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date: 07 July 2020

(p. 1) Researching Management Ideas: an introduction


Over the past few decades, management tools have become a common part of executives’ lives. Whether they are trying to boost revenues, innovate, improve quality, increase efficiencies or plan for the future, executives have searched for tools to help them.

—Darrell K. Rigby

The last fifty years of executive life have been filled with a multitude of important new methods and techniques for running a business (which have come) … into vogue.

—Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch

Managers, professionals, business owners, and other organizational actors are continually presented with potential solutions to their diverse organizational and management problems. The phenomenon of management ideas and associated practices—their emergence, development, dissemination, use, and wider impact and decline—has only been a really significant focus of academic research since the early 1990s. However, as the above quotes suggest, it is a persistent concern for practitioners. The first quote comes from a contemporary, twenty-first century consulting report (Rigby, 2015), as one might have guessed, but the second is from research conducted in the 1960s which refers to the early twentieth century (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967). Indeed, some would argue that the nature of the ideas themselves has also changed very little in that time—focused on (p. 2) motivation, productivity, and leadership for example (Jacques, 1996). Likewise, in his classic study of the idea of management as a whole, Bendix observed that: ‘it is difficult to discern the changing trends of managerial ideologies, for the “new” and “old” themes often blend as if they were one and the same’ (1956: 342; also Barley and Kunda, 1992; Guillén, 1994; Lammers, 1988). Regardless of the content, quantity, and novelty of management ideas, their continual (re)production, adaptation, contestation, and use continues to be an important topic to examine and explain, not only for students of management and organization, but for organizations and their members as well as society as a whole. That is what this handbook seeks to do.

The management idea phenomenon has become an established component of contemporary writing on management and related disciplinary fields such as strategy, marketing, human resource management (HRM), and operations (ten Bos, 2000). Management overall can be seen as a particular, historically specific approach to organizing within capitalism, comprising different structures, roles, actors, practices, discourses, outcomes, and ideas (Engwall et al., 2016; Hales, 1986). Our focus is on the latter, but not in isolation from the other constituents. Furthermore, we are not concerned with all ideas associated with management, but with their most explicit (non-tacit) or packaged and commodified form, as more or less coherent visions, principles, and/or guidelines for managers and others to adopt in organizing resources and securing power and legitimacy (Benders and van Veen, 2001). This definition is nevertheless quite broad so as to include a number of important dimensions (see also Bodrožić and Adler, 2018).

First, management ideas may occur in various forms and include other terms that may have different connotations such as management fashions, panaceas, models, concepts, and ideologies. Also, although only partially reflected in the day-to-day work thoughts and discourses of managers, management ideas are intimately connected to practice, not least because much management work is itself discursive (Sturdy and Fleming, 2003). However, management ideas, unlike management innovations, need not always be applied in material practices. The range of ideas is widely known—from ‘ABC’ to ‘value drivers’—with some accounts listing them in detail (seventy-eight in the case of Bort, 2015; see also Hindle, 2000; Mol and Birkinshaw, 2008; Rigby, 2015). They include broad movements and approaches such as Project Management, Total Quality Management (TQM), Business Process Re-engineering, and Corporate Social Responsibility, but also specific techniques such as Activity Based Costing (ABC) or Management by Objectives.

Second, management ideas may vary in the extent of their adoption or popularity. Indeed, although some ideas fail to develop and grow (and are often missed in academic studies as a result) (Seeck and Lamberg, in this volume), many gain widespread managerial popularity and some of these, but crucially not all, become associated with substantial changes in organizations (Heusinkveld et al., 2011). Those that are widely applied in practice often become part of business school curricula and even popular discourse and can have profound effects on employees and more widely (Engwall et al., 2016; Watson, 1995). Consider, for example, the assembly line, strategy or customer service, and even the direct application of management ideas to everyday life (Hancock and Tyler, 2009). Of course, (p. 3) like all forms of knowledge, management ideas are tightly connected to context and are dynamic, even processual in nature, changing form and often label (e.g. Guillén, 1994)—‘old wine in new bottles’. At the same time, their strength often lies in their ambiguity and claims made of universality (Kieser, 1997). But not all ideas succeed, either commercially or in terms of a wide application and, in keeping with the nature of management, their consequences are likely to be differentially experienced, both geographically and hierarchically, as forms of control.

In this chapter, we introduce the research field of management ideas and in particular research exploring the processes that surround them, their conditions and consequences. First, we outline the way in which ideas and associated practices are categorized and organized collectively and within subdisciplines. We then seek to account for how the field has grown and become quite fragmented, before briefly outlining the aims and contents of the handbook, including brief summaries of the individual chapters.

Organizing Ideas (and Practices)

Ideas are important in management and organizational practice and, more generally in broader society, not the least because they are inherently connected to power. At the most general level, from politics to personal lives, they serve as ‘interpretive frameworks that give definition to our values and preferences’ and can comprise ‘discourse(s), practices, symbols, myths, narratives, collective memories, stories, frames, norms, grammars, models and identities’ (Carstensen and Schmidt, 2016: 218, 322). They are therefore often, but not always, central to our actions. This relationship has long been a focus of debate at the levels of culture and of the individual, in terms of the Protestant ethic and rise of capitalism for example (Abercrombie et al., 1980; Weber, 2002), but also simply in the sense of whether we put ideas into practice and whether our practice is consistent with the ideas we subscribe to (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980; Argyris and Schon, 1974; Festinger, 1962). Swidler (1986), for example, argues that culture affects behaviour not by supplying values which direct action, but by shaping a ‘tool kit’ or repertoire of habits, skills, and templates that actors draw upon in constructing practical strategies. The power of ideas to persuade, constitute, exclude, and contest ways of being and of acting is central to different strands of social and political theory, running alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, materialist and other structural perspectives (e.g. Anderson, 2017).

