Managing in the Modern Corporation

Peter Matanle, Lecturer, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Author’s homepage | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 1 (book review 1 in 2012). First published in ejcjs on 1 May 2012.

A review of: Hassard, J., McCann, L., and Morris, J. (2009) Managing in the Modern Corporation: The Intensification of Managerial Work in the USA, UK and Japan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggestions are already being made that a ‘lost decade’ will occur in Western countries as a consequence of the 2008 Lehman shock and 2011 Eurozone crisis. From the perspective of students of Japan’s political economy, such predictions prompt the question as to whether anything has been learnt from that country’s experience with the consequences of the collapse of its own speculative asset price bubble, ballooning public debts, and alternating periods of low growth and recession. More pertinently, it may be productive to question the extent to which the present dominant neoliberal mode of capital accumulation is itself sustainable, not least in terms of the capability of Earth’s natural systems to accommodate ever increasing consumption of material resources but also, and the subject of Managing in the Modern Corporation, in terms of the capacity of human beings to work ever longer, harder and more intensively. Just as we need to consider whether the biosphere contains absolute limits in its capacity to absorb the impacts of human activity, so we also need to ask whether there are limits to human beings’ capacities to achieve permanent annual increases in labour productivity. Overall, these two issues are not mutually exclusive; however, in modern advanced economies and with the expansion of white-collar employment and of service industries, ecology and economy are often treated as if they are independent of one another, with both possessing an unspoken assumed limitless capacity for permanent increase.

In this slim and highly readable volume Hassard, McCann and Morris deconstruct and analyse the working life of the contemporary white-collar middle manager in large organisations. Taking evidence from in-depth life history interviews with white-collar managers and strategy-focused consultations with senior human resource executives in the USA, UK, and Japan, the authors build a comprehensive, and rather sad, story of corporate down-sizing, flattening hierarchies, work intensification, employee stress and ill-health, and career stagnation. In so doing, Managing in the Modern Corporation presents a picture of talented and committed employees being asked to work ever harder and smarter to compete with one another in a cut-throat race for a portion of an ever shrinking supply of rewards. Reading this tale one is left with one overriding thought: for how long can this state of affairs go on before enough people decide to call a halt and do something different?

Managing in the Modern Corporation is arranged around six chapters. The first, ‘Going under the Knife: Downsizing and Delayering in the Modern Corporation’, introduces the working environment of the contemporary middle-manager. In describing widespread transformations to corporations occurring under rapid economic and technological change in all sectors and all advanced economies since the 1990s, a complex story emerges of increasing employment precariousness, expanding work volume, broadening of responsibility, and reduced career advancement opportunities among white-collar employees of large organisations. Such a scenario prompts the authors to ask what implications these developments have for managers’ quality of life, morale, productivity and willingness to make continual sacrifices for their employing organisations, while watching elite executives draw away from the field by taking home increasing salaries, pensions and other benefits. The chapter concludes by setting the discussions on corporate restructuring within the context of Braverman’s theory of the rationalising tendencies of capitalism towards labour intensification and the steady removal of security.

Chapter Two, ‘Exploring Corporate Life: A Realist View on Management Restructuring’, presents the research method undertaken, and then extends the theoretical discussions by introducing the key research questions underpinning the study, with these being, what kinds of restructuring had taken place in the organisations studied, what had been senior managements’ motivations for restructuring, and what impacts had been felt by middle managers in the quality of their working lives as a result of restructuring. In doing so, the authors construct a ‘neo-Marxist, critical analysis of the structures of large capitalist firms, and the human costs of restructuring in the three countries’ (p. 42). The rest of the chapter presents an overview of the relevant literature on labour process theory and an outline of the rest of the book.

Chapters Three, Four and Five present and analyse the data accumulated from research informants and organisations in the USA, UK, and Japan respectively. It is here, naturally enough, where a fuller account of the relationship between international capital and middle-managers’ quality of working life emerges and, on the whole, it is not the uplifting (and utopian) story of challenge, success, and self-realisation that the populist management literature most commonly espouses. Although the authors of this book take pains to assert that the impacts of restructuring for managers are not all negative, with more interesting work content and broadening of responsibilities being two positives identified by managers, the overall impression one is left with is a desire to feel sympathy, and perhaps even sadness, for the lot of the 21st century middle-manager, who ‘manages’ to endure under relentless demands for increasing productivity while seeing his (or her) future opportunities for personal achievement narrow and, even, disappear.

