Managing in a developing context

Monday, 30 January 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Management can be applicable not only for individuals and institutions but for nations as well. I had the opportunity to read a book titled ‘Managing in a Developing Context: Sri Lankan Perspectives’ written by Prof. Suddatta Ranasinghe. It was a treasure to read as well as a treatise of learning for managers. Today’s column is a sharing of thoughts inspired by the above book by one of my most respected teachers.


Managerial capacity

“Managerial capacity of a nation is a critical factor that affects the quality of life of the people as well as the freedom of choice they enjoy as citizens,” says Prof. Ranasinghe. How a nation manages its resources is a factor that determines her ability to be competitive in a sustainable manner in the global market.

In a broader sense, the quality of governance at national as well as corporate levels influences the choices made with regard to resource allocation and utilisation, which impacts the level of growth, productivity and the distribution of income having implications for the extent of self reliance achieved by a nation.

Prof. Ranasinghe is of the view that though socio-political and economic issues of development have been addressed in contemporary literature, the managerial issues of development have not been addressed sufficiently in the Sri Lankan development discourses. Hence our capacity to address critical issues of management in a pro-active manner has been limited.

In this setting, the present volume intends to make a modest contribution towards addressing selected issues of management from the perspective of a developing country that has been going through a process of transition economically, socially and politically during the past three decades.

“Sri Lanka has a rich cultural heritage spanning over 2,500 years that has been nurtured largely by the teachings of the Buddha, a great philosopher and a social reformer,” observes Prof. Ranasinghe. The Buddhist values of management such as commitment to a cause, autonomy and responsibility, mutual respect and tolerance have had a profound effect on the way of life of our people. Over generations, these values have influenced the thinking and actions of the people and their participation in collective efforts.

Colonial influence

Over centuries of Western colonial influence during 1505 to 1948, Sri Lanka has undergone a wide spectrum of changes in political, social and economic spheres. As Prof. Ranasinghe further elaborates, amidst these changes, the nation had gradually lost her indigenous identity of management and drifted towards adopting Western management practices.

However, one cannot be certain whether Western management practices are firmly rooted in our society. It is also clear that the managerial approaches that evolved in Sri Lanka over centuries of colonial rule have failed in putting the country on the path of self reliance.

As Prof. Ranasinghe opines in his usual lucid style, the colonial legacy of the dual economy characterised by an export-oriented plantation sector and subsistence oriented indigenous agricultural sector had continued for generations despite changes in the political system brought about by constitutional changes of 1972 and 1978 respectively. These changes paved the way for establishment of the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972 and moving on to the Executive Presidential system of governance in 1978.

Notwithstanding the changes in the politico-administrative system, the national economy continued to be dependent on imports of food, medicine, intermediate goods and capital goods and export of commodities and non-competitive manufactured items such as readymade garments. At the same time the unprecedented growth in domestic and foreign debt had made the country’s economy more vulnerable to external shocks.

Managerial challenges

As the book elaborates, the above emerging situation has posed a challenge to the students of management, which is discovering appropriate managerial approaches that help managing resources efficiently and effectively in the context of a changing economic environment.

In this regard the lessons we could learn from our successes as well as failures may be unlimited. However, we have not been able to explore those lessons adequately. Perhaps this lack of learning is reflected in manifest paucity in clarity as well as transparency in governance at the national and corporate levels.

There are issues of poor governance in local authorities as well as civil society organisations, which had limited the extent of empowerment of the less privileged groups in society. Past experiences show that we have not been able to address the issue of power sharing effectively, which had led to social conflict and a widening gap between the privileged and the less privileged groups in society. Since gaining political independence in 1948 Sri Lanka had treaded on a path of development following the welfare state model which lasted for several decades. According to Prof. Ranasinghe, a paradigm shift in the policy regime that took place in the late 1970s marked the end of the welfare state model of governance and the birth of the market-led growth model. This important policy shift also posed the managerial challenge of balancing welfare and growth in an economy that has been exposed to the winds of globalisation.

In the post-liberalisation era, the state assumed the role a facilitator of development while the private sector had been assigned the role of the “engine of growth”. Against this backdrop, it would be important to probe whether Sri Lanka has been able to deal with the managerial challenge of balancing welfare and growth to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, of a facilitator of development while the private sector had been assigned the role of the “engine of growth”.

Against this backdrop, it would be important to probe whether Sri Lanka has been able to deal with the managerial challenge of balancing welfare and growth to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

Managing poverty

After lapse of one decade of the new millennium, a significant proportion of the country’s population continues to live in a state of poverty and share less than five per cent of the national income, observes Prof. Ranasinghe.

This reflects social inequalities and poor human development, which is no doubt an indicator of the poor state of management of national resources. The persistence of poverty in rural and estate sectors and wide disparities in the quality of life of the people seem to suggest that development policies have not brought about the desired results. Thus, it reinforces the need for good governance and effective management practices.

During the past few years the discipline of management has received increased attention within the system of higher education. However, it is clear that we have not been successful in translating the management learning into effective practice for making life better for the people. Why we have failed in making the desired social and economic transformation possible through effective practice of management is indeed a critical question worth probing.

Prof. Ranasinghe shares his intention of publishing this volume of papers as follows: “The papers included in the present volume attempts to explore some of the managerial issues that are relevant in explaining our development experience. They also deal with the empirical realities of management from the perspective of a developing country. The papers have been written at different stages in my career and they intend to highlight managerial issues that require deeper analysis from a perspective of indigenisation of management practices and their sustainability. It is expected that the papers included in the present volume may generate further studies as well as discussion on the issues focused.”

Re-thinking required

In writing a foreword, Mr. Wijewardena (my friend and the regular contributor to the opposite page) states that the articles in the volume are not addressed to the ordinary readers of management. These articles, based on serious research, are meant for students of management as reference work or for practitioners of management as material for advancing knowledge.

According to him, Prof. Ranasinghe in his usual style has presented these articles in a readable manner. References have been added to each article enabling the more serious readers to probe further into the subject areas if they wish to acquire further knowledge on the subjects under reference. Getting into more specifics, let’s look at the first article in the book. Titled ‘Doing Business with the Poor: Re-thinking Poverty Alleviation Strategy in Sri Lanka,’ it is a critical examination of the measures adopted for helping the poor to cross the poverty line from a sustainability point of view. Let me quote the foreword: “Though the national head count data on poverty show a significant decline in poverty between 1990-’91 and 2006-’07, Ranasinghe probes into the stark realities not shown by the data. The wide disparity in the distribution of the poor across the regions, the high number of poor persons, especially women, being employed as migrant workers, the presence of a large number of Samurdhi recipients and the very low critical threshold of minimum expenditure for categorising the poor have been some of the critical points which have contributed to a drastic reduction in the head count poverty levels. “According to Ranasinghe, serious policy makers should reckon them when mapping out sustainable poverty alleviation strategies. He, therefore, questions ‘... the rationale of the poverty alleviation strategy as well as the current approach to promote business initiatives among the poor through the intervention of an oversized bureaucratic mechanism’. His solution is to link the poor to private enterprises to facilitate them to produce for the market and reap benefits from such inbuilt entrepreneurship.”

Way forward

‘Managing in a Developing Context’ has been well managed with regard to an enriching collection of papers presented by Prof. Suddatta Ranasinghe. I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone interested in the managerial aspects of national wellbeing including the development of human resources. It is undoubtedly paving the way to achieve ‘Humane Results’ in a balanced manner.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on