The Green report: business knows best?

Is it better to run an organisation well, or badly?  Is it better to think and plan or hope for the best?  Is it better to help leaders lead better, or simply leave them to it?

I’m assuming these questions have self-evident answers: it is better to lead an organisation well, think and plan and help leaders get better.  But how can these things be achieved?  Does business know best?

Many in the Church of England are currently expressing their dislike of the ‘Green Report’ which proposes a new strategy for ‘talent management’ in the Church.  This will involve providing leadership development programmes for senior clergy (bishops, deans etc.) in partnership with leading business schools.  In addition high potential younger clergy will be identified and actively developed with a view to preparing them for higher office. There are a number of specific objections to the report and the way the Church has handled its dissemination and implementation but the principal objection to the substance of it is this: the authors of the report are believed to have inappropriately applied ideas associated with business to the Church.  The Church is not a business and many argue that adopting business practices violates its special identity.  But for me, this is both true and not true.

There appear to me to be some questionable assumptions at work.  One is that if you that if you say you want to improve your leaders’ capability you must mean you plan to adopt ideas and practices common in businesses.  And the assumption has some foundation: anyone interested in improving organisational capability will look at business practice for the simple reason that people in businesses have, by and large, given most thought to the question of how to make organisations effective and efficient (do the right things and do them well) – presumably because their existence depends on this in a more immediate way than it does for other organisations. It is businesses that have most influenced and benefitted from the development of organisational studies.

A second assumption is that businesses are always instrumental in their outlook and always insincere when they suggest otherwise.  This is not true in my experience.  But neither is a third assumption that tends to go with it: that, however dubious business practices may be considered from the point of view of values, they ‘work’.  I know from 16 years’ experience in consulting that the image of businesses as centres of sleek efficiency is simply wrong.  Businesses, including big famous ones, are often not managed particularly well and are frequently more chaotic than anything else.  I have consistently tried to convince business leaders that the instrumental, short-term remedies which tempt them (and leaders of all organisations) are self-defeating and a bad investment of time, money and energy. Learning from business requires discernment and, regrettably, I observe that when not-for-profit organisations, including the Church, borrow from business they often choose the worst rather than the best.

When organisational questions arise in the not-for-profit world views tend to be unhelpfully polarised and too focused on feelings about what is only one part of the large world of organisational theory and practice.  We need to look more widely and deeply at the fundamentals of good management.  This will involve asking how to run our organisation well and do it in a way that respects its culture, its purpose and its history.  What is right in one organisation may not be right in another.  And we should also ask what we can learn from our own history and experience: we may find we know more about some important areas of organisation than anyone else.  Businesses should be asking what they can learn from the Church and other not-for-profit organisations – which, after all, tend to have much longer life spans than even exceptional companies.  Not-for-profit organisations, including the Church, often talk as if they have a choice between importing business models wholesale or leaving it alone and hoping for the best. They don’t.

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6 thoughts on “The Green report: business knows best?

  1. very interesting, i manage in the charitable sector and constantly run into people who believe charities should be run ‘nicely’ and that normal business standards shouldn’t apply. they most definitely should!

    • Thank you David. Agree entirely! To act otherwise is to risk the cause. One of the things I notice is that, somewhat paradoxically, voluntary sector organisations often don’t treat their people particularly well. The so-called ruthless businesses are often better employers. So let’s not confuse ‘niceness’ (which often just means a reluctance to confront issues) with treating people fairly and plainly

  2. I agree with your central premise: most organisations, of any type, can learn from other organisations; no organisational type has primacy but some are better at some things than others; and all not-for-profit organisations really should acknowledge that using some of the accumulated expertise of the business world in terms of effectiveness and efficiency does not mean swallowing business values whole. It’s hard work being efficient, which might be putting some off; but surely the most caring thing you can do, as a leader in a non-profit organisation, is to be efficient (and effective), to make the most of your limited resources.

    • Hi John, thanks for this. And, I agree wholeheartedly that it is precisely the mission, the cause, that suffers if we manage badly

  3. Two thoughts from my own experience that tie-in with the overall topic (of whether the church should copy business, on the assumption that business is doing it right).

    – Businesses tend to set individual objectives (as in, the criteria by which staff are measured and rewarded), both formal and informal/implicit, that encourage ‘micro’ level behaviour that is often completely opposed to the wider business’s ‘macro’ objectives

    – Businesses tend not to trust their staff to do the right thing, and impose rules and barriers that actively prevent their staff from most productively contributing to the business’s objectives.

    Both these seem to get worse, the larger the organisation. Both these tend to be blatantly obvious across all levels of the organisation, but are systematically ignored.

    I find it fascinating that the same counter-productive things are done time and again by companies everywhere, even though so many people can see it’s wrong. It would be very interesting to see how a different sort of organisation (such as the CofE) tries to address this! It could well be that business should be borrowing ideas from the church as much as the other way round!

    • Thanks Scott. In the Church there is an almost opposite lack of direction and accountability. Clergy have a great deal of freedom and discretion. I think it’s a strength of the Church but I think it has a down side – clergy get isolated and there is no performance management. It must be possible to both support people and manage performance to a necessary degree whilst encouraging freedom of action and individual initiative. It requires a common engagement with and buy in to a set of values/objectives that are genuinely and consistently adhered to through the organisation. This is, as you imply, truly rare. But I support those who argue that organisations should give their people and constituent units as much autonomy as is consistent with retaining enough control and coherence. This relies on respect and shared purpose/values

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