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date: 25 October 2020

Introduction: Unmanageable Capitalism?

Abstract and Keywords

When considering how to conceptualize the practice of management, one can identify countervailing tendencies. On the one hand, there is the legacy of classical writings in which management is treated as a single, unproblematic category and generalizable in terms of knowledge and practice. While this view is, perhaps, no longer widely accepted, it is, as Armstrong observes, sustained intellectually by popular business writings and institutionally by consultants and senior executives who benefit from a view of management as decontextualized and transferable expertise. The idea of a universal body of management theory and practice that develops in evolutionary and enlightened manner is well past its sell-by date. While the search for universality does not stretch very far beyond the territory of popular business books, social scientists are still powerfully attracted to the idea of holistic, integrated regimes.

Keywords: management, universality, business books, social scientists, integrated regimes

When considering how to conceptualize the practice of management, we can identify countervailing tendencies. On the one hand, there is the legacy of classical writings in which management is treated as a single, unproblematic category and generalizable knowledge and practice. While this view is, perhaps, no longer widely accepted, it is, as Armstrong (2002) observes, sustained intellectually by popular business writings and institutionally by consultants and senior executives who benefit from a view of management as decontextualized and transferable expertise. One might add that it is also sustained by the diminished ranks of functionalistpositivist theorists, who argue for a professionalized management drawing on a rational science and agreed body of knowledge (Donaldson 1995). Ironically, such writers see popular business literatures, with their emphasis on fads and fixes, as the enemy, rather than fellow soldiers in the search for a positive science (Hilmer and Donaldson 1996 and see Morgan and Hampson 1998 for a critical commentary).

In contrast to the above, as Hales (1999) notes, most research has given up searching for commonalities in managerial work. We are much more likely to find descriptive, idiographic accounts that see management primarily in terms of micro-level actors concerned with personal survival and ‘keeping the show on the road’; or research charting the social construction of management in inherently varied historical and contemporary settings. For example, Grint (1995: 46, 62) argues that managerial work is defined by the context not the content of the activity and that we can only assess what they do by reconstructing and interpreting their motives from their own and other's accounts.

While there is obvious value in such approaches, they are an overreaction to classical views with the attendant danger that what managers do is seen as ‘a catalogue of disconnected actions, events and encounters’ (Hales 1999: 336). Contrary to social constructionists, management consists of real sets of actors and practices. The concept of managerial regime is useful in this respect as it can refer to practices at a number of levels. There is a generic character to managerial practices—the control of complex organizations or aspects of them—derived from the agency role on behalf of employers. At a more macro level, that is expressed in formulations such as managerial capitalism in which hierarchy performs the primary coordinative role within modern corporations (Chandler 1977). More (p. 166) specifically, a managerial regime might refer to a particular group of functional practices, such as high trust, high skill arrangements for the management of knowledge workers. This level will be our main concern in Part II of the Handbook. Yet, if management is an agency, it has to be achieved and is therefore always contested and context-specific. With this in mind, it is also necessary to analyze management in terms of competing rhetorics and interests.

Management: A Contested Terrain

An important source of such analysis is Armstrong's (1984, 1989) accounts of interprofessional competition and competing managerial agencies. Combining a Weberian emphasis on expert bodies of knowledge as a means of collective power and mobility, with a labor process analysis of alternative managerial control strategies, he explores the varying fortunes of engineers, accountants, and personnel groupings. Within this framework, management is conceived less as a set of tasks and techniques and more as an agency relationship with capital in which occupational groups attempt to convince employers and senior managers to transfer trust to them as the most credible way of resolving control and coordination problems.

‘To give a much over-simplified illustration: it may be cheaper for senior managers to trust a management accountant to monitor the activities of operational managers than to pay the premium involved in creating a trust relationship with the operational managers themselves’ (Armstrong 1989: 316).

Real life outcomes will be dependent on a variety of factors including the predilections of senior managers and the power resources (including serviceable rhetoric) of rival groups in particular historical, economic, and institutional contexts. Nevertheless, while knowledge and practices may be constructed in specific locations, they seldom remain there. As Strang and Kim show in this Part, there have long been international flows between nations. Using the cases of the diffusion of scientific management from the United States to Japan and quality practices in the other direction, they highlight the significance of distinctive diffusion infrastructures in shaping the capacity and type of learning. Stimulated by perceived performance gaps, diffused practices are always promoted by but mediated and translated for a domestic context by communities of experts. The authors compare the steadier and more stable evolution of managerial innovation in Japan, where agencies such as the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers have close state and corporate links, with the US situation of decentralized competition among consultants that produces ‘faddish trajectories’.