In the context of management too, the relationship between ideas and action is a central concern. For example, in his classic comparative study of management ideologies (e.g. scientific management and human relations), Guillén’s (1994) key finding was to show that they may be adopted without the associated techniques being implemented in workplaces and, perhaps more controversially, that techniques may be practised without the supporting ideology taking hold. So, for example, it is argued that ‘generally, the ideological and technical components of [a] … paradigm reinforce each other, but the absence of either does not seem to prevent the adoption of the other’ (Guillén, 1994: 283). (p. 4) Such issues are also evident in more contemporary contexts such as different responses to the rolling out of TQM in different divisions or subsidiaries of a firm (e.g. Kostova and Roth, 2002; Zbaracki, 1998) or the coercive implementation of Six Sigma against the prevailing organizational culture (Canato et al., 2013). Such studies draw attention to the centrality of power with respect to management ideas—the ability to impose, seduce, and resist (Rose, 1990). This has been an enduring theme within management and organization studies, even if the focus is often on the actors or consequences more than ideas in general.

Research tends to engage with management ideas in four main ways. First, particular ideas are explored as developments or innovations within the subfields or functional domains of management. Indeed, specific ideas help constitute these disciplines and the related occupational groups within organizations (ten Bos, 2000). So, for example, in HRM, the concern is with ideas based on the management of culture or rewards or being a business partner, while in marketing, attention might be placed on customer relationship management, and in operations with supply chain innovations and so on (e.g. Shenhav, 1999; Wright, 2008). Such research can provide important insights for understanding management ideas in general, but often remains hidden within its functional subdisciplinary boundaries and preoccupations.

Second, given that many management ideas are directed towards controlling/engaging employees or changing organizations, they become a focus of research attention indirectly, within the fields of organization theory, behaviour and change, as well as employee/industrial relations and studies of the labour process and public administration (O’Reilly and Reed, 2011). For example, many management ideas can be directly linked to various types and hybrids of control—personal, bureaucratic, technological, output, concertive, and cultural (e.g. Edwards, 1979). Likewise, the management and politics of organizational change can be understood as part of the processes of idea production, negotiation, and institutionalization (Beer and Nohria, 2000; Suddaby and Greenwood, 2001). Once again, such research has the potential to provide important insights, but is not always acknowledged in the field of research on management ideas.

Third and more directly, rather than focusing on the ideas themselves, research has given attention to the processes through which management ideas emerge, move, and change (Czarniawska and Sévon, 1996; Reay et al., 2013). Even within this area of literature, there are disciplinary distinctions such as those between management learning, knowledge, and innovation which give rise to different ways in which ideas are understood and organized (e.g. Birkinshaw et al., 2008; Blackler, 1995). For example, management ideas could be classified as being explicit, embrained, and encoded, rather than tacit, embodied, or encultured (Alvarez, 1998; Blackler, 1995), or they can be conceptualized as evolving and emerging through practice (Ansari et al., 2010). However, it is difficult to disentangle or distinguish them when taking this approach.

Fourth, management ideas are studied as a collective phenomenon, often presented historically, either in the progressive sense of continuing development as regards organizational performance or labour control (Ray, 1986) or as waves, such as in Barley and Kunda’s (1992) classic model of normative and rational conceptions of control in the (p. 5) USA or Ramsay’s cycles of control and resistance (1977). In the former, progressive, case, the problem is not simply around an assumption that things improve, but that ideas change significantly (cf. Jacques, 1996). This is a central characteristic of innovation studies. Indeed, a subfield of this discipline has emerged and grown in significance around management or organizational innovation, as opposed to technological or product innovations (Damanpour, 2014). Here, positions vary as to whether ideas (and their application) are new to the ‘state of the art’ or simply to a particular audience. For instance, Mol and Birkinshaw (2008) elegantly distinguish between (existing) ‘best practice’ and emergent ‘next practice’ in management. However, perspective is crucial, as claims that ‘there is nothing that is new’ are common and not without some validity. Lammers (1988) for example, found that whilst the notion of corporate culture was presented as ‘new’ in the early 1980s (e.g. Peters and Waterman, 1982), similar conceptualizations could be traced back to writings from German sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s, even if they were much less successful in gaining widespread (managerial) attention. In seeking to differentiate and organize management ideas, other classifications have emerged such as identifying their main target of action such as the work group, customer, task, organization, environment, and individual employee, and even inner-self (e.g. stress management) outer-self (goal setting), and interpersonal (e.g. coaching) (see Huczynski, 1993/2006).

