IT'S SOBERING to reflect that in 1960 there were no business books, at least not for general consumption, and the longest formal management education programme in the UK lasted one day. Today's world is vastly more complicated - but it is connected with then, and who better to reveal the links and make sense of what has happened in between than Charles Handy?
As we are reminded in his new book, Myself and Other More Important Matters (William Heinemann), the UK's best known commentator on management not only witnessed the unfolding story, he helped write the plot. After a period at Shell, Handy helped midwife the birth of two of the UK's most influential business institutions: LBS (London Business School) and the very different Open University Business School. He drew up a ground-breaking 1989 report on The Making of Managers and, in a third and most fulfiling career as a writer and speaker, developed a range of metaphors and explanations for the way we live and work now that have entered the business language: portfolio careers, shamrock and doughnut organisations, fleas and elephants.
As the title suggests, this is not so much a business book as a memoir, reflective and conversational in tone, that uses episodes in a life (childhood in an Irish vicarage, Oxford, Shell, family life and later emergence to gurudom) to touch on themes that go deeper into the heart of business than almost any book that tackles the subject head on.
It is a compelling, touching and finally inspiring journey. Handy is deeply concerned about many aspects of present-day capitalism: the perversion of ends and means the crude drive for size and speed that threatens to overwhelm the human spirit the tightening tyranny of the numbers. But his interest in his fellow humans allows him to identify under-the-surface patterns and reasons for optimism that escape those of us who are less diligent and patient observers.
Handy's chief reason for cheerfulness is the resilience of the individual - and the book is perhaps best read as a work of practical philosophy, a user's manual for a version of life in which there aren't any ready-made answers. Initially troubled by the idea that parents, teachers, top managers, governments, even the church, don't know best - there is no such thing as an ultimate outside authority - he is finally comforted by it. It means that individual judgement and imagination matter.
Independence can be scary, but it's less scary than 'being used for purposes that are not yours by people you don't always respect'. It also allows for emergence and improvisation: there is enough of the Irish in Handy to recognise that sometimes the act creates the meaning - 'I only know what I think when I hear what I say'.
The implications of this apparently simple view are deceptively far-reaching. Thus education is not about learning facts or soaking up the teachings of the authorities 'it is, in the end, aimed at giving someone the self-belief that enables them to take charge of their own life'. Strikingly, Handy found this about management.
He spent a year at MIT in the 1960s, which he expected would reveal to him the secrets of 'management science'. He in fact discovered something quite different: 'By the end of my programme I realised that I had really known most of the important things all along. But I had to have gone there to find that out.'
In the same way, what we need now is, he says, not a new theory of organisations but the wisdom to observe the hidden verities beneath the fads and techno-floss. The central message of all his books, he notes, is that 'organisations are not machines ... They are living communities of individuals.'
Critically, he believes that to describe them one must use the language of communities and individuals, instead of that of machines, which has distorted and complicated the whole enterprise of management.
The book is studded with observations that reflect Handy's idea of management as 'acquired common sense', such as the corrosion of being underdemanded, the pointlessness of experience without learning and vice versa, and the need to pin down the essential.
'Management is not something mysterious or conceptually difficult. Its difficulty lies in applying the ideas, not in the ideas themselves.' Less generous authors would make whole chapters out of such throwaway remarks.
In their recent book, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton reviewed academic research to distinguish between the 'hard facts, dangerous half-truths and total nonsense' of management. Handy's longitudinal self-study is a kind of personal version, strikingly triangulating their research findings with his individual and historical account.
Reading his illuminations of the organisational through the personal is to experience a shock of recognition. To paraphrase TS Eliot, his remarkable achievement is to bring us back to our starting point - but allow us to recognise the place for the first time.
The Observer, 18 June 2006