Matthew Stewart, a former management consultant and the author of the recent book The Courtier and the Heretic, has a good article about the dubious science of management theory in the new issue of The Atlantic. Stewart went into the consulting trade with a degree in philosophy and managed to avoid taking management classes or reading management books during his career as a business advisor. “I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates,” he writes, “and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like ‘out-of-the-box thinking,’ ‘win-win situation,’ and ‘core competencies.'”
After retiring from consulting, though, he “decided to check out the management literature”:
Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?
That question leads him to explore the history of academic management thinking, back to it origins in the duelling theories of Frederick Taylor (management as the rational analysis of numbers) and Elton Mayo (management as the humanist art of influencing people) early in the twentieth century. Everything since then, Stewart argues, has been essentially a repackaging of these two points of view, which were themselves a repackaging of an age-old dialectic:
Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.
Stewart gets fuzzy at the end of his piece, when he starts dispensing his own management advice, but he’s on target here, as anyone who has read a lot of management articles and books will recognize. The buzzwords are almost always new; the ideas are almost always recycled. What’s amazing is how rare articles like Stewart’s are. The management education and theory industry – a huge, lucrative and influential one – has been largely exempt from critical inquiry. Then again, maybe it’s not amazing. Sometimes, maintaining an illusion can be in the best interest of everyone involved. It’s revealing that Stewart’s article appears not in a business journal but a literary one.