The Rise of Research on Management Ideas

As noted above, aside from research which explores management ideas indirectly or within disciplinary and functional boundaries, there has been a growing stream of research that focuses on explaining the production, diffusion, translation, promotion, and popularity or otherwise of these ideas and their role in management and organizational practice. Such phenomena have long been observed. For example, Bendix found that management ideologies (ideas which, in part, serve to justify the role of management):

are essentially ambiguous [and] … tend to spread and change more or less as fashions change, and that they do not necessarily involve the private convictions of those who espouse them. They are the opinions which given groups of men [sic] have on ‘public display’. Both the ambiguity of ideologies and the lack of personal involvement often provide an opening wedge for new ideas, or at least new emphases. (1956: 342)

A few years later, Woodward, in her classic 1960s study, observed in passing that ‘management fashion … had an important part in organizational changes. The urge to “keep up with the Joneses” seems to be as powerful a force in industrial circles as in social life’ (1965: 22). However, it was not until the 1990s, with the emergence of what are now considered foundational texts such as Huczynski (1993/2006), Abrahamson (1996), (p. 6) and Czarniawska and Sevón (1996), that a substantive field began to emerge. Notwithstanding more recent concerns to establish the value of ‘evidence-based management’ (Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006), one of the core challenges in this field is that management ideas continue to be widely recognized as especially ambiguous and often lacking in clear material outcomes (e.g. Benders and van Veen, 2001; Walker et al., 2015). This adds to methodological difficulties and variety in research traditions on management ideas, but also may well contribute to the expansion of the field to a huge body of literature. This growth is reflected in the increasing number of articles and journal special issues on management ideas in general (e.g. Organization Studies, Organization, Management Learning, European Management Review) or specific ideas (e.g. Academy of Management Review, Human Relations) as well as research monographs and edited books. Moreover, it has become a regular subject of streams at leading conferences such as the Academy of Management. For instance, there has been at least one stream on the topic annually at the European Group on Organization Studies (EGOS) since the late 1990s, indicating an established, sustained, and significant research community.

What lies behind the development of this body of work is a range of factors. First, one important explanation is the fact that management ideas appear to have proliferated (e.g. Pascale, 1990), but as intimated already, it is not at all clear that there are more new ideas now than there were previously. That said, the visibility of new ideas, with high-profile agents such as consultants, gurus, business schools, and ‘thought leaders’, may well have increased in many contexts (Engwall et al., 2016). Also, management ideas have spread in scope both geographically, with the rise of neo-liberalism, and across sectors or domains, as is evidenced in the intrusion of management into public sectors and private lives (Grey, 1999).

Second, great claims are made of new management ideas in terms of their consequences for organizations (Walker et al., 2015). These in turn provoke challenges and critique, partly perhaps because the seeming success of market-based purveyors of management ideas posed a threat to some management academics. Third, another major driver of the increasing interest in management ideas is the professionalization of managerial work and the accompanying expansion of knowledge external to the firm (Khurana, 2007). Management has been traditionally governed by informal ideas about how to run an office, handle employees, keep costs down, make deals, and stay alert to business opportunities. Today’s management and business landscape, by contrast, features the rapid growth of business school MBAs and executive education; the explosion of business books and blogs; the rise of the business and managerial press, consultancy and of business gurus; and the expansion of a wide range of social scientific and professional disciplines whose work can be applied to organizations (Suddaby and Greenwood, 2001). One of the chief resources of all these groups are ideas, which are used to elaborate self-consciously rationalized strategies and structures (Meyer and Rowan, 1977; Strang and Meyer, 1993). Competition within communities of consultants, educators, and other professionals and institutions drives the development and churn of these ideas, often in a faddish direction (Strang et al., 2014). Such a dynamic was further fuelled by the rise of the perceived importance of knowledge to national (p. 7) and organizational success in the 1990s—knowledge intensivity and knowledge economies (Blackler, 1995). Indeed, a number of studies of management ideas also form part of a complementary literature and field on management knowledge and learning (see Sturdy, 2004).

Contemporary business is shaped by global discourses on claimed sources of organizational performance, fairness, and progress. Managers are not just the subjects of these discourses, however, they actively create ideas as well. Strang (2010), for example, stressed the way that managers at a global bank reworked standard conceptions of TQM, work/family life balance, and how to create a high performance work environment. They combined or translated their own interpretations of success stories among the ‘world’s best companies’ by benchmarking with an analysis of their own firm’s history and strategy. Similarly, Reay et al. (2013) showed how managers transformed system level ‘good management ideas’ by developing new interpretations and meanings appropriate for their local contexts. In short, managers have come to be seen as far more active in the production of the ideas that others purvey, especially in terms of their role in translation (Spyridonidis et al., 2016).

Fourth, in parallel to the establishment of a powerful institutional field of management knowledge in many Western societies, critical approaches to management expanded and became established within scholarly communities (Delbridge, 2014). Here, attention has been given to the apparently weak evidence base of management ideas and their unwarranted simplicity (Hilmer and Donaldson, 1996; McGill, 1988; Rousseau, 2006; Sorge and van Witteloostuijn, 2004). More prominently perhaps, critics have pointed to the fact that management ideas should not be seen simply as serving organizational ends or rationality. Rather, they have had an ideological, signalling, or legitimating role in seeking to justify expertise, reputation, and authority (Bendix, 1956) and an existential function in simultaneously allaying and accentuating managerial anxiety (Gill and Whittle, 1993). At the same time, many historical and comparative accounts of the emergence and use of management ideas point to their role as a focus of conflict both among management groups and between managers, professions, owners, and labour (e.g. Guillén, 1994). Shenhav’s (1995, 1999) historical work for example, shows how the institutionalization of the systems perspective in the management of organizations was driven by the specific interest of mechanical engineers ‘who carried a professional and ideological claim about the nature of organizations, work relations, and the methods by which they should be viewed and structured’ (1995: 579).

