SRM Series: #12 Power: A Place in Education and Training?

In this fourth and final blog in a series on power in buyer-supplier relationships from Chris Lonsdale, he argues that it would be a mistake to simply dismiss ‘power’ as ‘bad practice’, and proposes that teaching managers about power is about preparing them for potential manipulation or aggressive behaviour from the other side. Once again, over to Chris….

This series of blog posts has not been about presenting something new, but rather re-visiting something old. The argument has been that the term ‘power’ should not be seen as synonymous with aggressive exploitation of dominance (although that of course happens), but rather should be understood as a practical concept that has four different manifestations (the so-called ‘power positions’) and a range of management implications.

Power (including acts of ‘opportunism’, that is, the information games described in post two) remains a controversial concept however, and some believe that it has no business being a prominent concept within procurement, sales and, indeed, wider management education and training. Why is this?

There are many reasons, but three in particular.

First, some in education and training themselves view the term ‘power’ as synonymous with aggressive exploitation of dominance. Incidents such as the horse meat scandal, of course, only encourage this mistaken view.

Second, others in education and training, while fully understanding that they are not synonymous, still often argue that the very teaching of power and opportunism will encourage people towards ‘bad practice’. Such people argue that many receivers of education and training will miss the message about power being a concept not an aggressive practice and believe that they are being given a green light.

Third, many of the same people argue that education and training should be about encouraging ‘best practice’ not studying historic or current ‘bad practice’. It should not dwell on ‘bad practice’, but help reduce it.

What should we make of these reasons? The first reason speaks for itself. In terms of the second, there is something to say for this argument. In the field of financial economics, for example, some have persuasively argued that the literature/teaching/training on performance incentives aimed at aligning the interests of managers and shareholders (e.g. share options) gave out the implied message (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not) that managers have no actual moral obligation to do their best for shareholders. This moral loosening, it is said, then affected the very efficacy of the performance incentives being put forward. That is, managers, freed from moral restraints, ‘gamed’ the incentives. The effect of this was seen most dramatically in the financial sector with the consequences we all know about.

However, we should not get too carried away with this argument. The information economics literature, of which theories around using share options are a part, started in about 1970. Surely no serious person would argue that bad business behaviour started in 1970. Similarly, it goes without saying that the use of power in business to business relationships pre-dates the management literature.

And, it needs to be remembered that teaching managers about power is partly about preparing them to cope with potential aggression from the other side; preparing them for the worst, so to speak. While some argue along the lines of ‘give, and it will be given to you’, that benevolence will be met by benevolence, it is surely unwise to bank on that. Sometimes an olive branch will be accepted, on other occasions it will be seen as a sign of weakness.

In terms of the third reason, there is simply (and quite reasonably) a difference of opinion between educators and trainers over what management education and training should be about. Some people argue for what I call ‘should be’ content. That is, you present examples of excellence (or exemplar ‘best practice’), raise people’s sights, etc. Others argue for what I call ‘as is’ content. That is, you start by accepting the imperfections of the world and consider what constraints, if any, those imperfections impose upon your ambitions. This latter ‘as is’ content, of course, has to include ‘best practice’ examples as those examples allow you to understand what your ambitions could be. But there is an acceptance that you won’t always be able to achieve ‘best practice’ and that sometimes not trying is a better option than only getting half way.

So to conclude, the recent horse meat scandal will strengthen the arm of those who see power as a damaging concept for business and for management education and training. That is understandable but regrettable, as power will always be with us and knowledge is …. erm …. power.

By Chris Lonsdale

Guest blogger Chris Londale is a Reader in Procurement and Supply Management at Birmingham Business School’s Centre for Business Strategy and Procurement. See CBSP_brochure for details of the Centre’s research and renowned MBA programme.

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