(p. 167)

The latter observation highlights that one of the problems with identifying the production of rhetoric is to assess the extent to which it corresponds to the realities of organizational life. This is not easy and not simply because of the difficulties of establishing clear cause and effect relationships. As part of the internationalization process, management ‘theory’ itself has become a global commodity. Its role is as much to legitimate as to describe or guide action and those forms of legitimation may not correspond closely or indeed at all with actual practices. For example, a rhetoric of changing and turbulent times—of which the idea of the post-bureaucratic organization is a prominent theme—has been a permanent fixture of managerial discourse, at least from the 1950s, irrespective of whether and in what ways the economy and organizations have really changed (Eccles and Nohria 1992; Thompson and O'Connell Davidson 1994). Theory and rhetoric act as a resource through which managers seek to persuade not only employees but also themselves and rival managerial groups.

One of the most influential accounts of the historical ebb and flow of rhetoric and practice was provided by Barley and Kunda in their 1992 article. The framework utilized is one in which culture sets the terms and boundaries within which managerial discourses develop, but material, economic forces determine when new surges of theorizing occur and such surges tend to be championed by a specific managerial subgroup (1992: 392–3). Kunda and Ailon-Souday revisit that argument in this Part. They find the previously dominant normative rhetoric—expressed through emphases on organizational culture and quality—to be declining and displaced by one of market rationalism. This rhetoric envisages organizations as ‘lean, managerially diluted and dispersed networks of members’, and managers as mobile, self-regulating, and instrumental. To evaluate the nature and impact of competing rhetorics, it is not enough to count publications and chart the rise and fall of fashions (see e.g. Kieser 1997). As Kunda and Ailon-Souday observe, organizational reality is much more complex than depicted in managerial rhetoric. Yet, by drawing on a wide range of secondary evidence they argue that there is a broad approximation between the rhetoric of market rationalism and the realities of downsizing, restructuring, and outsourcing. There seems little doubt that such descriptions of organizational change are accurate as Chapter 24 in Part IV by Lazonick demonstrates. What about agency under market rationalism? It certainly is not traditional middle management, who as Kunda and Ailon-Souday assert, have become ‘the primary victims of organizational restructuring’. A new group, focused on project managers, has to an extent filled the coordination gap, but while they have employable, ‘portfolio’ skills, as a group they lack substantial power resources. Senior or corporate management are the beneficiaries of the new market conditions, protected from the negative effects and receiving much of the benefits of restructuring. Where does that leave other key managerial agencies such as human resource and knowledge managers?

(p. 168) The End of Managerial Capitalism?

Market rationalism apparently does not have time for culture and is more interested in reducing then transforming the workforce. This does not appear to be good news for human resource management (HRM), which has been at the center of business and public policy rhetoric for at least the last twenty-five years. Pfeffer's (1998) The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First sums up the central tenet of competitive advantage expressed through a variety of forms, from human capital theory, resourced-based views of strategy, HRM/High-Performance Work Systems (HPWS), through to the latest manifestation in theories of the knowledge economy.

Legge provides a comprehensive overview of the relevant literatures in this Part. As she notes, one of the anomalies is that the bulk of evidence is skeptical on the extent and depth of implementation of HPWS, which is puzzling if there is or should be such a demonstrable link to organizational performance. There is obviously a range of potential explanations for this shortfall. Legge's discussion rests partly on the distinction between hard and soft models of HRM. The former primarily seeks a fit between human resource policies and broader business strategy, with employees considered as a flexible headcount resource. Drawing on a developmental humanist tradition, the emphasis of the latter is employees as a valued asset through their commitment and skills, and therefore on a more internal ‘fit’ between clusters of mutually supportive work and employment practices. The possibilities for integration are always highly contingent on organizational or societal context.

