Strategy

Managing: Let's all play the naming game

Want to understand your business, but don’t know where to start? When all else fails, try categories.

Structuring and categorizing a business often seems like a decent idea, as the expected outcome is that one shall — finally — understand what the heck one is doing at work. But does one know how to categorize?

There is nothing new in wanting to categorize an organization’s activities. Management consultants make a living out of this. Management gurus make an even better living out of this. And human resources people would have far less to do if they did not spend preposterous amounts of time classifying employees in any way possible. (Someday someone should compartmentalize these people; the one thing speaking against such an endeavour is that then one would be no better than them.) A classical way of trying to structure company goings-on is to classify and label them into different “activity sets.” One key is to have well-defined templates. Producing these can be an enormous task, but templates are necessary, or else the organization will definitely look like it does not know what it is doing.

And so, everything done in the organization is grouped into themes, areas, phases, subjects, topics and atoms. All with shiny new templates. The employees executing these activities are also classified. (The HR department also needs to look like they are doing something.) But hey, this categorization does make sense, right? How else is it possible to structure activities and people? There are even different categories for how to categorize whatever one is doing. There is no end to it, and something so endless must have a value. All this classification is a business-driven activity (a categorization in itself) that will build partnerships (another grouping) between business units. It all sounds so … terminologically correct.

And then it is possible to further classify every category into completely unrelated subcategories, allowing you to match completely disparate activities with each other. Why would you want to do that? Who knows? But it does allow you to find new and interesting connections that can then be presented to anyone who wants to listen — a category of people that is typically hard to find.

What to do with activities or employees that do not clearly fit into one single category? Force them into a category! If not, what is the point in categorizing in the first place? If there are enough outsiders, freaks and generally unfitting individuals, one may create a supplementary group. However, experience shows this usually causes problems. Instead, everything should be classified according to the predefined categories. If one has to continually add categories, one will never achieve the goal of figuring out what the heck is going on.

Once everything has been categorized, all management consultants (categorized as “the very expensive kind of consultants”) can be sent home. Our management — where the different management levels are now categorized with letters instead of the earlier system with numbers — can pat themselves on the shoulders, telling the world they now know what they are doing. Our business processes — now categorized as moving from left to right in the documentation, instead of the earlier system where they went from top to bottom — are now so much easier to understand. If not, why did we do all this work? That would have been stupid, a category we reserve for our competitors’ activities.

Any drawbacks with categorizing everything? Well, try to innovate. Try to think out of the box. Try to be creative. And then try to figure out how to categorize your new innovative idea so that it fits into the well-classified order. And then hope you belong to the category of people who have luck. You’re gonna need it.

To sum up, categorizing everything allows managers to be classified as progressive, which speaks to those people who believe that putting things on paper will automatically lead to better management. How to categorize such people? That is a discussion best classified as “unnecessary.”