Prophets of Mammon

I wrote this piece in the early nineties. The central event took place in the late eighties. When I came to revise it and bring it up to date for the website, I found it needed few changes. This is worrying.

Are you holding this the right way around?

      The first and only time I saw Tom Peters bounding on to the stage, I realised I was seeing a man who had more in common with Billy Graham the evangelist than he did any economist or industrialist. We, a party of twenty or so, had been despatched on a day's outing to Bournemouth. The ostensible purpose was to learn something about management from the great man. In truth, someone probably hoped some of his magic would rub off on us. Magic is not too strong a word to use. I at least had been sceptical about the benefits of this outing, but before long I was under his spell like the rest of our group, or indeed like each one of the several hundred people who were packed into he hall.

      Already after the passage of a few years it is easy to forget how powerful an influence this man and the lesser lights who followed in his wake exerted over business thinking. They still do to some extent, even in our present time of recession. In the case of Tom Peters, this influence owed as much to his personal appearances on stage as to his writings. On that day spring day in Bournemouth, during the nineteen-nineties, I found out exactly why.

      His stage presence was extraordinary. He seemed possessed of a dynamism and energy like no-one else I had ever seen. This he projected to the audience throughout his appearance. It was hard not to believe the man truly had divine inspiration. It was if there was an electric charge attached to every word he spoke, in every mannerism. Here, we decided, as had so many others before us, was the man with all the answers we needed. No wonder we believed every word, and accepted every idea he threw off as if it were a commandment from on high.

      The performance was nothing less than magnificent until there was the briefest moment when the mask slipped. I like to think, because Peters seemed to be a decent man at the personal level that he consciously allowed it to slip. I remember the moment very well, even though I forgot everything else he said soon afterwards.

      Peters had been talking about 'empowerment', one of the mantras of the modern business world. In essence, this is supposed to mean employees are allowed to have more say in the way things are done in the workplace and to take more responsibility for their actions. This sounds like good philosophy. It sounds like common sense, even. And so it is, unless it becomes simply another way of getting more work done at less cost, because a smaller number of people are working so much harder, while the unlucky ones who could have had the 'saved' jobs look on in despair and others wait longer for attention. Then, after this passage of his speech, before the Peters machine became fully charged again to deliver the next part of the Gospel, he dropped his voice a little. For a moment he was the neighbour chatting over the fence rather than the supercharged management guru we were witnessing seconds before.

      Paraphrasing, he said 'Of course they [the employees from whom Peters had been advising us how to get more work] might go home a little more tired. They might not have so much time and energy for the PTA or the local society. They might have to put the model-making and gardening to one side'. In short, he was lifting his eyes from the company balance sheet for a moment.

      Then he was off again on his white charger of change and excellence in the workplace. I enjoyed the rest of the performance, as did my colleagues, but I couldn't help seeing it in a subtly different light. It was this human aside that has stayed with me rather than what I had been sent down to Bournemouth to hear. I remain very grateful for it, whether it was fully intentional or not.

      As we all now know, other management gurus, many with much sterner messages, have since had their impact on the business world. In turn has done much to shape present-day society, unfortunately often in a malign way. Downsizing, efficiency-savings, outsourcing, share buyback, competing in the world marketplace and similar euphemisms for maintaining or increasing profit regardless of the longer-term wider consequences, have done and are still damaging the fabric of society.

      Until the recession came along, there were the beginnings of signs of a slight reversal to some of the more damaging trends, a realisation that one company's cost-cutting exercise for short-term benefit could also be an erosion of the wider economic base. But then, in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, some super-guru, some new Prophet of Mammon will arise and a world eager for quick and easy answers will be all too ready to listen once again.

      Please let us listen very carefully.

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