Other critics have focused on the negative consequences of management ideas even when they are applied directly for organizational ends. Here research has long pointed to the outcomes of new approaches to management for employees and others—more stressful or alienating working and living conditions and a tendency towards objectification, commodification, and reproducing inequality (Knights and McCabe, 1998; Sturdy, 2004). More recently, attention has also turned to environmental outcomes. Similarly, exporting management ideas has been regarded as a form of neo-imperialism, typically from West to East, but also in the case of Japanization in the 1980s and other geo-political contexts (Chanlat, 1996; Strang 2013). Some authors also point to the (p. 8) gendered nature of management ideas and the dominance of masculinity in many, but not all, management contexts (Grint and Case, 1998). While such critical research has formed part of the growth of studies on management ideas, it is not the main factor. Indeed, much of the research on management ideas is not especially critical. The rise of research in areas such as organizational change, innovation, enterprise, and, as noted earlier, management learning may well have contributed more to a focus on management ideas in particular.

In short, management ideas, their promotion and effects have become more visible empirically and thus attracted more academic scrutiny. At the same time, it is still unclear how and to what extent this growing academic body of research, critical or otherwise, has been fed back to the object of study, and whether this ultimately contributes to more reflexivity amongst management and other organizational practitioners or groups such as unions, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and policymakers (e.g. Watson, 1995).

A Pluralistic or Fragmented Field?

In keeping with an emerging field, there is a certain plurality or fragmentation about its terms, perspectives, and areas of focus. First, and as noted earlier, there are various related, but distinct terms used to refer to management ideas. Do we see ‘management ideas’ as a way of referring to self-conscious practices that are promoted, chosen, implemented, and then probably modified, sometimes institutionalized and invariably abandoned or translated further? A recent review of the current literature on the translation of management ideas, by van Grinsven et al. (2016), revealed no less than forty keywords including management idea, concept, fashion, practice, technique, and innovation. This may not only signal theorists’ preferences for different nomenclature, but can reflect fundamentally different research traditions, each with its own ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions (see O’Mahoney, in this volume). As such, can we say that the use of a particular term, for instance for this handbook, involves privileging particular theorists over others, or are there possibilities for linkages? Indeed, as noted earlier, realist, interpretive, or critical approaches may share an interest in a general phenomenon, but typically focus on studying more or less concrete and more or less managerial aspects of ‘management ideas’.

First, in contrast to management/organizational ‘concept’, ‘ideology’, ‘philosophy’, or rhetoric, terms such as management/organizational ‘innovation’, ‘practice’, ‘technique’, and even ‘label’ can signal something relatively concrete that can be implemented, adopted, or translated/modified. If so, we may say that these notions are also rooted in specific and general ideas, which are more abstract. For example, TQM as a set of specific programmatic actions (e.g. provision of individual quality training; the setting up of cross-functional process improvement teams; and the creation of an executive level quality leadership position) is grounded in wider ideas about organizations, including (p. 9) various assumptions and values (workers can or should commit to improvement efforts; workers can be empowered; managers and executives should play leadership roles, etc.). Typically, such management ideas also assume universalism, across cultural and institutional contexts (Maurice et al., 1980).

Second, and in a similar vein, terms such as organizational ‘concept’, ‘model’, or ‘form’ may signal that, in contrast to those terms starting with ‘management’, underlying ideologies and guidelines may not necessarily serve the interests of a particular group within a firm, i.e. those who represent themselves as managers (Parker, in this volume). In line with this, Birkinshaw et al. (2008) noted that there is little consistency in the terms used and proposed to distinguish between management ideas as a more general prescriptive vision concerning what managers ought to do on a more abstract level, and management techniques and practices at a more operational or behavioural level (also Bort, 2015; Guillén, 1994). However, as noted earlier, such a distinction does not resolve all the problems, and there is no straightforward link between ideas and practices. Indeed, similar issues emerge when considering the transmission of ideas and techniques. For example, Ansari et al. (2010) noted that theorists used different constructs such as translation, editing, creolization, and adaptation to refer to the way in which ideas are modified, but each may have different meanings.

A risk here, as is revealed in systematic literature reviews, is that there is little mutual recognition between related studies. This is also linked to the theoretical diversity of the field. For instance, Sturdy (2004) identified six broad approaches (see also Ansari et al., 2010; Birkinshaw et al., 2008; van Grinsven et al., 2016). Here, the (boundedly) rational view was set up against and alongside others—psychodynamic (anxiety), political (power), cultural (values), and institutional (legitimacy) perspectives—where the organizational or technical effectiveness of applied ideas was not considered a primary factor. Overall, the once dominant rational view has been superseded by the institutional in the literature, partly because of the wider growth of the latter in organizational theory more generally (Perkmann and Spicer, 2008). Some scope for theoretical integration was recognized. First, the rational cannot simply be contrasted with social or psychodynamic perspectives, as recent social theory has emphasized (Knights, 1997). Second, the final perspective identified—the rhetorical view—held the possibility for integration at an empirical level. Here, the adoption of ideas is understood in terms of how they are promoted and this can be done by appealing to managers’ different rational, political, and psychological ‘needs’ for example, revealed by focusing on a particular channel or agent for ideas. However, such potential for integration has yet to be fully realized and this sometimes serves to impede productive dialogue.

