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Updated: December 8, 2009 17:10 IST

Learning to change, for survival

V. K. Srinivasan
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This is a collection of 20 lectures delivered and articles written by B.L. Maheshwari, a management consultant who served on the faculty of the Administrative Staff College of India and later founded the Centre for Organisation Development, Hyderabad.

Of varying length and vintage and published between 1981 and 2006, these were addressed to diverse audiences. But they have a common thread — issues relating to management of change and transformation of business organisations, all presented with lucidity. Arranged chronologically but in the reverse, from 2006 to 1981, they provide a retrospective on the evolution of management science and organisational learning and leadership.

Approaches

Dwelling on “organisation development” — recognised as “a long range planned effort” to improve an organisation’s “effectiveness and its ability to adapt to change” — Maheshwari speaks about different approaches, strategies, and techniques falling in the broad categories of ‘behaviour’, ‘organisation design’ and ‘management by objectives.’ On the question of ‘changes,’ he argues that leadership makes a vital difference. In fact, at the outset, the question whether to change at all needs to be settled. “In a stable environment the rate of change is slow and therefore incremental fine-tuning is sufficient. However a turbulent environment characterised by discontinuous and fast changes demands a strategic response from organisations. In this context, sustaining change is a major challenge, since reaching the top may be difficult but staying there is even more difficult. In this situation, the experience of past success is a liability for success in future. In fact, what worked well in the past will most likely not work in future. Hence the need for new paradigms of thinking, learning, and action.”

Maheshwari analyses the dynamics of change and the role of leadership, citing the views of several management experts and Indian examples such as Dhirubhai Ambani’s ‘Reliance Industries,’ Ramalinga Raju’s ‘Satyam’ and Narayana Murthy’s ‘Infosys,’ apart from organisations like Exim Bank. The analysis and arguments gain significance and contemporary relevance, as global economy and business enterprises face serious challenges from recession, some years after Maheshwari presented his views.

Maheshwari points out that organisations use multiple sources of learning and create opportunities for continuous learning and unlearning. He considers the era of reforms in the 1990s a significant milestone in the history of economic management in India since it radically changed the environment of all organisations in the business as well as non-business sectors. He argues that in the changed environment survival depends upon the organisations’ ability to learn to transform themselves and cope with the challenges of competition in the context of liberalisation and globalisation. In his view, the organisations in India are stuck with problems of over- staffing, lack of robust planning, centralised authority, and a tendency to blame external forces for performance failures. They need to understand that competition promotes excellence and continuous learning and that innovation provides the foundation for enhancing competitiveness and drawing up agendas for action.

Objectives

Maheshwari also deals with bureaucratic organisations that “are characterised by under-specification of ends (goals and values) and over-specification of means” and by “greater emphasis on control and close supervision rather than autonomy and commitment,” and highlights the relevance of management by objectives. He argues that, in government, “in the absence of an equivalent for the profit measure as in business, there are few reliable measurements of input-output relationship. Under the circumstances, the efficiency of management process tends to be expressed in terms of input elements only and there are few measures to achieve outputs.” Also the effort at organisation change tends to be directed towards refining rules and procedures, on the tacit assumption that it will automatically improve performance.

Maheshwari’s incisive and clinical observations on several aspects of organisational development in the public and private domains can be expected to evoke reaction which, in the long run, may help managers and administrators understand the organisations they work for and enhance their ability to initiate change and influence progress. A very useful volume for managers, administrators, and students of business administration.

Retrospective on evolution of management science, organisational leadership.

FOOTPRINTS— Learning in Quest: B.L. Maheshwari; Prism Books Pvt. Ltd., 1865, 32nd Cross, 10th Main Banashankari II Stage, Bangalore-560070. Rs. 375.

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