Beginning with setting up the USA as an implied benchmark for the rest of the study, and from where the initial zest for corporate re-engineering, change management, and the MBA has emanated, the authors discovered that real and substantive change has occurred in American firms; in the process generating profound feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress, as work has continuously intensified, and support mechanisms and worker entitlements have eroded under the pressure to achieve ever increasing levels of profitability. The authors conclude that senior management in the USA has habitually taken advantage of white-collar middle-managers’ goodwill in working well beyond their contract hours, continuously required managers to perform ever more successfully under steadily increasing work demands, and contributed to a degeneration of human relationships within the organisation. On the other hand, some managers had stated that the intrinsic benefits that were to be gained from their work had improved, as had, on occasion, the financial rewards, and there appeared to be less gender bias and segregation than in corresponding British and Japanese organisations. However, the authors also found declining morale amid scepticism of repeated exhortations to support programmes of ‘change’ which, once the cod-managerial psychology and philosophy had been stripped away, were exposed as yet more cost-cutting and corporate rationalisation measures. Yet, the chapter also reveals a strategy that may not be as systematic and rational as labour process theory might suggest. Rationalisation measures often did not succeed, or created new problems which required costly add-on solutions, or were implemented in a chaotic and irrational manner within a conflictual system that sometimes exposed managerial weakness, rather than strength.

A similar process has been underway in the UK (Chapter Four), as a previously heavily regulated, often state-owned, and decidedly unproductive manufacturing-based economy gave way through the years of deregulation and ‘Big Bang’ reforms of the 1980s and 1990s to the liberalisation, financialisation, and globalisation of British business. Alongside these changes have come, predictably, work intensification, off-shoring, de-skilling, and a steady and relentless erosion of both employment security and worker trust in managements’ intentions. The result has been a resigned compliance among middle-managers to the new competitive environment; but it is one that includes an element of worker strategising in order to cope with the imbalances created by heavy workloads and the contradictory demands of family life.

The experiences of Japanese managers has been, it seems, a similar one to that of their American and British counterparts, despite the fact that the Japanese corporate and manufacturing systems have been held in such high esteem among Western managerialists eager to learn the apparent ‘secrets’ of Japanese success, and where many have praised the Japanese system for its apparently more humane and patient approach. The research undertaken in Japan by the authors strongly supports more critical evaluations of Japanese organisational behaviour and explanations for high performance; that Japanese firms are simply more efficient and authoritarian in their cost-cutting and rationalisation measures than their American and British counterparts. Moreover, the findings bear out a similar story to that described in the previous two chapters, of delayering, slower promotions, increased responsibilities, and more pressure and workload for middle-managers. While there has been less obvious radical change to organisational and employment structures in Japan, numerous smaller and incremental modifications in their aggregate appear to have accumulated to a steady process similar to that which is occurring more visibly in the USA and UK, with similar pressures are being felt by managers under the intensification of their work tasks and a narrowing in career progression opportunities. While institutional contexts may differ across national and regulatory boundaries when viewed by outsiders, the impacts of change differ little when actually experienced by middle-manager insiders. Thus, in contrast to the US and UK institutional environment, while Japanese organisations appear to have fewer demands placed upon them by shareholders, an exceptionally stringent competitive environment, both domestically and internationally, produces an outcome for middle-managers that is little different from that experienced by their American and British contemporaries. Moreover, despite the rhetoric of restructuring, several of the harsher aspects of the Japanese management system remain in place: heavy-handed authoritarianism, extremely slow promotion, a severely hierarchical mentality, arbitrary management, weak unions, mistreatment of workers, and unfair restrictions on female staff, are all enduring characteristics of working life from the perspective of Japanese white-collar workers and middle-managers.

The concluding chapter returns to the problems posed in the opening two chapters and attempts to provide some answers. I use the word ‘attempts’ here by no means to critique the depth and quality of the research presented, which is first class, but because of the already well-understood difficulty of presenting an effective and powerful critique of the overwhelming and (almost?) irresistible advance of neoliberal capitalism across the globe. Without wishing to insert a ‘plot-spoiler’, the authors are not always able to offer definitive and firm solutions to their own research questions, and the problems posed for ordinary people by the apparently inexorable expansion of international financial capital; but then again, who can? Consequently, for me, this book is one of the best and most honest accounts of the ascendancy of managerial capitalism in the world’s most ‘advanced’ economies that I have read; primarily because the authors do not resort to answering the big questions facing contemporary capitalism by disappearing down a black hole of theoretical abstraction. While labour process theory is the idea that holds the book together, the research both refines that theory as well as remains at all times grounded in the reality of the day-to-day experiences of ordinary American, British, and Japanese white-collar workers and their own efforts to understand their predicament. Although I have one small quibble (the absence of a chapter on France or, perhaps, Germany), the authors should be congratulated for having produced one of the most important comparative analyses of work and organisation to have been published in recent decades.

About the Author

Peter Matanle is Lecturer in Japanese studies at the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield. He is the author of several publications in the sociology and geography of Japan, including Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era (Routledge, 2003), Perspectives on Work, Employment and Society in Japan (Co-edited with Wim Lunsing, Palgrave, 2006), and Japan’s Shrinking Regions in the 21st Century (Co-authored with Anthony S. Rausch and the Shrinking Regions Research Group). He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies.

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