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) – which always based evaluation of learning on a poorly designed model from 1959 – Kirkpatrick’s 4 levels. When the design flaws apparent in this model were exposed, during the TQM revolution of the 1980’s, what did ASTD do? Instead of admitting they had failed, and returning to the drawing board, they moved into hyper-over-engineering mode and bolted on another superfluous ‘tailfin’* (Jack Phillips’ fatuous ‘level 5’) in the hope that the new look might deceive corporations enough for them to continue employing their members.
So far, American management has fallen for it. That does not worry me unduly and should please managers from competing countries. No, what really concerns me is that the ASTD is now trying to force perfectly sensible learning and development people, from around the world, into following its asinine lead. You don’t need to be a historian to realise that all empires go through a natural, rise-and-fall cycle and there is a now a big question mark over the West’s future but is this just another tell-tale sign of it entering its descendency phase. By the way, the word ‘descendency’ does not appear in either American or English dictionaries.
It is equally well documented that the grieving process tends to follow five phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. So you might think that the US is already well into the bargaining phase; as evidenced by its internal, political wrangling over its inability to tackle its huge debt, but actually America is still firmly in denial. They are still trying to convince themselves and the world that HCM is something they are actually quite good at. This is why, if you want the ASTD’s blessing, you will have to attend one of Phillips’ garage workshops on how to add an enormous and costly tailfin to your ‘Mini’ (or whatever model you drive). It might look ridiculous and not fit very well but you’re stuck with it because it only comes in one size – ROI.
You would be forgiven for thinking that, as a Brit, I am being partisan here if it were not for the fact that I am the first to admit that we are no better at HCM in the UK. We might take a less ostentatious, more thoughtful, approach but thoughts don’t amount to a hill of beans. To experience minds that are completely open to new ways of addressing the human dimension of large corporations (and Governments) you need to travel much further East; to a very different, underlying philosophy. We have been here once before, when the Japanese taught the West a few lessons about how to manufacture efficiently, but there was always so much more that we needed to learn – not least of which was some humility.
When I teach in the East** myself I know they don’t have all the answers either but their great strength is that, unlike the Americans, they don’t try to pretend that they do – and neither do I. Empires that are built on hubris crash and burn for the very same reason. When you have believed that you are the best for so long you tend to breed people who either believe their own hype or, worse still, are too frightened to challenge it – why do you think Hitler employed Goebbels? When hype trumps reality learning ceases and the problems really start.
I still think early reports of the West’s demise are, in the words of one wise American – Mark Twain – greatly exaggerated, but my own prediction would be that the next, most sustainable, management empire is likely to be founded on clear evidence that management is learning to best serve society – not some ugly tailfin.
*Many other evaluation models have emanated from the US over the last 30 years or so – all of them adding unnecessary paraphernalia and gadgets rather than focusing on super-charging the engine.