Conversations in the executive suite

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`WHAT is the best management style?'' This question threatens to replace ``How can American business be competitive?'' as the fashionable inquiry in the executive suite. And why not? For one thing, the new poser is a lot easier to answer, since, in fact, it deals with style rather than substance. You don't have to pay taxes on style or check your inventory, though a pretty style can cost a pretty penny.

``Management style'' conveniently marks the point at which economics crosses over the line into mysticism - a realm businessmen are far more partial to than they like to admit.

If you don't believe this, just listen to the mystically tinted explanations for why the stock market continues to go up - rich enough in specialist's jargon to make a theologian blush, with more zigzag graph lines than a witch doctor's sand painting.

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If you still insist that business is hardheaded - all ``bottom line'' - explain, if you can, the presence of Werner Erhard among the gurus in search of ``management style.'' Only yesterday, it seems, Mr. Erhard was raising consciousness in the ``human potential'' movement with est. Now he has turned from ex-hippies to nouveaux yuppies and founded an organization grandly named Transformational Technologies Inc. TTI operates a Center for Management Design, where a management executive can take eight weeks of courses in things he never learned at Harvard Business School and graduate as an overachiever in - well, style.

That's not fair. Still, if the favorite motto of the old-fashioned businessman was ``Talk is cheap,'' the favorite motto of the management-is-style generation is ``Talk is everything.'' Or as Erhard puts it, ``The unit of management work is conversation,'' which further boils down to this: ``An organization is a network of conversations'' - something the gossips around the old water cooler have been saying for years.

But what about the act of ``decisionmaking,'' assumed to be the final purpose of management? Here, surely, the conversation, as well as the buck, will have to stop, and the work must yield to the deed.

Not at all. ``A decision,'' as Erhard defines it, ``is a person saying something to himself (or someone else).''

Talk is your vision; your vision is your future - a beguiling idea. But will it balance the books? Will it turn a screw on the assembly line?

Even the ``father of modern management,'' Peter F. Drucker, has been criticized for being too theoretical. ``He makes you feel warm all over, but how do you translate that into action?'' one grumbler has been quoted. But what would that man say about Erhard and Transformational Technologies Inc.?

Mr. Drucker's best-selling manual uses nice, tangible words in the title, with ``talk'' or ``conversation'' nowhere to be found. ``Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices'' - there! Doesn't that sound hands-on, to say nothing of feet-on-the-ground? And how about Drucker's famous military concept of ``management by strategic objective''?

All this seems positively earthy compared with Erhard's vision of management as conversation. Yet Erhard may well be the new consensus. How theoretical theory is getting in corporate circles, the last bastion of pragmatism!

``Talking things out'' - this dangerously innocent formula made popular by psychiatry has long since roamed beyond the confines of the marital bedroom. But whoever thought it would reach the executive suite?

As American business moves away from product into ``services,'' ``information,'' ``takeovers,'' and other financial abstractions, are American businessmen - whose cry once was ``Deliver the goods'' - becoming talkers, like politicians and the rest of us?

It is not Erhard's fault for astutely reading the times. According to Industry Week, his clients include General Motors, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and Lockheed, as well as Soviet managers. Glasnost the world over, of one sort or another. Great Communicators all. But what exactly is being said? And what exactly are we ex-makers and doers making or doing as we become the middlemen of articulation?

Sure. Erhard, and everybody else, want action in the end. But for the first time, businessmen, and everybody else, think the speeches come first, and that's something new enough - and odd enough - to make one fantasize the day when GNP will be measured by units of rhetoric, image, and, of course, style.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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