Choose one of the following topics
1. Explain and illustrate the principle of potentiality and its constitutive concepts.
2. Explain and illustrate the relationship between the performative nature of contemporary culture and new workplace architectural forms.
3. Explain and illustrate the relationship between the ethics of impatience and impermanence in business and consumption and the natural environment.
4. Explain and illustrate the relationship between the production and destruction of value in the ‘New Economy’.
5. Explain and illustrate the notion that the New Economy is “the time when emergency becomes the rule”.
6. Explain and illustrate the following question: How many ‘fast subjects’ can live on Planet Earth?
Please note that the fundamental task is to explain and illustrate – therefore this essay is a matter of analysis, not evaluation or simply ‘personal opinion’. And most certainly this essay is not some sort of ‘mock consultancy report’ with ‘directions of action’. This is a piece which seeks to develop the ability for proper analytic thinking, for conceptual understanding, and for seeing how the world of business and management is concretely shaped. This is an essay about how things are – not how they should be.
MANAGEMENT IN THE 21ST CENTURY:
CENTRAL QUESTIONS OF EMPLOYABILITY,
GLOBALISATION AND ETHICS
Aims of the course
Let us go back for a moment to our teaching aims stated in the handbook:
a. To explain how management and business can be treated as unitary phenomena – in
other words, we hope that you will begin to see that management itself is not merely a
collection of techniques from several disciplines, but that it has a coherent cultural
core, that it corresponds to a system of values that have to be grasped and understood
if management is to make sense at all.
b. To explain how management and business are part of the broader cultural and
historical nature of contemporary global society.
c. To explain that management and business, as part of society and culture, have to be
understood as part of the major processes that characterise our time – in other words,
that they carry within themselves the signs of all the major crises that face us today in
the world economy, in our relationship with the Earth and Nature, and in our
relationships with each other as humanity.
d. To help you recognise management’s central place in this essential system of crises
and to understand that these crises are problems for management and for managers,
rather than incidental historical externalities that have no bearing on your future
But why should we engage in such a difficult journey and ask questions that seem at least a
little bit uncomfortable? We will offer now a very brief and practical answer: because to
manage in this ‘world’ means to make even a small effort to understand it. This is the
requirement of all the employers today – from the smallest to the largest. How do we know
Contemporary education and employment
In the most recent survey of market expectations (Carrington Crisp, See The Future, 2013),
the signals for management education are very clear: the focus is not on ‘technical’ skills, but
rather on the capacity of graduates to understand the complexity and broad context in which
any business, large or small, operates today. The general picture of the market shows that,
from amongst 5365 respondents who completed the study (drawn from 137 nationalities),
both students and future employers expect the next period to be characterised by the
1. “87% of managers/directors agree that business models need to change to
better engage with society and more than 70% of all groups hold the same
2. 81% of undergraduate alumni agree that business needs to be about more than
just maximising shareholder value rising to 90% among managers/directors in
the third sector.
3. Between 85% and 90% of all audiences agree that business needs to take a
stronger lead on sustainability.
4. 83% of prospective undergraduates agree that business leaders should behave
ethically at all times, but 8% disagree. Among managers/directors, 97% agree
that business leaders should behave ethically at all times and 3% disagree.”
In other words, something very important is said about management and business education
and about the place and role of these phenomena in the world today. So how do we – and
especially YOU – read such signals? Perhaps these four main demands from your future
employers as well as from the rest of society can be seen in the following light:
1. New forms of engagement with society means to understand the permanent
question and struggle concerning the place of ‘business’ in contemporary
society and politics – it is not merely about ‘new products and services’, or
about ‘innovation’. It is about what kind of forces management and business
2. The ability to think about new forms of value entails another struggle: the
struggle to develop the ability to claim power over the creation of value in new
ways, to find new forms of social, cultural, political and economic legitimation
of what counts as value. It is not simply a question of ‘re-thinking money’, or
‘products’, or ‘economics’. It means to understand first of all how value has
to be displaced and destroyed in order for anything that we might call ‘new’ to
emerge at all. [Think, to take a small but relevant example, about Microsoft’s
or Apple’s current struggles to explain why and how new products are to be
understood as ‘adding value’.]
