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The meaning of management

Surprisingly, it isn’t all that clear what the professional activity is that managers do. Indeed, as he delved in to the effort to define “management” in his must-have “Management: tasks, responsibilities, practices” (see review here), Peter Drucker began by pointing out that the term as used in the U.S. cannot be directly translated into any other language (even, he wryly points out, into British English).

And that’s not the half of it. Do an internet search on the word and you’ll find that we haven’t quite settled our minds on the subject here, either. Some definitions insist that it specifically involves the direction of people. Others suggest that it more broadly encompasses the transformation of resources of all types into finished products or services. Observing that many people widely accepted as members of management seem to manage nothing, really, at all, but merely to track various sorts of information, still other definitions (including Drucker’s) emphasize more generally yet the (more-or-less high-order) responsibility to contribute to the organization’s results.

So, if it’s not actually clear what management is, how are we to sort out what is done by those who practice it?

For our purposes here, we will subscribe to the definition of management, as employed in Managing Leadership, as “the development of organizational objectives and the identification and deployment of resources to accomplish them.”

Let’s briefly touch on the potentially sensitive first phrase in that definition: “the development of organizational objectives.” Leaving aside the irrepressible and irrelevant assertions of the privileges of “individual leadership,” there is legitimate concern that management not overstep the authority of owners and directors. However, it can hardly be denied that in order to accomplish objectives, the management structure as a whole must be involved in developing them – particularly in the conversion of broad goals into practical targets for action.

But even at the top management has a role in aiding owners and directors in the development of strategic objectives. This is the case in all sorts of organizations, but most prominently and obviously in that of anonymous-shareholder-owned corporations headed by boards of directors. We have discussed this elsewhere in these pages and will do so to some extent again in this series.

Okay, then – there it is: the development of objectives and the marshaling of resources to accomplish them. We still have some work to do, though. This statement is what in the military is called a “big arrow” call to action – “Go west!” To make meaning of it for our army of managers we need to fill in some detail arrows, both elaborating the definition and describing how it is executed by its practitioners.

And we’ll begin doing that next week – see you then!

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