Another way in which the field has become compartmentalized is in its objects of empirical focus. This is especially evident in considering the different actors involved in the production and dissemination of ideas. We have already referred to this above in terms of how different subdisciplines of management, such as HRM or marketing, explore ideas within their own domain, and of how the dynamics of management ideas are considered in other related areas such as organizational change. But divisions also occur within the field which becomes apparent in the fact that most studies focus (p. 10) primarily on one key actor such as management gurus, management consultants, business schools, multinational firms, and the business and social media (Engwall et al., 2016). In each case, research is sometimes considered as a separate field of study. For example, there has been a huge literature on the role of consultants (Kipping and Clark, 2012) which also overlaps with research on professional service and knowledge-intensive firms (Empson et al., 2015). The same could be said of research on business schools and multinational corporations which explores their role in the generation and use of management ideas (Ferner et al., 2012), although less so on other agents such as management gurus and the business media.

In a similar way, compartmentalization also occurs in relation to distinct research foci that stem from the stages or processes that shape management ideas. Indeed, management ideas have become associated with processes of commodification, translation, standardization, and implementation separately (Suddaby and Greenwood, 2001). Various theorists have stressed the interrelations between these empirical phenomena and their importance for progress in research. For instance, Sahlin-Andersson and Engwall emphasized not only the growing significance of what they dub ‘knowledge carriers’, but also the intensive interaction amongst them. They even argued that this interaction has led to ‘a gradual blurring of boundaries’ (2002: 14). However, generally the different literatures are still poorly integrated. For instance, Huising (2016) signalled an important lack of research at the intersection between diffusion and implementation. This handbook cannot address such an issue on its own. Indeed, there is an argument in favour of maintaining diverse positions or ‘negative dialectics’. However, as the following section demonstrates, it does seek to bring together different foci, approaches, and perspectives and at the same time complement related fields of study such as those of innovation, management, and learning.

Finally, compartmentalization of the research on management ideas may also stem from the variety of contexts in which these ideas may occur and are studied. It is widely recognized that management ideas are received differently across distinct temporal and spatial contexts. As already noted, various theorists see management ideas that are presented in a new temporal context largely as recombination of elements from ‘old’ approaches (e.g. Guillén, 1994; Jacques, 1996). Moreover, studies have also shown important variety in the way widely known ideas are taken up in different national and sectoral contexts. For instance Casper and Hancké (1999) explained how the implementation of ISO 9000 by French and German car producers largely preserved country-specific differences in work organization (see also Benders and van Bijsterveld, 2000; Guillén, 1994). Relatedly, we can assume that in analysing these management ideas, different researchers view them from the cultural and institutional frames on management and organization within which they are embedded and that prevail in a specific period. Moreover, as Brunsson (1997) stressed, management ideas need not necessarily be disseminated in the market, but may just ‘crop up’ independently in different contexts, thereby suggesting that organizations develop their own ‘management’ knowledge and expertise. Thus in other words, many researchers from different contexts study different ideas in different temporal and spatial contexts, whilst hardly any effort is made to relate them (Cole, 1985).

(p. 11) Handbook Structure

The aim of this handbook, as with others in the Oxford University Press series, is to provide an up-to-date, enduring, and authoritative account of the field. This is achieved by bringing together established and emerging researchers in the area and by providing overviews, illustrations, and evaluations of particular topics and debates as well as integrating them, extending them, and pointing to new and fruitful areas of further research. Our focus is not on the content of specific management ideas, but the general mechanisms and processes involved in their construction, dissemination, and interpretation, as well as general issues in their social scientific investigation. Similarly, the chapters do not tend to report on single research studies, but draw on and bring together diverse sources and use different empirical examples, except in a few cases where one management idea (e.g. Lean) is used as an illustration of a wider phenomenon. Although all chapters include a consideration of the relevant literature, some are more review-based while others develop a more explicit position and extend existing research with a wholly new focus (e.g. research methods, philosophy, new media). We do not adopt a particular disciplinary or theoretical perspective, although much of the work described here lies broadly within the diverse discipline of organization and management studies.

The handbook is written for students, researchers, and teachers with an interest in management ideas as well as those interested in management and in ideas in general. Given the diverse nature of the field and its relevance to different phenomena, it engages with those working in the following disciplines, among others: organization theory; organizational behaviour and change; management; employee relations; management learning; innovation; public policy and administration; professional services; and the sociology of work and organizations. It also is of relevance to practitioners, especially those who are actively involved in the production, purchase, and/or use of management ideas such as those working in consultancy, business schools, think tanks and the media, trade unions, purchasing and line management, although the approach taken is to present issues and debates rather than explicitly prescribe policy and practice (cf. Örtenblad, 2015).

The volume is organized around four core overlapping themes. The first section, understanding management ideas, sets out the research field in general, in terms of an overall system, but also in terms of different perspectives and research methods. The second section explores the role of different actors and channels of diffusion/translation in detail, including the consumers/producers of management ideas and ‘new’ media, but also traditional players in the management ideas field. The third section, processes, focuses on specific features or dynamics of the management ideas system, such as their adoption, evolution, popularity, institutionalization, rejection, and resurgence. In the fourth and final section, we examine critical and new perspectives on management ideas, highlighting specific socio-political contexts, such as in family businesses and everyday life, but also the possibility of alternative ideas and forms of critique.