3. The call to think about the buzzword ‘sustainability’ means the ability to
understand that the power of Nature and of the elements appears as a
permanent danger to us and that it shows the incapacity of contemporary
societies and cultures to think about limits.
4. The permanent call to ‘be ethical’ shows the equal difficulty we face in
understanding what is binding in contemporary social and political
relationships: what does it mean to ‘be good’? When does the pursuit of the
‘good’ itself become a danger, or indeed something we take to be ‘evil’
The promise of technical thought and the calculability of endless
Let us start from where you are in your studies. We will be asking you to think about
management in different ways than you may have been used to and it is important to
understand how this new approach is both linked to, and departs from what you have already
been exposed to. Can we think of the common features of the disciplines you have studied so
far: accounting, finance, economics, operations management, marketing, and perhaps some
‘people management’? You probably never asked yourselves the question. Perhaps nobody
else asked it for you. But as you enter your final year of study, the question is both worth
asking, and timely. You will see why: not only because you have by now been exposed to
many aspects of management thinking, but also because what this question reveals will help
you in navigating some of the main issues companies and management professionals are
trying to come to grips with.
There is one serious answer to this question: what is the feature that brings management
thinking together? The answer is that management thinking is based upon one elementary
and extraordinarily powerful operation (elementary does not mean simple). It is ‘elementary’
because it comes to be the basic element in all the disciplines you have studies: accounting,
finance, economics, marketing, HR, or operations management. What is this basic element?
It is what we might call mathematical reduction: that kind of thinking which seeks to reduce
all processes to linear relationships between causes and effects. The reduction of complex
processes to apparent relationships between cause and effect is an extremely seductive and
powerful scheme: first, as a reduction, it appears to make things simple; secondly, as a causal
mechanism, it seems to make things easily understandable. Things reduced to in such a
manner can then be modelled through calculative logic: that is, through equations and ratios
between various proportions (magnitudes) and various sets or populations (such as statistical
sets). Such relationships are structured in models or schemas that follow the line of a
production system: input ? process ? output. In other words, an equation is not a static
relationship; the aim of every model is to model the movement of a process of production.
When we analyse any model and see within it all relationships spelled out as equations, what
we ought to grasp is not a static statement: “X equals Y”, but a dynamic question: “how X
produces Y?”. In other words, equations in finance, economics, operations management, but
also in marketing or strategy, seek to express a productive relationship: certain abstracted
concepts (which stand for inputs) are related by formal rules of transformation (which stand
for processes) to other abstracted concepts (which stand for outputs): how can we (managers)
control inputs so that the process leads to increased outputs? This is the core managerial
question projected by technical models in any discipline you have studies so far. They all
rely on presenting management processes through such mathematical constructions. Even if
systems of equations modelling one process or another appear complex, they remain linear –
they follow one line of determination pointing from a cause to an effect: “if X then Y”. Thus,
the aim of models is to exclude ambiguities, to bring reasoning to a point of closure with a
limited set of possible decisions.
We tend to associate calculative thinking with numerical representations. But thinking
calculatively is not confined exclusively to numbers. It can also be found in non-numerical
conceptualisations of managerial processes: take, for example, the well-known model of
work motivation derived from Maslow’s theory of needs satisfaction. It is made up of a set
of additions (needs satisfied by organisational systems) leading to increased individual work
satisfaction and motivation. Or models of strategic choice such as Porter’s Five Forces That
Shape Industry Competition1:
It is not a coincidence that the mathematisation of managerial knowledge is a common
feature in various disciplines. The features of mathematical thought do not stop at linearity.
Another crucial service that mathematical representations offer is homogenisation of
relationships – and for management this is truly an enormous advantage. Let us just say this:
management thinking has to consider production in all its respects: human beings, machines,
materials, processes, money, internal organisational requirements, market requirements – and
we can add more terms. It has to ‘fight’ with them (as Porter’s language indicates). This
struggle is made far easier if these heterogeneous things seem to be amenable to integrated
calculations – in other words, if human factors can be added up with materials, then these can
be added up with machines, and then all can be made to appear in monetary form – then this
immense complexity can become a question of linear ratios between magnitudes (how much
of something?) and multitudes (how many of several things?).