The degree of emphasis on ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ options, Legge argues, may also be contingent. For example, the strategic choice can depend on the type of market in which the organization is competing. In a high-volume, low-cost sector treating employees as a valued asset may be a luxury. Market differentiation is undoubtedly important as a factor that influences strategic choices, but this kind of distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ HRM practices is not always easy to sustain. For example, most call centers are oriented towards the economies of scale that derive from centralized, high-volume customer management and the need to extract value from labor where such costs are frequently 60 percent of the total (Callaghan and Thompson 2002). Yet their managerial regime is typically a hybrid where lowdiscretion, routinized work is combined with a high-commitment model drawing on a variety of intensive human resource practices (notably in recruitment and training) and normative control measures (Houlihan 2002).

Another way of interpreting the shortfall is that ‘soft HRM’ provides the legitimating rhetoric for the management of change, while ‘hard HRM’ predominates in the real world of bottom-line judgments. The rhetoric-reality gap is a consistent and necessary staple of radical critique of management practices, but it is unnecessary to deny a potentially positive link between soft HRM and enhanced performance. (p. 169) The key problem in such literatures is not the desirability of such practices, but how to explain their low take-up and fragility. An additional layer of explanation shifts the focus from product and labor to capital markets. Within the former, HPWS envisages a ‘bargain’ in which employees deliver greater discretionary effort in the work process in return for employer investment in human capital through measures such as enhanced training, job stability, and career structures (Appelbaum et al. 2000; Huselid 1995).

However that bargain has proved to be hugely unstable. First, there is a fundamental tension between collectivization of effort in the labor process and decollectivization of risk in the employment relationship (Burchell et al. 1999). Discretionary effort from employees is coinciding with declining investment in training and skill development, while many employers are unable to deliver on any degree of job security (Beynon et al. 2002; Cappelli 1999). The primary causal mechanism undermining HPWS is the increasing influence of capital markets on firm behavior. The pursuit of shareholder value and the increased dominance of institutional investors in deregulated and globalizing markets has led to pressures for increased rates of return as markers of financial performance (Froud, Johal, and Williams 2002). Among the consequences are the kinds of downsizing, acquisition and divestment, and perpetual restructuring described by Lazonick in Chapter 24. Of crucial importance, work by researchers such as Konzelmann and Forrant (2003) shows that tensions between what they call ‘creative work systems’ and ‘destructive markets’ affects even those firms that have achieved gains in productivity and market share through the appropriate HRM measures. Although expressed in different language, this explanation is consistent with Legge's argument that a search for external fit between human resource policy and broader business strategy may be inconsistent with the objective of internal fit among work and employment measures.

These trends raise the issue of agency and levers—what is driving organizational change and who are the beneficiaries? Kunda and Ailon-Souday argue that the modern division is between ‘top executives and everyone else’. While this perhaps underestimates the complexity of managerial layers and interests, there is a strong degree of truth in the observation. The push for shareholder value in the 1980s arose in part from attempts to find ways of disciplining managerial behavior and to realign their interests with those of owners. In this they have clearly been successful, enriching a layer (admittedly small) of senior managers along the way and encouraging the kind of speculative and sometimes corrupt behavior of which Enron was an extreme case.

At a more analytical level, it can be argued that this is a form of capitalism, at least of the Anglo-American kind, in which there is a double disconnection: between policies pursued in the work and employment spheres, and between management of the workplace and corporate governance (Thompson 2003). Human resource managers may want to pursue higher performance and high (p. 170) commitment policies, at least in some sectors, but the levers they are pulling are often outweighed or countermanded by corporate decision makers in thrall to financial markets. Indeed, one could extend that argument to plant or unit level managers more generally. In contrast to popular business writings that claim a more decentralized pattern of decision making, it may be that we have to reconsider the whole idea of managerial capitalism in an era of increasingly financialized economies.

Where does this leave the other currently most feted regime, that of knowledge management? The idea of a knowledge economy has become the driving force of intellectual debate and public policy. Like HRM the high policy rhetoric has soft, human capital assumptions, such as that knowledge is the inherent property of the producer, ‘it remains with the employee and in no real sense is it ever of the firm … it is impossible to separate knowledge from the knower’ (Despres and Hiltrop 1995:11). As a consequence, self-management through teams and ‘communities of practice’ is more appropriate than controls and rules. The characteristics of knowledge management as an alternative general regime are outlined by Adler (2001). He argues that the growing dominance of knowledge as a force of production requires a focus on the management of innovation, new products and processes. In turn, this necessitates a shift from market and hierarchy as mechanisms of coordination to community and trust.

