THE BANKERS have claimed another victim - this column. Cost-cutting as a result of the worst media recession in a lifetime means that Observer Management will disappear next week.
I wish I could say the job was complete. When I joined the paper in 1993, the brief was to make visible and discussable something that was intangible, taken for granted, and, for better or worse, affected us all. That was the easy bit. The column instantly drew a rich and argumentative response that ensured a constant supply of issues to address that meshed directly with readers' own.
But from this exchange emerged a second agenda item that soon overtook the first. Across both public and private sectors what readers experienced as "management" was pervasively problematic. It just wasn't what it said on the tin. Wherever they looked, readers found a glaring discrepancy between "official" and "unofficial" versions, between talk and walk.
The talk was empowerment, shared destiny, pulling together: the walk was increasing work intensity, tight performance management, risk offloaded on to the individual. The talk was flat organi sations: the reality, centralisation and a yawning divide between other ranks, required to minimise their demands for the greater good, and a remote officer class whose rewards had to soar to motivate them to do their job. Employees were the most valuable asset - until costs had to be cut. Repeated mis-selling and other scandals demonstrated it certainly wasn't the customer who was king.
Somewhere along the line the edifice of management had been turned upside down - it was shareholders who had become monarch, their courtiers lavishly rewarded managers whose MBA courses had taught them to manage deals and numbers, not things or people. Management had suffered a reverse takeover. Finance annexed reality, cost ousted value, the means became the end.
This is the story that this column has reflected. Shamefully, it reached its explosive climax on the watch of a Labour government that, betraying its entire history, not only encouraged ethics-free market-led management principles in the private sector but imposed them wholesale on the public sector. The credit crunch is man(agement)-made - management, not market, failure. So is the Soviet-style targets and inspection regime, locked in place by lucrative IT contracts with private suppliers, that has made the public sector systemically less capable than it was 12 years ago, despite the billions spent. The emails of rage and despair from public-sector workers at what has been done to their profession have to be read to be believed. And still ministers don't get it. The elevation of the grisly Alan Sugar to "enterprise tsar" and the timorous, frozen-in-the-headlights approach to City reform in one sense are as risible as MPs' expenses - but they are also a terrifying denial of reality.
Of course, institutional stupidity and failure to take responsibility are characteristic of all top-down organisations - in fact, they're two sides of the same coin. Hence the reductio ad absurdum , also charted here, of gleaming hi-tech organisations too witless to stop themselves auto-destructing. What is there about the credit crunch and the environmental one hard on its heels that is not to understand? The management model that has run us for the past 30 years, like the discredited economic theories (rational expectations, efficient markets) to which it cringes, is bust, dead, finished - a mortal danger to us and the planet.
So where do we go from here? Opti mism has been in short supply over the past few years. Yet this is not because of lack of alternatives (There Is Always An Alternative) so much as the arrogant certainties of the ruling doctrine that have pushed saner voices to the margin, at worst making unorthodoxy unpublishable. Perhaps the collapse of orthodoxy will make it easier to salute and cherish such exceptions: companies that refuse the dominant logic, such as John Lewis academics who risk their careers by engaging with big issues (would Darwin, Freud and Marx be employable in today's universities?) courageous public-sector managers who find ways of circumventing the draconian targets regime to do what they know to be right.
As the 2009 Reith lecturer Michael Sandel noted last week, norms matter, because they so easily become self-fulfilling. It shouldn't need saying in the middle of the biggest management meltdown in history, when the stakes are at their highest, that the debate about the norms that should govern a post-financial form of management must go on, even if not here. For my part, what I've learned from an amazingly rewarding 16 years will find its way into a book that, in honour of readers who are the joint creators, I had always thought of as The Observer's book of management - although regrettably, and not of my doing, now without the capital "O".