Added to this homogenisation is the fact that models always seek to express a productive
relationship that is open to optimisation of the processes it represents. The focus on
optimisation is an important intellectual and ‘emotional’ (comforting) outcome of technical
thought. Models you have studied indicate the possibility of always finding sources to
increase value in whatever form it is conceived. Whether it is through the reduction of
resource consumption (cost), or an increase of some kind of output (benefit), the goal of such
models is bound up with the permanent (and perpetual) enhancement of production.
Management thinking (both in theory and practice) wants to be seen as a reservoir of
objective possibilities of optimisation through calculative models: in other words,
management seeks to be the straightforward arithmetic of mass-production. And it wants to
carry one optimistic message: that of the economic optimum. And for that optimism it
Michael Porter, ‘The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy’, Harvard Business Review, January 2008.
cannot, of course, be faulted: isn’t the optimal use of economic resources the very basis of the
welfare, happiness and emancipation? What reservations, you will ask, may be raised against
this seemingly impenetrable logic? How could management be questioned critically? 1 + 1
= 2, this is non-negotiable. Models can, at most, be improved but in the name of the same
purpose: to increase the efficiency-effort ratio – forever and for all. Nothing can be
problematic in that intention. It is no wonder that from the beginning, management thought
had been captivated by, and tries to reproduce ever since, the enticing precision and control
of engineering thought2.
To summarise, what we call management or business techniques are bodies of algorithms
always set up to point to a historical ‘forward’. They are always optimistic (seeking
optimisation is a carrier of hope), and always positive (they seem to affirm, to posit
possibilities of acquisition of more benefits, and they gives us the impression that we can take
command over such possibilities). So why is it necessary to retreat into questioning them,
why should we nurture a kind of negative feeling, when management thought is par
excellence the thought of unlimited, hopeful technique?
This need is contained precisely in the nature of this hope: its promise to be unlimited. We
have to ask this perplexing but absolutely obligatory question (especially when we are hit by
crises from every angle): do we, as human beings, now possess the means to make our
economy infinite? Do we really have or know of something that is infinite? Although this
question is hard, the hardest in fact, this period is perhaps the easiest in which to ask it. We
live in a time of significant crises – more so than at any other time in history perhaps: the
economic crisis threatens massive segments of the global workforce through the collapse of
growth; the ecological crisis threatens all forms of social life; and the crisis of inequality is
sharpened anew by the severe contrasts between regions participating in the same global
We hope to resolve them – we want to resolve them; in fact, we demand that they be
we want to stake our claims to endless economic growth (“no boom and bust
anymore”, used to announce a recent British prime minister, pleased with himself on
the very eve of the most problematic collapse of financial systems around the world),
but we also want to ensure a sustainable ecological future (we do not want to kill the
goose that lays the golden egg, the Earth),
and, besides, we want call this to be made available to all; we want an equitable
redistribution of wealth (we do not want fellow human beings to live imprisoned in
illness, misery, or war, we want a charitable world, and we do not want to feel guilty
by thinking that our gestures of appropriation mean the expropriation of others).
Seen in separation, all these imperatives are justifiable; however, brought together by the
urgency of the times, they collide radically in a timeless impossibility: put simply, we “want
our cake and eat it”. Is it possible? And can management be the mechanism that will allow
us, human beings, to arrange the world in such a way that it can be an endless source of all
For an extremely useful treatment of this tendency, see Yehouda Shenhav, Manufacturing Rationality: The
Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution (Oxford University Press, USA, 2002).
Management’s central questions in the 21st Century
How ‘big’ does management have to be in the 21st Century to face these tasks? This is what
we will think about in this module. If we are to anticipate the answer, we could say that
management (as a system of values and ideas) claims to be very ‘big’, claims to be very
significant, in fact, it claims to be decisive in more than one way for the destiny of the world
and of people inside it. It claims all these questions and it continuously claims to be close to
an answer – close and getting closer. If such is the reality, then we obviously cannot ignore
the questions of how it came to be this way, how extensive and intensive is management’s
place in the 21st Century, and how it speaks about the decisive problems it faces? At the end
of the journey, what you should have obtained (and grasped a bit, if not entirely to begin
with) is a map of the major questions that face management in our time.