However, the status of knowledge management as universal argument or even as primary tendency is highly questionable. Job growth is highest in low-skill, personal service sectors where the conditions of access to and use of specialized knowledge is limited (Thompson, Warhurst, and Callaghan 2001). In addition, as our previous discussion about firms under financialized capitalism indicates, broader dynamics in the economy are unfavorable to knowledge management regimes. This is a territory largely ignored in the mainstream literature, but it has been recently explored by Littler and Innes (2003). Using longitudinal firm-level data on organizational restructuring, they show that the dominant pattern is downsizing and that this is associated with a ‘de-knowledging of the firm’; in other words a loss of key skills and knowledge as occupational recomposition takes place. There are a minority of ‘knowledge-intensive growers’, and as Barley's contribution to Part III demonstrates, technical and scientific occupations are taking an increasing share of total employment. But even by grouping all categories of occupations together, the total reaches 5 percent. Given this kind of evidence, it is clear that idea of knowledge management itself needs to be downsized.

While there are some revealing micro-level accounts of the social relations of expert labor, the same cannot be said of its management. Like much contemporary business literature, the knowledge management thesis is strong on optimism and normative prescription, while weak on power and agency. In other words, who is being managed, how and why? As McKinlay demonstrates in this Part, there have been significant new competitive pressures on product development or ‘molecule (p. 171) to market’ conditions, that, in turn, produce new and contradictory pressures on the management of labor. Knowledge management is not often a universal and distinctive regime in its own right, but rather a partial and uneven set of practices, with a specific focus on identifying, converting, codifying, and disseminating the tacit knowledge of expert labor, most often within a project management framework. McKinlay argues that the idea of communities of practice has been appropriated for managerialist purposes. Firms are being encouraged to engage more inventively with such informal organization in an effort to direct the flows of knowledge. As his own and wider evidence illustrates, this is easier said than done. There are inherent tensions in the balance between control and autonomy, knowledge as private and public good, career paths, and organizationally specific requirements.

Despite the high concept rhetoric attached to knowledge management and the attempts to make a distinction between information and knowledge, the evidence from surveys and case studies is that though an increasing number of companies claim to be undertaking knowledge management initiatives, they are largely focused on technology-driven instruments such as intranets, data warehousing, decision-support tools, and groupware (Scarbrough 2003). Furthermore, they are led by Information System's professionals, already empowered by growing organizational reliance on IT infrastructure, and by consultants with a vested interest in commodifying the tools and metrics of managing knowledge. McKinlay argues, however, that these efforts have not been effective in terms of innovative process and product. As it stands, knowledge management is largely top-down and underpinned by a utopian unitarism that assumes that all employees will gladly participate as donors and recipients. This brings us to the role of labor.

Labor is Still a Significant Actor

The end of a particular type of managerial capitalism does not lead to the conclusion that the employment relationship is irrelevant, merely that its management is different from what we might expect from the dominant rhetorics. One further aspect of such orthodoxies is a view that economic, cultural, and political changes diminish the prospects for union organization and work resistance. All the final three chapters in Part II reject this doom and gloom scenario and in their own way demonstrate that managerial regimes continue to shape and be shaped by the actions and interests of labor.

It is true that globalization and deregulation give additional opportunities and power resources to industrial relations managers and pose considerable problems for unions. Yet the picture is not straightforward. As Katz shows in this Part, (p. 172) ‘A special dilemma for industrial relations managers in the multinational corporation arises from the fact that culture, laws, and institutions retain much of their institutional diversity at the same time that globalization has increased the premium on coordination and central control.’ Pattern analysis shows a number of distinctive employment systems across countries, within a common trend towards pushing the location of management of the employment relation downwards. This, in turn, is partly driven by the kind of decentralization of corporate structures discussed earlier. Elsewhere, the author (Katz and Darbishire 2000) describes this trend as a process of converging divergences. The tension between these processes is fundamental to a number of contributions to the Handbook. Whereas Strang and Kim emphasize the relative stability of diffusion mechanisms and national differences, Smith identifies the complex interactions between systemic and contingent influences on work and employment relations. Both analyses are important in finding a middle ground between the universalizing assumptions about managerial regimes present in mainstream business literatures and the overemphasis on national diversity in traditional social science. In other words, diversity in employment systems continues within a changing and more constrained context. As Katz shows, some countries choose to continue or even develop tripartite coordination of industrial relations, though such coordination is not inconsistent with decentralization of industrial relations. This reinforces the continued significance of the state as an actor and the persistence of varieties of capitalism, albeit within tightened conditions of competition (Elger and Burnham 2001; Hall and Soskice 2001).

