Modern businesses ‘putting style before substance’

27 Mar 2014
Mats Alvesson and Jorgen Sandberg

Modern businesses are in danger of ‘window dressing’ by relying solely on brand image to improve the appeal of their products, according to the renowned academic and author Professor Mats Alvesson.

Speaking before a group of businesses and students at The University of Queensland where he is part-time Professor, he said society was entering the Age of Grandiosity, where style and surface mattered more than substance.

Too many businesses felt they could enhance a product simply by giving it a more desirable label, while individuals tried to boost their status with overinflated CVs and fancy job titles.

“Firms and other institutions are increasingly focusing on rhetoric, image, branding, reputation, and visibility,” said Professor Alvesson. “A steadily increasing amount of talent, energy and resources are devoted to persuasion. More and more people become ‘imagologists’.”

He warned that relying on image alone could leave a hollow ring. “Imperfect reality reminds us about the superficiality of inflated titles, CV's, higher education, branding investments and other forms of image management,” he added.

“Organisations and other institutions and those supposed to benefit from them suffer when window dressing takes upper hand over substance. People may lose sense of reality and weaken their critical and sharp thinking.”

The event was one of two public lectures given by Professor Alvesson, an expert on organisational culture who is also a Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund in Sweden.

He outlines his theories in his latest book, The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education and Work Organization, Oxford University Press, by one of the reviewers of Times Higher Education appointed “book of the year”.

Professor Alvesson also spoke on the concept of ‘functional stupidity’, and how organisations often engage in stupidity management in order to block communicative action, which can lead to happiness and smooth functioning, but also serious problems.

Professor Andrew Griffiths, Dean of UQ Business School, said: “The lectures have provided a great opportunity for businesses and the public to hear the views of one of the world’s leading experts on organisational culture.

Professor Alvesson’s work contains some important messages for contemporary business.”