Management development in the humanitarian and development sectors: a cause for concern? - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Management development in the humanitarian and development sectors: a cause for concern?

Published by in Reflections ·
(This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article)

I came across a sentence the other day which said something like an idea becomes an ideology when we forget that it is an idea. It struck me that it is a bit like a fish swimming in water, having no idea what water is and not realising that there is any alternative way of living.

This idea of there being no alternative to how things are came to me a while ago when I was doing an evaluation of a management development programme for a humanitarian organisation. My evaluation methodology draws heavily on various critical systems thinking tools, and one of the questions which comes out of this is about where the knowledge for a training programme comes from and what credentials these sources have.

So while the terms of reference just asked me to investigate what impact the programme was having within the organisation, my systems thinking sensibilities made me want to probe a little bit more deeply. After all, if people undertaking a training programme are receiving what they considered to be inappropriate knowledge and skill, then their enthusiasm for applying these new ideas will probably be somewhat diminished.

The programme I was evaluating contained modules looking at what are familiar subjects in management training courses: delegation, time management, leadership and the rest. The technical content had been provided by an American business school. I was to do some benchmarking, and so talked to people involved in management training in other humanitarian organisations and discovered a similar picture: content was being provided by institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and the like.

Prestigious institutions indeed, and certainly with good credentials for management training, but where does this thinking come from? As a humble British training consultant I have very little insight into how those ivory towers operate, but I am going to posit that their ideas about effective management come from studies of private sector, corporate culture, organisations working in a profit-driven competitive world, where effective management is geared towards efficient operation of the organisation rather than solving complex political, social and economic issues in dysfunctional or struggling societies, as are typically found in humanitarian and development contexts.

Max Weber, writing in the 1950s, provided a useful idea for thinking about management in organisations. He talked about bureaucracy as being such an efficient way of running an organisation that it created an ‘iron cage’ which led to an irreversible momentum for bureaucratisation. Bureaucracies work by creating clearly-defined structures and roles which determine in a top-down manner what is done. As a result, most organisations tend to work in similar ways. This idea was taken up and developed further by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) who explored the idea of organisational isomorphism, where entities operating within the same environment become increasingly similar in the way they work.

This process works in three ways. Coercive isomorphism results from pressures to conform due to dependency relationships. Mimetic isomorphism happens because when an organisation works in an unstable environment or its goals are ambiguous, it seeks some degree of clarity by mimicking other organisations’ ways of working. Normative isomorphism happens when professionalisation of the workforce leads to a narrowing of ideas within the workforce: people study MBAs at institutions teaching essentially the same ideas and then disperse to work in private or public sector organisations, and some of course, in the humanitarian and development sectors. Anyone who works in these sectors will surely recognise these three processes at work.

As DiMaggio and Powell (p.153) comment, isomorphism means that people “…view problems in a similar fashion, see the same policies, procedures and structures as normatively sanctioned and legitimated, and approach decisions in much the same way.”
There are justifications for this isomorphism: "It helps to have common procedures and all to be thinking in the same way", "We need to be more business-like". But we need to examine these rationalisations more carefully. Common procedures may be of some benefit but if people are all thinking in the same way, how innovative can they be, how can they expect to deal with the infinite variety of the operational environment? And what does being more 'business-like' really mean: making a greater profit, squeezing out other operational agencies?

So what are these perspectives? What is the rationale behind commonly-accepted management practices? The great systems thinker Stafford Beer said that the purpose of a system is what it does. So what do management systems do? Standard management practices have come largely out of seeking ways to help profit-seeking enterprises operate more effectively, hence their purpose is to help the organisation to survive. What it makes or sells is, in this analysis, irrelevant; survival is the primary goal. And actually, as Joseph Stiglitz has shown (2016), successful profit-seeking tends to lead to market domination and becoming a monopoly provider.
But is this what humanitarian and development agencies should be seeking to do? From my perspective they should actually be trying to promote (or stabilise) positive social and economic environments so that they work themselves out of a job, in other words become irrelevant and disappear. Instead, behaving like profit-seekers means that they prioritise survival, as shown by the recent cover-ups of exploitation and abuse stories in the sector.

So, I would suggest, slavishly following orthodox management training programmes as designed for the corporate sector carries many risks. This need to conform, to fit in with how things are done in the monopoly-power seeking private sector, makes it extremely difficult to really embrace such initiatives as Accountability to Affected Populations which rely on an inversion of power relationships.

In biological communities a small gene pool creates the risk of inbreeding, generations which lack the genetic diversity to evolve and respond effectively to environmental changes. And yet this is what we seem to be doing with management ideas, creating new generations of managers who do not have the intellectual diversity to respond to the increasing complexity of humanitarian and development realities.

I am not sure that I personally have the imagination or wisdom to come up with new paradigms for management practice. However, what I think we who work in these sectors should at least be doing is to encourage managers to critically reflect on the ideas they read in management texts and learn about in management development courses. Are these ideas really relevant for me? Do they really help me to cope with the variety of my everyday, operational life, trying to manage a refugee flow or establish an educational system in a low income country? Are there better ways we can do things?

At least to make sure we realise that they are just ideas, not established fact.

DiMaggio, P. and Powell, W. (1983), “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 147-160.
Stiglitz, J. (2016), “Are markets efficient, or do they tend towards monopoly? The verdict is in”, World Economic Forum,, accessed 20 April, 2018.

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