Dennis Tourish and Owen Hargie
Researchers have increasingly argued that much of mainstream management practice is characterized by the enthusiastic adoption of fads (for example, Shapiro, 1995; Jackson, 2001). Managers embark on radical programmes of restructuring that throw their organizations into turmoil, but which are often based on little or no evidence that they work (Newell et al., 2001). Indeed, research often discovers that far from having a benign or even neutral impact, many such initiatives inflict severe damage (see Chapter 7, for a fuller discussion of fads). Re-engineering is one of the best examples of a self-proclaimed revolutionary practice that failed in the overwhelming majority of cases where it has been implemented (Knights and Willmott, 2000).
Much of the practitioner literature on these issues, as this chapter will show, seems to assume that destructive organizational initiatives can be salvaged by the skilled use of communication messages to engineer internal and external support for the mad, the bad or the cack-handed. The assumption is that there are no unpalatable messages, just poor communication strategies. The central focus of this chapter is on one such initiative, downsizing, which has been an integral part of the re-engineering movement. Downsizing has spread like a contagious disease through both the public and private sectors. It has been endemic in company takeovers (Hubbard, 2000), when ‘merge and purge’ seems to be the order of the day. This chapter looks at what it has meant, the rationale for its implementation, the evidence as to its effectiveness, and the communication consequences of its implementation. As will be shown, the issues raised go far beyond downsizing.
One conceptualization of communication is that it is largely a mediating device between management intentions (whatever the intention happens to be) on the one hand and their execution on the other. Within this instrumentalist perspective, the moral properties of downsizing, and its psychological consequences, are largely irrelevant. The emphasis is on how particular ends will be reached, while the ends themselves are unquestioned and assumed to be value free. An alternative perspective is that the dialogic properties of communication systems have a transformative impact on management intentions and