Book Review – Fashion and Utopia in Management Thinking (René ten Bos, 2000)

Withdrawn from Imperial College London

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I really enjoyed reading this book, I was unfamiliar with the writings of Bos and suspect I must have been following up a reference. I have been around long enough to have experienced the concept of management fashion becoming very fashionable and influential and then becoming unfashionable and less influential.  The wonderful writings of Eric Abrahamson spring to mind from this era, but for myself, it was David Collin’s Management Fashions and Buzzwords which had the biggest impact given his focus upon organizational change. I refer to his notion of critical-practical in workshops to this day, the idea that we need to reconcile critical thinking with practical application to challenges of organizational change in schools and hospitals. Unfortunately, organizational change writing polarizes between the happy talk of excessively positive and prescriptive writing or the misery, elitism, and arrogance of certain critical scholars. I try to write in the liminal space between these poles, Collins certainly achieved this goal and also Bos certainly achieved it in this book.  Bos approached this maturing fashion debate from the perspective of philosophy. I must admit I do not have a fraction of Bos’s insight into philosophy, but his art was making this book readable and engaging for readers like myself.

The book has a utopian element which always attracts me, the impossible dream of what might be, despite dystopia being far more evident than utopia. But he questions the quest for utopia offering us his unique way into management fashion.  In all our ‘moving forwards’ talk we search for a utopia we may never find.  There is a chapter entitled ‘Longing for Leadership’ which was probably why I acquired this book ‘leadership is very much a matter of staging’ (Bos, 2000: 66).  We tend to write and talk about leaders as managers of meaning. Here we get an alternative, Bos writes about the construction of leadership authority, but he also writes about the corrosion of authority informed by the writings of Bruce Lincoln. So the authority of leaders requires the corrosion of authority of others. We had to doubt the capabilities of managers before we could believe in leaders. I am not encouraging such a position and neither was Bos (2000), but it helps us to understand the shift from managers to leaders. This shift was never empirically informed it was a question of staging. Unfortunately, most people believe that this shift was empirically informed.

‘…the core tenet of this book: management fashions should not be criticized for being fashionable but for not having been able to get rid of utopian tendencies.’ (Bos, 2000: 181).

This line of reasoning appears to have implications for organizational change theories and practices.  Those into appreciative inquiry will not like this, but how do we avoid utopian tendencies in our theories and practices of organizational change?

ten Bos, R. (2000) Fashion and Utopia in Management Thinking. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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