Remember Re-engineering? The Rhetorical Appeal of a Managerial Salvation Device

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Abstract

This paper subjects a contemporary managerial doctrine, business process re-engineering (BPR), to rhetorical scrutiny. Finding analytical inspiration from the writings of the American literary critic Kenneth Burke and adopting an anthropological attitude towards ‘history’, it seeks to demystify the appeal of BPR rhetoric as represented in various published and unpublished texts. The analysis makes extensive use of ‘sacred’ motifs in order to gain ‘perspective through incongruity’ and expose the secular motives at work in BPR literature. An analogy is drawn between ethnographic examples of ‘amnesia’ drawn from the author's study of a computer installation and ‘amnesia writ large’ through BPR. On the basis of this comparison, it is suggested that BPR can be read as offering cathartic absolution of the collective guilt associated with information technology mismanagement. Any ‘doubts’ that a managerial public may be harbouring are rhetorically harnessed by BPR protagonists in their attempts to acquire secular converts. The popularity of BPR may now be on the decline but there will be other similarly instrumental agendas to replace it in the future to which students of management need to be alert.

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