Faddish behaviour

9 10 2006

Book front cover

Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail (Higher Education Series)
Robert Birnbaum
5 out of 5 stars

Management Fads in HE – Birnbaum

This is just an outstanding book. Although the focus is on the USA, the messages are eminently translatable to the UK context. Birnbaum carefully analyses and deconstructs the big management fads to have hit US universities including:

  • Management by objectives
  • Zero-based budgeting
  • Strategic planning
  • Benchmarking
  • TQM
  • Business process re-engineering

The reasons behind the popularity of each and the vulnerability of institutions and managers to their charms are also explored at length.

Despite the fact that he demonstrates their failures on all terms, Birnbaum concludes, surprisingly perhaps, that their introduction in a controlled and measured way can have positive benefits in forcing managers to think differently about the way in which they tackle big challenges. The conclusion of the book includes a strong exhortation to a humane and pragmatic approach to management in universities which, whilst not easily seduced by fads such as these, is capable of positive adaptation to changing environments.



One response

9 10 2006
Jeremy Ireland

As I did a bit of work on this in my degree, I would say that in all liklihood, the problem is not that the management practices were not useful, its that the tools and language of these ideas were implemented by people who had little understanding of what management is really trying to achieve.

Humane pragmatism is sensible, but this too has to actually be implemented by the same managers that failed to make the best use of the other tools, and the cycle of failure could easily repeat. An example – two new staff members have started in the Department and I found out by rumour when there is an administrative team of 6!

UK institutions have an additional problem in that they view the public sector as a different culture than the commercial sector and feel self-conscious about adopting techniques from the commercial sector.

In fact ‘using techniques from business school’ is used more as an insult than a complement – the knock-on resistance of this causes problems in implementation.

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