As part of our endless quest in the face of slow news days to provide you relevant info on how to deal with the forces facing correction sentencing as we approach 2020, we will every Sunday provide the familiar “book review.” Well, not so familiar, actually. We intend to focus on books that don’t fit into the reigning “inside the silo” paradigm that has so successfully gotten us where we are today. Sometimes that may mean corrections and/or sentencing books that challenge the existing mantras. Other times, it may mean books that don’t even touch on corrections and/or sentencing but have significant relevance that we would otherwise miss by insisting on staying inside our silo. And, so you won’t have to worry about bookmarking or coming back and scrolling through archives when you want to check something we said, we will gladly post each review over on the left-hand side of the blog for easy reference. Please. Don’t thank us. The astonishment in your eyes is enough.
A little different take on books we’re reviewing today, giving us a chance to think through latching onto fads and gimmicks versus Reality and substance in management and policy. The first book we’re pointing you toward is Peter Cappelli’s Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It
, which points to the standardization of HR techniques that eliminate a lot of talented people who would do fine in the job in question but for the standardization of HR techniques.
You may or may not know how this works. Most big orgs have bought into the consultant-prepped software that screen applications for key words indicating the applicant’s suitability for the job. Not getting enough people pinging those key words with enough frequency has led employers to wail about the lack of qualified applicants when, in fact, there are a lot of great people available, just not pinging the ideal words. The problem is that the organizations are insisting that the potential employees and their schools/previous employers/somebody else do all the work getting the employee ready for the job rather than investing in the training necessary to get talented people specialized for the job. You know, like they did back when US businesses led the world.
This affects us in Corrections Sentencing less, we believe, than the kinds of companies and other orgs that Cappelli talks about since we do invest in training and we have unfortunate turnover that makes us more beggars than choosers. Still, we compete in the more specialized markets, too, and have the same sorts of concerns. Clearly, you can’t take bright literature majors (yes, possibly an oxymoron given this job market) and turn them into psychiatrists in a facility on your own, but in your own experience, you probably know of positions that have specific job descriptions but really, with a willingness to train over a reasonable period of time, could embrace a lot more potential talent than you do now. Cappelli’s point, reviewed in this blog piece, is that, when the software screens you out as a worker so effectively and frequently, the process becomes doubly restrictive and you end up with the kind of employment market that we have now, the dubious employment data notwithstanding. (Unemployment rates have come down far more from people dropping out of the market than from new jobs being created, denominators, numerators, all that.)
Traditionally, the route into the workforce for those who didn’t have experience was to convince a hiring manager that they were worth taking a risk on, and then spend some time on the job learning the skills that would be required to do it effectively. In many cases, this was formalized as an apprenticeship.
However, in many industries, on the job training is something of a relic, with companies increasingly fearful of investing time and money to train employees who can then be poached by competitors. That has led to a spiral where employees—and candidates—are increasingly having to use their own time and money to acquire the skills that they think employers might want. That situation is not ideal for anyone—not the workers who end up out of pocket just to try and get a shot at getting hired, or the companies, who can't direct the training and ensure its quality or relevance.
Which sorta gets us to the other book we want to look at. Organizational leaders far too often fall for the stultifying traps that Cappelli describes not just in selection and hiring processes but in practically every area of what they do. It’s what everybody does, they can tell themselves, and it saves us from being responsible for the resulting problems since we can point at “accepted” practice and advocates as the culprits.
This is very common in organizations, latching onto some fad process, idea, philosophy that ends up having an unfortunate half-life time. I remember when Tom Peters, the management guru, took off 30 years ago or so, with insights like “management by walking around.” Concepts grounded in a kernel of insight—you find out more from being on site in your org process than just sitting in your office reading reports—that then grows into an ungainly and costly plant that your sunk costs may keep you from dumping. At least until the next brilliant kernel comes along. We’ve been harping lately on a new and equally grounded kernel blooming into nonsense, this silliness that you will explode creativity and innovation all over your organization by forcing people into contact with each other, whether everyone enjoys contact instead of feeling annoyed or threatened by it, whether the “fun” gabfests lead to new ideas and opportunities instead of basic gossip and BS, whether you actually get the contact instead of still having most communication by e-mail and text anyway.
One very common characteristic of all these fads is they’re based on anecdote and fairy tales (Peters is a great storyteller, if you’ve ever seen him in action, for a million dollars per appearance or whatever he charges now) rather than actual careful evaluation and comparisons across orgs, people, and time. Another is that the fads are usually packaged and sold by consultants to gullible or wily executives who, as we said, are looking for tools and changes but don’t want to take responsibility for them themselves in case they go the way all these fads eventually do. Which leads us to the other book—Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy
Stewart isn’t the first analyst to look at the actual effectiveness of what consultants sell these executives we’re describing versus the sales jobs that accompany them, and he does join most of these analyses in finding the ratio Style to Substance to be exponential. But unlike most of those studies that look at consultancy from the outside, he tells the tale from having been on the inside. And what makes the book even more worthwhile in the telling are the detailed puncturing of the history professional management consulting going back to Frederick Taylor’s idiotic and fraudulent studies in time management forward and the way that Stewart’s actual training, academic philosophy (!!!), informs and is informed by the processes of management and the stories told about it.
