Liberation Management

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tom Peters, who with Bob Waterman, brought us IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE ten years ago, says that big business as we know it today will be replaced by companies broken into small project-oriented teams. Since technology and markets change rapidly, goods and services have become like fashions — or fads. Businesses have to react quickly to capture fleeting markets; thus, hierarchical management structures must be replaced by flexible structures able to adapt to change and make decisions without waiting for a multilayered chain of command.

As part of this new, project-oriented team structure, job descriptions become fuzzy, and management layers disappear. Functions that used to operate independently and sequentially may occur simultaneously, as part of a team effort. Vertical departments — accounting, purchasing, engineering — may vanish, leaving horizontal project teams in their place.

Team members work on projects as needed, then move to other projects, replaced by fresh team members. Customers and vendors join the teams. And project members take their act on the road, with shop floor workers going to customer locations to see how the product is used so they can help the team build it better. As part of this new concept everyone has access to all the information and project teams make decisions. Front-line employees can answer customer queries without waiting for information to move up and back through a structured chain of command.

Can it work? Tom Peters’ examples say it can. The question is whether companies will heed this advice, and whether the rest will survive the changing marketplace he predicts.