What you will also have grasped perhaps (this not something we can do for you, or to you;
we can teach you but we cannot make you see and understand how things unfold in
management) is how hard a place management occupies in contemporary culture, and how
much harder this place is made because of the limits of management’s ability to occupy it.
These limits are not an invention – they are visible and concrete all the time; the nature of
economic crises, not the mention the broad and urgent ethical and ecological crises of the
world, are actually generated because management might not be able to deliver what it
And this now becomes the most important focus for our analysis: to understand that what
management promises (under the well-intended and apparently benign techniques for
decision-making in accounting, finance, economics, marketing, HRM and operations
management) may actually be the most dangerous illusion in the name of which the crises
listed above actually occur. What is this illusion, what is this promise? Let us put it in a few
words – though maybe not the simplest.
Management is a form of thought and a system of values whose grounding principle (its most
basic, most fundamental starting point) is that it can secure, at planetary level, endless growth
in the production and exchange of human ‘value’. In other words, it promises that it can
deliver an infinite ordering of production, commerce and consumption of human comforts.
This word, infinite – and its cognates such as endless, unlimited, limitless – marks
management’s importance in the world. Since the end of the 19 th Century, throughout every
moment of the 20th Century, and now absolutely in control of the order of the 21 st Century,
management comes to stand for the manner in which humanity thinks about securing its core
ideals: wealth, happiness and freedom without limits. In an even simpler formulation,
management stands for what we could term the principle of excess. The ancient Greek
philosopher Epicurus spoke once of the condition of the pursuit of excess; he said, “Nothing
is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” He added, “Do not spoil what you have
by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things
you only hoped for.” Two thousand years after Epicurus, we, 21st Century consumers, might
confidently add the word ‘always’ in two places: “Nothing is enough for the man to whom
enough is always too little.”, and “Do not spoil what you have by always desiring what you
More importantly though, we, students of management, cannot but realise that the very
function of management is articulated precisely in this sense. No better expression of this
than John Steinbeck’s words in The Grapes of Wrath (written in 1939, as a reflection of the
Great Depression of 1929-1933):
“…the Company needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the
Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. …
But—you see, a bank or a company can’t do that [i.e. stop making profit], because
those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the
interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without
side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so. … The bank—the monster has to
have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. When the monster stops growing, it
dies. It can’t stay one size.” (Chapter 5, our italics)
So the question ‘how big is management then in the world today?’ has received a preliminary
outline answer that gives the basis of this course. It is as ‘big’ a form of thought as any
world-making forms of thought in human history: religions, empires, monarchies, cast
systems, or chivalric orders. The danger here, which is not marginal or superficial, has been
expressed with masterly clarity by the philosopher Max Scheler in the 1920s:
“Capitalist economy is based in the will to endless acquiring (as an act), not in the will
to acquisition (as a growing possession of things).”3 (italics in orig.)
Can it be done? The recent crisis asks it with renewed force4. The course asks it too with
respect to management’s promises and demands at four fundamental levels: the individual,
the social, the natural, and the ethical. The task will be to think systematically about:
“… [the] unrestricted tendency of [management] toward a systematic, and not only
occasional, control over nature and an endless accumulation and capitalisation of
knowledge for controlling nature and soul.” 5 (italics in orig.)
But even if we may not like adding a new and very difficult angle to your study of
management, there is not a shadow of a doubt that management requires this extended
attention and that it actually demands this extended attention in every way. To understand
management’s place in the world, in other words, to understand how it addresses us and the
world at every level (individual, organisational, social, or planetary) is actually one of the
elementary demands of what has come to be known in the very labour market you are trying
to enter as ‘soft skills’. To see connections, to understand the subtleties of how things work
in the world, how people relate to each other directly and through products and services, to
get “how business is done” – all of these, and many more like these, are the range of qualities
you are going to be obliged to perform in some way or other if you are to get a job at all. So
the question of management’s place and dynamic in the world is not really one of some
general, vague nature, asked just to be asked at the end of your course of study.
M. Scheler, Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge (Routledge & K. Paul, 1980), p. 133.
For example, read Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?: The Love of Money, and
the Case for the Good Life (Allen Lane, 2012).
Scheler, p. 118.
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