When I did my MBA, many moons ago, I had to go through lots of case studies. What else? I had to study in detail the German car manufacturing industry, the Japanese car industry taking over in the US, the ins and outs of some big European banks, and other cases of Big Telecoms, Big Utilities and Big Consumer Goods.
Then the final exam came. Whoever decided on the case study for that final exam must have had a good sense of humour (not appreciated by me at the time). Sitting at little tables in a big sports hall, with several dozen of other ‘mature students’ like me, I opened the exam envelope with the case study inside, only to very quickly enter into disbelief and lots of palpitations. The case was about a small family farm in rural Italy.
I haven’t the faintest idea how I ended up with overall top marks in my MBA.
A year later I had the chance of gently challenging the ‘author of the joke’. The academic was very adamant that we could have used all the tools we had learnt and that they all applied equally well to the case given.
I am afraid I disagree. But I never told her. In those days you could not pass an MBA exam without invoking, applying and praising ‘Michael Porter’s 5 Forces’. That framework and others had to be applied universally or one would not merit a pass. So we ended up applying the 5 Forces to anything that moved. There were frameworks and realities. The frameworks came first!
I still see today in my consulting work a mirror of that old MBA thinking. We have universal processes and systems, universal templates, and universal tools that we apply equally to the 2000 people Business Unit as well as to those 10 guys and a telephone sitting in an Emergent market.
If General Motors once said that what was good for them was good for the country (US), then we are still saying today that what is good for headquarters is good for any other quarter. This is another version of Porter’s 5 forces for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Homogeneity of processes and systems is promoted as the only way to have consistency and management-ability. The opposite would be unmanageable, defenders say, if not simply chaos. After this statement, usually there comes the one about being regulated and following strict accounting rules. The latter is a red herring. There is so much one can do to inject flexibility and ‘fit for purpose’ rules in the system. When uniformity is seriously challenged, it’s not that difficult to see different avenues. One just has to be brave to do it.
There is no such a thing as ‘universal business’. A small family farm in rural Italy and the challenges of the German car manufacturing industry, may meet in white envelops in Business schools but this is at the risk of squeezing a diverse world into pre-existing thinking frameworks. Homogeneity, uniformity and ‘consistency’ may create lots of management convenience, but innovation, speed and market-responsiveness may need more troubled, distressed and uncomfortable people in headquarters.