(p. 12) The Contributions

Understanding Management Ideas

Michael Mol, Nicolai Foss, and Julian Birkinshaw start the first section by considering management ideas through the lens of a system. This is understood as a set of actors, such as business leaders, consultants, etc. and the ideas they espouse, operating at individual, organizational, and institutional levels. The authors argue for a bottom-up analysis of this system based on evolutionary processes. They theorize the make-or-buy decision whereby organizations either generate their own ideas or draw on those developed in the wider organizational environment.

Eric Abrahamson and Alessandro Piazza present a general conceptualization of the dynamics of management ideas that similarly draws on evolutionary processes of variation, selection, and retention. They develop an analysis of the conditions that lead to innovation, diffusion, institutionalization, dormancy, and rebirth of management ideas. The chapter also stresses the relationship between specific ideas and techniques and the larger families that they belong to.

Joe O’Mahoney outlines the main philosophies which underpin studies of management ideas, and discusses their possibilities and limitations, something which, to our knowledge, has not been carried out before. In doing so, more insight is provided into what ‘management ideas’ actually are, and ontological and epistemological challenges are identified which serve to limit interdisciplinary work. By contrast, it is argued that adopting a critical realist position can go some way to achieving integration of perspectives and such approach is outlined specifically in relation to management ideas.

David Strang and Christian Wittrock review and assess the main research methodologies used in the study of management ideas and thereby also provide a methodological overview of some of the key studies in the field. This has not been attempted before, as far as we know, and thus provides a useful base for those planning research. They organize the review by the number of cases that studies examine (their ‘N’), since there are dramatic differences between the regression-based techniques utilized in large-scale survey or archival research, the interview methods applied to moderate numbers of cases, and the design of small N comparative research and single case studies. The chapter pays particular attention to research methods from newly emergent computer assisted content analysis as well as traditional archival work and ethnography. No particular approach is favoured; instead, the chapter stresses complementarities across methodologies and the potential for research working at different levels of N to develop a rich picture of the dynamics and effects of management ideas.

Andreas Werr and Peter Walgenbach examine management techniques, such as the Balanced Scorecard and Total Quality Management, which provide the vehicles by which management ideas often enter organizational practice. They outline three general perspectives: a rationalist approach that sees techniques as effective guides for action (p. 13) and that is concerned with identifying ‘best practice’; an institutionalist approach that views them as symbols of rationality aimed at an external audience; and a practice-based approach that focuses on the way in which managers employ techniques in the course of their work. The authors stress the insights of the third, emergent stream of research in treating managers as active agents who interpret techniques in the light of the various problems they face, above and beyond those of organizational performance.

Kjell Arne Røvik develops the theme of ideas in practice and identifies three related, but different perspectives. His focus is on the instrumental status of management ideas, not just as tools, legitimizing elements, or fashions, but from a pragmatic perspective, related to translation theory. He asks: why are some ideas translated into practice, but others are not? The answer, he argues, lies not in particular inherent traits, but by focusing on actors as translators with different possibilities and trajectories of implementation. By taking a pragmatic perspective, he shows how translation theory can guide efforts to instrumentalize management ideas.


Christopher Wright assesses the now substantial research on management consultancy and related advisers and outlines the ways in which consultants in particular have sought to innovate and legitimize different aspects of management ideas—commodification, colonization, and implementation. He also develops this literature by introducing some of the recent challenges faced by management consultancy such as increasingly sophisticated clients and wider managerial scepticism, but also, perhaps more importantly, whether they can meaningfully engage with the profound political, economic, social, and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.

Lars Engwall and Linda Wedlin focus on how business schools, schools of management, and departments of business studies play a role in the diffusion of management ideas. They outline the development of diverse academic institutions providing business education before exploring the relationship these organizations have with actors such as consultants, media, and managers. Finally, they discuss the role of alternatives to academic business studies such as non-academic training and corporate universities, calling for more research attention to the dual processes of providing and producing management ideas that go on in all these sites of business or management education.

Although a focus of much management research, both in general and in relation to international business and other subdisciplines, multinational and transnational corporations (M/TNCs) have been neglected in the field of management ideas. Philipp Kern, Phil Almond, Tony Edwards, and Olga Tregaskis explore the role of M/TNCs through a focus on the different individual ‘globalizing actors’ involved in balancing the pressures to standardize ideas and practices while also adapting to local differences. They do so by drawing on, critiquing, and extending research from international management and global elites and pointing to the potential of sociologically informed (p. 14) perspectives on individuals and their roles in generating, promoting, disseminating, and negotiating ideas and norms within international firms.

Marcos Barros and Charles-Clemens Rüling survey the diverse field of business media research and introduce an integrative—technological, cultural, and organizational—framing informed by the concept of media logics. They emphasize the transmediality and multimodality of new media such as user-generated content on the Internet. The packaged, controlled messages of business bestsellers are replaced by more fluid, less controlled, and less expertise-based communications across diverse platforms. This ‘virtual polyphony (and cacophony)’ has significant implications for the nature and translation of management ideas and the actors involved, opening up new opportunities for the construction and dissemination of management ideas.

Management gurus have often been held to be key actors in the field of management ideas, not least through the books and other media products associated with them. They have, however, been treated quite dismissively by some academic researchers and other commentators. David Collins takes issue with this stance, asserting the importance of gurus in shaping ‘how we think about, talk about and practise the work of management’. Noting the spiritual etymology of the term ‘management guru’, the chapter sets out and critically develops Huczynski’s notion of a persistent ‘guru theory’ towards a more local and plural conception and surveys the industry that supports these actors, including the spectacle of the guru presentation.