In such discussions, labor as an agency can be obscured, or subsumed within forms of collective organization and representation. The chapters by Kelly, and Collinson and Ackroyd, offset this tendency. Labor and unions are frequently treated as helpless victims of globalization and postindustrial changes: the assumption being an inevitable decline in the power resources and mobilizing capacity of labor. In the history of social science, this is not the first time we have been down this route. Yet, as Kelly argues, ‘There is no simple causal chain running from global competition, production, and investment to labor decline.’ To move away from such assumptions, it is necessary to expand our understanding of labor organization beyond particular and conventional forms of collective representation and action. There is considerable evidence that new management practices and organizational restructuring provide fertile grounds for injustice and the formation of employee grievances.

Kelly believes that mobilization theory offers a more innovative framework for linking micro and macro developments. In practice, whether such grievances can be mobilized in coherent and collective forms remains an open question, but they are present in a variety of forms. This view is taken further in the final chapter by Collinson and Ackroyd. They illustrate how much of the most innovative research and writing on employee resistance and misbehavior is taking place across and beyond disciplinary boundaries, through diverse sources such as labor process (p. 173) theory, post-structuralism, and feminism (though there are also continuities to older traditions such as industrial anthropology). There is often a different emphasis on the micro, informal dimension and on practices such as sabotage, workplace humor, and time wasting. The ability of workplace research to move away from a purely management-centered approach depends in part on ethnographic and other qualitative modes of enquiry (Hodson 2001).

An obvious objection is that compared to traditional literatures on collective organization and action, such practices are trivial. However, the characteristics of employee action shift as the objects of managerial regimes change. In the past twenty years we have seen increased attempts by organizations to mobilize the identities and emotions of employees through initiatives such as corporate culture and customer service programs. Employee cynicism towards and dissent from such initiatives, as well as action to maintain dignity and positive identity at work, are in this context as much a form of resistance in its broadest sense as traditional effort bargain struggles. The importance of new ways of thinking about employee action lies in their capacity to do for labor what innovative research has done for management: to open it up as a category, to grasp its diversity, and to explore the complex interplays between interests and identities.


The idea of a universal body of management theory and practice that develops in evolutionary and enlightened manner is well past its sell-by date. There is, however, a reverse problem, that awash with competing fashions and discourses, and aware of multiple contingencies, we simply drown in diversity. Concepts such as managerial regime signal an intent to identify dominant patterns and their causes, while recognizing that any idea of regime needs to be multileveled and multifaceted in order to deal with the different sets of pressures and practices that shape organizations.

While the search for universality does not stretch very far beyond the territory of popular business books, social scientists are still powerfully attracted to the idea of holistic, integrated regimes. This is understandable, after all research tells us, for example in the case of HPWS, that such approaches can have positive payoffs for a variety of stakeholders. Unfortunately, the same research also indicates that such coherent regimes are few and far between. Most organizations, whether in the private or public sector, are hybrids of managerial practices and control structures. This point is picked up on by Adler (2001) in his previously referred- to article on changing forms of coordination. Although he claims a shift away from hierarchy and market towards trust mechanisms, it is noted that there are complex three-way tensions and that the three modes can be mutually supportive if designed and implemented appropriately.

(p. 174)

Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, this may be overestimating the design capacity of managerial agents in a context where it is harder to pursue stable, long-term, and coherent strategies under financialized capitalism. This is not to deny that some routes are more effective and more capable of generating consent and mutual gains among stakeholders than others. But if ‘there is no “one best way” of managing these contradictions, only different routes to partial failure’ (Hyman 1987: 30), even this kind of success may be getting more difficult to generate and to sustain. The world, or at least the workplace, is, for the time being, becoming less manageable.


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