You can actually get much of his view in this Atlantic article
from a few years back that summarizes key points, but not all the rich detail, from the book. What the book talks about that the article doesn’t that is very important to us in Corrections Sentencing is fuller exam of the “product” that the management consultants sell. The usual is for the consultant team to have some “analytical” tool(s) that the client doesn’t have or trust that allows the team to take the org’s data, work some magic, and report out some results and recommendations. Stewart, as an outsider who comes to view this “one size fits all situations” approach to different orgs, problems, contexts, etc., as basic hucksterism, ends up bailing on the profession and the company that he helped found (the nasty mechanics of that bailing are also detailed for those of you considering career change). If you read here regularly, you can see how virtually the whole book applies to Corrections Sentencing reform to this point and the long-term value of the vast majority of what’s being done. See if any of this from the article fits your experience:
During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.
The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration. . . .
One of the distinguishing features of anything that aspires to the name of science is the reproducibility of experimental results. Yet Taylor never published the data on which his pig iron or other conclusions were based. When Carl Barth, one of his devotees, took over the work at Bethlehem Steel, he found Taylor’s data to be unusable. Another, even more fundamental feature of science—here I invoke the ghost of Karl Popper—is that it must produce falsifiable propositions. Insofar as Taylor limited his concern to prosaic activities such as lifting bars onto rail cars, he did produce propositions that were falsifiable—and, indeed, were often falsified. But whenever he raised his sights to management in general, he seemed capable only of soaring platitudes. At the end of the day his “method” amounted to a set of exhortations: Think harder! Work smarter! Buy a stopwatch!
The trouble with such claims isn’t that they are all wrong. It’s that they are too true. When a congressman asked him if his methods were open to misuse, Taylor replied, No. If management has the right state of mind, his methods will always lead to the correct result. Unfortunately, Taylor was right about that. Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies).
Curiously, Taylor and his college men often appeared to float free from the kind of accountability that they demanded from everybody else. Others might have been asked, for example: Did Bethlehem’s profits increase as a result of their work? Taylor, however, rarely addressed the question head-on. With good reason. Bethlehem fired him in 1901 and threw out his various systems. Yet this evident vacuum of concrete results did not stop Taylor from repeating his parables as he preached the doctrine of efficiency to countless audiences across the country. . . .
I can confirm on the basis of personal experience that management consulting continues to worship at the shrine of numerology where Taylor made his first offering of blobs of fudge. In many of my own projects, I found myself compelled to pacify recalcitrant data with entirely confected numbers. But I cede the place of honor to a certain colleague, a gruff and street-smart Belgian whose hobby was to amass hunting trophies. The huntsman achieved some celebrity for having invented a new mathematical technique dubbed “the Two-Handed Regression.” When the data on the correlation between two variables revealed only a shapeless cloud—even though we knew damn well there had to be a correlation—he would simply place a pair of meaty hands on the offending bits of the cloud and reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.
The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn’t usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It’s that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of “business process re-engineering,” the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as “BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!” and “BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!”
Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another—first it’s efficiency, then quality, next it’s customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it’s efficiency all over again. If it’s reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that’s because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn’t to say it’s completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.
The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year. . . .
Stewart finishes with a really wonderful takedown of MBAs (disclaimer: my son and daughter-in-law both have this degree and they met because of it and produced my 20-month-old granddaughter so don’t let anyone tell you the degree isn’t worth anything) and a call for more attention to the philosophers who spelled out all the assumptions on which the degree and the consultancy profession which it spawned millennia before anyone envisioned management as a “science.” But the essential message he deals with is the inherent ambiguity in management which remains unresolved, the problems of generalizing across situations and times, and the potential hazards of entrusting your policies and organizations to “one size fits all” philosophies and/or advocates.
This clearly becomes more important in a time of The Perfect Storm. The only “one size fits all” solution that actually applies is “there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution” and that’s the “one size fits all solution.” The inherent ambiguity mentioned above becomes so prominent that effective management, newly defined as keeping the boat from being completely capsized as it whooshes down the extreme white water rapids of The Storm, requires a variety of tools quickly and extensively used, including but not limited to short, incremental oar strokes familiar to more stable times along with sudden and totally new approaches that go against everything valued in the stable times. That clearly means a different form of leadership as well as management, and recognition that that the old “one size” incremental is no longer sufficient. It might even mean hiring people based on their demonstrated talents and flexibility, not solely on the words they put into a pre-formed software program. Actually, it certainly does mean that.