Whilst managers are easily seen as the typical consumers of management ideas, Suleika Bort and Alfred Kieser highlight how various other actors such as consultants, researchers, students, and citizens take on the significant role of consumer and analyse their specific motivations and consumption practices. Furthermore, it is stressed that recent research and perspectives (e.g. translation) conceptualize consumers not only as passive receivers of ideas, but consider them to be producers as well, through the active consumption and adaptation of ideas and practices. Indeed, they explain how consuming ideas cannot be separated from producing them, and highlight the interdependence of diverse actors in these processes. The authors also speculate on the future of ideas consumption and the possibility that the number of new ideas in the market is declining.


Patrick Reinmoeller, Shaz Ansari, and Mohit Mehta examine the adoption of management ideas, mirroring some of the chapters on systems in the opening section, but do so with a specific focus on how ideas come into use, how they fall out of use, and, in particular, how they are re-adopted to local contexts after their initial abandonment. They identify different perspectives on (re-)adoption—fashion, function, and process—and further examine these concepts through the specific case of self-management, an idea which spans six disciplines and six decades. They identify external and internal conditions along with technological factors and the role of employee experience as critical factors that help to explain processes of re-adoption.

(p. 15) Jos Benders, Marlieke van Grinsven, and Jonas A. Ingvaldsen examine how ideas persist, as opposed to fads and fashions that come and go. This connects with the theme of the chapter by Reinmoeller et al. on re-adoption, but focuses on resilience. Using a detailed case study of the idea of ‘Lean’, which began in the 1990s, they highlight the key role of its repeated (re)framing such as: the choice of an attractive label; the change from Lean production to Lean thinking; and field-specific or tailored versions of the idea. They identify these reframings as relevant globally, but also of great importance at field levels and intra-organizationally, helping to explain how Lean has been able to retain a measure of credibility over time in relation to performance effects.

Hannele Seeck and Juha-Antti Lamberg span a wide field of literature on the historical development of management ideas since the late nineteenth century. They distinguish three main approaches (mainstream, embedded (institutionalist), and critical) each offering a specific understanding of the way management ideas may evolve over time. Each of these approaches is explored in terms of their main characteristics, areas of focus, and underlying assumptions, noting different strands within them as well as strengths and weaknesses. The authors argue for more innovation in research perspectives and stress that, rather than habitually considering the ‘winners’, there is an important need to focus more on studying forgotten and marginalized discourses and non-popular management ideas.

Much of the management ideas literature focuses on popular examples and yet rarely examines what we mean when we describe something as popular. Hélène Giroux unpacks the multiple meanings of ‘popularity’ which, like commonness, interestingly conflates a notion of prevalence (an idea that many people hold) with a notion of vulgarity (an idea designed for or by ordinary people). By focusing on the multiple meanings of popularity, the chapter draws attention to other fields, perspectives, and research which can shed light on management ideas. For example, as more and more ‘ordinary’ people express their thoughts on the Internet, will there be a shift in the content and consequences of management ideas?

Richard Whittington and Deborah A. Anderson engage with the process through which new management ideas become institutionalized as widely used management practices. This is a theme which resonates with Benders et al.’s chapter on idea persistence and with Rasche and Seidl’s chapter on standardization. However, here the focus is on a particular context for ideas, that of the professions, and the authors argue that institutionalization processes vary according to degrees of social closure, as enforced for instance by tight regulations and strict qualification requirements. They contrast relatively closed professions, such as accounting, with that of strategy and link these contexts to different theoretical explanations—institutional entrepreneurship and management fashion theory and call for further comparative research and studies of contexts which lie in between open and closed.

Andreas Rasche and David Seidl focus on developing a particular strand of the institutionalization of ideas—standardization. They point out that, in one sense, all management ideas can be understood as standards—as shared, voluntary, and descriptive (rather than prescriptive) rules. They also consider standards in a more restricted (p. 16) form, as codified, and explore why some management ideas take this form and how they do so in phases. Finally, they consider implications of standardization such as: an increase in uniformity amongst adopters; decoupling between adopters’ daily practices and their formal structures; the explosion of audits; and the diffusion of responsibility for the consequences of adopting management ideas.

Whilst resistance has been a subject of study for many years, less attention is given to the frequent contestation surrounding management ideas, not least because many ideas are associated with control either in themselves or their method of introduction. Darren McCabe, Sylwia Ciuk, and Stephanie Russell draw on diverse literatures and specific studies to consider approaches towards analysing workplace resistance to management ideas—industrial relations, labour process theory, and post-structuralism. Whereas all approaches share an interest in non-conformant acts and subjectivities in relation to management ideas, they vary in their central foci (unions; inequality and control; and subjectivity respectively). A more recent approach is then critically examined which presents resistance as more ‘productive/facilitative’ of change and assumed to be beneficial for both organizations and employees. This and other approaches are then considered in outlining a detailed agenda for further research on resistance.

