IN ONE of Jorge Luis Borges's haunting, enigmatic fictions, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the narrator comes across an encyclopedia reference to an invented parallel universe. With its own language and literature, complete in every detail, the planet Tlon operates on a seductively different logic from that of the ordinary world, which by the end of the story it is well on the way to supplanting.
Borges wrote his story in the 1940s. Writing today, he would set his story among the mirrors, labyrinths and forking paths of management, which often seems to be constituting a similar parallel world with its own hermetic laws and behaviours. One of the telltales of this world is a language that has become untethered from normal meaning. Sometimes it floats free of reality altogether.
Gourmet, as in Gate, is a good example. I mean, I've had airline food that didn't actually taste awful. I've even had airline food that was OK. But gourmet? Come on.
Trivial, perhaps. But it matters because the name is an affront to common sense and makes you query the company's good faith, grasp of reality, or both. The uncertainty deepens as you read the company's website's references to 'passion', 'world class' and (full house!) 'our most valuable resources - employees'. When you get to 'We communicate in an open way and promote inspiring teamwork we treat our colleagues, customers and suppliers with respect and dignity we pay market competitive salaries and offer adequate social security,' you know you're no longer in the universe inhabited by most people: you are deep in Tlon.
As in the Borges story, management's parallel universe is supported by a comprehensive literature in which imaginary concepts and attributes are earnestly described and referenced, as if they really existed. 'Passion' and 'delight' are such parallel concepts. So is 'excellence' (well to the fore on the Gate Gourmet website).
In Hard-core Managemen , Jo Owen notes that there is a huge gap between the 'excellence industry' touted in the literature and the daily reality of management.
He observes tartly that, although the official story of management over the past 20 years is one of transformed professionalism through re-engineering, core competencies, customer relationship management, outsourcing and shareholder value, the reality for customers has not changed. We still spend 20 minutes getting a reply from a call centre and tear our hair trying to make a new gadget function.
In fact, like 'excellence' and 'delight', any management superlative is suspect and should probably be shot on sight. 'Best practice', for example. Best practice doesn't exist except in the world of ideals, and never will, because it is contingent. It implies there's one right way, which is a mirage, and that anyone using it has reached nirvana. As Owen also remarks, there are no final answers in management: the key is knowing the right questions.
This is one reason why 'solution', as in IT and increasingly management in general (even the Guardian sells 'recruitment solutions'), is also a giveaway of parallelism. 'Solve' is transitive a solution without a problem has no function, like yin without yang. Translated into most people's language, a 'solution' is a consultancy for mula or fancy piece of IT kit looking for a buyer. 'The solution of every problem,' Goethe figured out two centuries ago, 'is another problem.'
Parallelists often concede that the value of IT solutions is not intrinsic - IT is an 'enabler'. This is another paranormal idea. In our world, IT often crashes, locks in, disables other courses of action and obliges people to obey its rules rather than the other way round.
In the managerial world, on the other hand, it effortlessly 'enables' almost everything a manager finds desirable - its apogee being a current TV ad for networked services, showing literally a parallel world in which fish, desks, phones, people, bikes and other elements fly together and apart somewhere over an urban skyscape while a voiceover intones about seamless, secure, personalised transactions taking place (naturally) 24/7.
Some of this is so abstract it is almost devoid of meaning. A bank currently claims to be 'leveraging its global footprint to provide effective financial solutions for its customers by providing a gateway to diverse markets'. Some is wishful thinking. But it's not always harmless. As on Tlon, the abstractions of the invented world progressively impinge on the real one.
At the university where my wife works, professorial salaries used to be set by the vice-chancellor using his judgment on the basis of a one-page letter written by the academic. To increase 'transparency', a new vice-chancellor introduced two new written steps in the procedure involving department and faculty heads and a system of 'feedback'. As a result, salaries are no more transparent, but the process has become twice as cumbersome and bureaucratic.
It transpires that 'transparent' in the management universe does not mean 'see-through', it means 'formal'. Ironically, the new 'improved' process can be instantly bypassed by any professor who invokes the brutal (and actually much more transparent) law of today's academic transfer market: pay me more or I'll take my research record somewhere else.
In Borges's book, the invented universe is a hoax, the all-encompassing creation of a secret society. But that does not prevent it taking over the world. Is management a hoax? In a recent survey of 3.5 million employees worldwide, research firm Sirota Survey Intelligence found that most workers did their best work when managers were out of the way. Management bureaucracy, blame-placing, inconsistent decision-making, delaying and time-wasting all interfered with their ability to do their work properly. In other words, the less management the better.
Preventing ourselves falling into the parallel universe is partly about questioning management's self-replicating assumptions. But it's also a matter of language. In the words of another famous parallelist: 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'
The Observer, 28 August 2005