Ever come across ‘confusion marketing’? I bet you have, even if you didn't realise it at the time. It’s when products or services are bundled in such a way that you can’t make meaningful comparisons, as in energy and phone tariffs for example. Travel fares, where there’s no way of establishing what a ‘normal’ fare is, are another.
In a world where the customer really was king, an oxymoron such as confusion marketing couldn’t exist. In fact, it is only one of a disturbing number of examples where what you’d think ought to be the normal aim of management – in this case giving people what they want – has been stood on its head, becoming in the process its own opposite.
The gulf between business hype and reality is of course nothing new. But this is something darker, more sinister, and much bigger. The first time I became aware of the phenomenon was talking to a young woman who worked in the HR department of a large French utility which had suffered a spate of staff suicides. She explained that instead of being deployed to keep staff happy, the department’s creativity was now being used to devise ways of making their lives so difficult that they would leave without the need to pay redundancy. Transferring people from one end of the country to another or sending office staff to work as call-centre agents were two favourite ploys.
Other parts of the HR repertoire have undergone a similar reverse metamorphosis, like a butterfly reverting to grub. Both appraisal and performance management were originally touted – and in the official literature still are – as benign means for enlightened companies to make sure that the interests of employees and company are shared. Now, however, they have become anti-HR – simple means of coercion. As a paper by the Scottish TUC, self-explanatorily entitled ‘Performance Management and the New Workforce Tyranny’, put its, performance management has become synonymous ‘not with developmental HRM and agreed objectives but with a claustrophobically monitored experience of top-down target driven work’.
The language of management rings hollow. ‘Consultation’ doesn’t mean listening but the reverse, telling you what’s going to happen anyway; while the only thing that ‘enhancement’ applies to is the convenience of the supplier, as with self-service checkouts at supermarkets. Curiously, enhancements of corporate computer systems always require more and less convenient effort by the user; in newspaper offices, for instance, new systems invariably move copy deadlines forward, not back. In the same way, somewhere along the line ‘synergy’ lost its positive-sum connotation and is now just a fancy term for cost-cutting.
Writing on farming minister David Heath’s attack on farm wages last year, Polly Toynbee noted: ‘These days certain killer words flash out instant red alerts: "reform", "flexible", "harmonise" and "modernise" all signify their opposites. Heath's "plans to modernise the agricultural labour market" mean taking farm workers back in time. His plan for them to be "harmonised with the rest of the economy" won't feel harmonious when it "leads to a more flexible labour market" to "end an anomaly requiring farmers to follow outdated and bureaucratic rules".
Perhaps most strikingly Orwellian is the furore over Jobcentre sanctions – a double reversal in which the hijacked apparatus of performance management is used to coerce staff to do the opposite of their job: in this case stopping benefits for those deemed insufficiently diligent looking for work. ‘It’s all about stopping people’s money’, said a Jobcentre worker describing being put on a ‘work improvement programme’ with the aim of upping his sanction rate. ‘It’s perverse: suddenly in your job you’re not looking to help people into sustainable work, which is what you’re employed to do, but trick them into not looking for work’.
No wonder the language of management is so barbarous, reflecting the contradictory sense and sheer ugliness of the concepts beneath. But the damage is not just aesthetic. As these perversions take hold, whole organisations find their purpose being subverted. For universities, getting high marks in the research evaluation exercise becomes more important than the research itself. You might think that more students wanting to study social entrepreneurship at business school was an optimistic sign – which in itself it is. But how many schools will encourage it when they know that acceding to the demand could drag them down the all-important league tables (rankings take account of graduate salary levels, which are obviously lower in social entrepreneurship)? 'I do think that a business school that encourages social entrepreneurship is quite brave,' reflects one academic – and quite a lot won't be.
Little by little, this is the route that leads to such macabre reversed-out versions of themselves as banks that impoverish people rather than enrich them and hospitals and care homes that kill their patients – organisational vampires whose positive purpose has been sucked out of them and replaced by predation and rent-seeking. At this stage, as the aftermath of the financial crisis has demonstrated, capitalism itself has gone into reverse, incapable of assuring even the basics of a good job and a rising standard of living except for the pampered few, and relying increasingly on the cons like confusion marketing and enhancements that aren’t to make ends nominally meet. Politicians increasingly desperate for a resumption of growth are in for a long wait. It's capitalism itself that needs a reboot, and that takes a lot more than economic stimulus.