Christopher Wickert, Jost Sieweke, and Riku Ruotsalainen focus on the relationship between management ideas and performance. They show that although some studies provide evidence of improved performance as a result of implementing new management ideas, the potential for improvement is contingent on a range of organizational and environmental factors. They discuss two distinct sets of complicating factors: (1) the ‘performance dilemmas of management ideas’ and (2) the ‘sustainability paradox of management ideas’. Overall, it is argued that the positive impact of management ideas diminishes over time when multiple organizations in the same industry adopt the same management ideas. They also highlight the unintended effects of adopting management ideas, such as negative impact on employees or the broader society.


Marie-Laure Salles-Djelic introduces this section on the contexts of management ideas through a chapter on the historical emergence of management and the ideas that constitute and justify it. This journey through the twentieth century serves to de-naturalize and de-neutralize management and reveal power as a central concept. The contemporary dominance of management ideas as a taken-for-granted ‘regime of truth’ across domains and geographies can only be understood through following their trajectory historically. The word ‘management’ itself has a very recent history, especially outside of the USA and UK. The trajectory of management is shown to be closely linked to the rise of American capitalism and to earlier periods of imperialism. Three key moments are outlined—ideas as power tools for decision-makers in early corporate capitalism; as geo-political (soft) weapons for the Cold War; and from the 1990s, as the dominant (p. 17) ‘regime of truth’ of a ‘neo-American’ form of corporate, financialized, and globalized capitalism—a form of neo-imperialism.

Shawn Pope and Patricia Bromley locate specific management ideas such as corporate social responsibility in their larger social context. In doing so, they highlight the role of management ideas in the construction and enactment of organizational actorhood. They outline how cultural transformations related to individual rights, scientization, and mass education have driven the expansion of management ideas, their increasing abstraction, and their increasingly rapid and indiscriminate diffusion. They develop propositions about the effects of management ideas on the expansion and standardization of organizations as a single meta-form of social structure and on our understanding of what an organization can and should do.

Pramodita Sharma and Sanjay Sharma’s chapter illustrates how the field of management ideas research can be usefully informed by subdisciplines of management, in this case research on family firms. They show how different characteristics of family firms can be conducive to the adoption of ideas. The idea of corporate sustainability adopted in three family firms is used to develop this argument. In particular, transgenerational temporal orientation, long leadership tenures, and decision-making by a closely knit dominant coalition that can facilitate a shared vision and organizational control are all seen as advantageous to the adoption of management ideas and provide the potential for application in other contexts.

Michael Reed examines the idea and effects of ‘New Public Management’ (NPM) and its historical transformation into different forms—technocratic, managerial, and neo-liberal. He shows how the ‘unit idea’ or movement of NPM incorporated other management concepts such as ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘network’ and transformed the meaning of ‘public service’ and the lives of public service professionals in the UK and increasingly elsewhere. In particular, professional power was progressively replaced by managerial and market power and both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ controls. The chapter concludes by considering the future for public services and the professional staff who deliver them under emergent NPM regimes of control and accountability.

Philip Hancock and Melissa Tyler explore the impact of management ideas on people’s everyday life, both within and beyond the workplace setting. After having outlined what can be meant by the term ‘everyday’, they highlight how this is not a new, but is perhaps an intensified, phenomenon. They bring up to date developments brought through recent smart technologies for monitoring the home and body—a ‘quantified self’. They review, critique, and theorize how management ideas have come to permeate our personal activities, habits, and well-being—such as via the pages of lifestyle magazines and self-improvement literature—and how the everyday is also colonized by management at work for productive ends. This ‘colonization of the everyday, both without and within the workplace’ is evaluated, revealing contrasting views, but ultimately is seen as limiting alternative approaches to ways of living.

Craig Prichard and Ozan Nadir Alakavuklar focus on recent developments in critical management studies which have seen a shift in the mode of critique from a highly (p. 18) theoretical and abstract form to a theoretically informed, but more active or engaged one, ‘joining the fray in the street, the office, the farm and the factory’. They review and classify conventional critiques of management ideas and then attempt to demonstrate what a ‘performative’ critique of management ideas would mean through a case study of their own experience of activist scholarship in an agricultural context. Using the psychoanalytic work of Lacan and what they term ‘hysterical inquiry’ as a lens, they argue that it is important to move through different critical positions, keeping tensions and questions in play.

Martin Parker concludes the section on contexts and also the main handbook as a whole with a chapter on alternatives to management ideas. While other contributions have placed management ideas in context, they have all had management as a focus, even if sometimes from a critical perspective. Here, by contrast, management is seen as just one possible form of organizing, one of many, but one that has come to be dominant to the extent that it has generally become increasingly difficult to see any alternative. This is not to present organizing as neutral, but as a contested terrain, a form of ‘politics made durable’. Using an example of an organization that is based around cooperative ideas, it is argued that organizing can happen successfully without management and the ideas and underlying logic associated with it. As such, he suggests three broad principles (autonomy, collectivity, and responsibility) to help us think about what sorts of alternatives to management ideas we might consider. More generally, it is argued that we should learn from the variety of different ways in which human beings have organized themselves in different contexts and create schools for organizing, and not restrict ourselves to a concern with management ideas.

In the short, final chapter we draw together some thoughts on future areas for research on management ideas and the field as a whole by pulling out some key themes from the individual chapters as well as more generally. Here some recurring issues emerge such as the need to make diverse empirical, theoretical, disciplinary, methodological, and conceptual linkages as well as traditional concerns with unpacking impact and engagement with various research users. In addition, attention is drawn to new empirical, technological, and methodological opportunities and with the possibility for extending the reach of studies related to management ideas.

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