Management theory, debunked

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.

13 thoughts on “Management theory, debunked

  1. Alex Osterwalder

    Thanks for pointing out this interesting source! I have always wondered why management practice mainly relies on MS word, MS excel, some quite fuzzy concepts dominated by buzzword and maybe (in good cases) on some business intelligence… Management practice, “science” and education seems strangely antiquated in a time where we can build an Airbus aircraft collaboratively around the world, simulate mars missions, control the motion of a mouse (a real living one!) through a joystick and make sophisticated experiments in particle physics…

    I’d be curious to learn what Stewart’s recipe for the future of the management guild is! Criticising is relatively easy – pointing out useful directions is more difficult.

    Cheers from Lausanne, Alex

  2. Nick Carr

    You know, Vinnie, after three years I’m going to go ahead and declare myself the victor on that one, for a very simple but I believe very compelling reason: If I weren’t mainly right, people wouldn’t still be talking about it.

  3. vinnie mirchandani

    Nick, you started a legitimate debate…and you were right 3 years ago to say let’s get commodity IT out , but now it is time to say the beginning of the new corporate IT, not the end. When I look at all the mobility, telemetry, analytical, collaboration, services technologies to be taken advantage of , we are at the beginning of a new age of computing. And by the way the outsourced IT functions have become entitlements in terms of how much budgets they are eating up for their utility nature. It is the dawn of what I call the Gallagher CIO. Half time go around smashing melons – entitlement spend. The other half tell jokes – delight business users with innovation. But to the specific point in this post may be I should put that in an HBR article not just on a blog!

  4. steve winkler

    A good book on this subject is “Built to Last” by James Collins and Jerry Porras. They investigate management styles of companies that have withstood the test of time and contrast them to those that didn’t manage the same amount of success. It comes to more or less the same conclusion – that the concepts are the same but the buzz words change – and distills out those theories shared by the successful companies.

  5. Rob

    It’s interesting to look back at the history of management science to points where it actually provided very tangible skills. Back in the day (circa 1910ish?) HBS was centered on railroad science … the idea that railway management required specifc skills to be successful. During WWII, a few of the programs actually turned into quartermaster focused schools that taught specific skills necessary to fielding a successful army. I haven’t researched this, but I would bet that as the focus of the MBA programs became broader and less focused, it became easier to teach “fluffy” horizontal topics.

    I think some of the MBA programs recognize that some of the topics are dubious … thus the focus on case study and socratic method. You could argue whether it is worth two years and 100K plus in debts, but discussing things critically with smart people is usually a worthwhile learning endeavor.

  6. Rob Hyndman

    “You could argue whether it is worth two years and 100K plus in debts, but discussing things critically with smart people is usually a worthwhile learning endeavor.”

    Agreed, Rob, but one can legitimately ask whether that couldn’t be done better with smart people on the job, instead of in a classroom. (I suppose if one’s work doesn’t provide that, one ought to updating the resume and hitting the pavement.) I sat through both an MBA and law school, and my best crit thinking discussions – in both fields – were with the clients and colleagues I encountered afterwards. Both programs were a pleasure, but the most intensive learning came after.

  7. David Foster

    “Back in the day (circa 1910ish?) HBS was centered on railroad science”…that’s really interesting…would love to see a link on that.

    Today, the equivalent of 1910 “railroad science” might be global manufacturing strategy…the decision about how production of components and final products should be spread across countries, given the complexities of geography, transportation, regulation, currency, etc. I wonder if any B-schools are addressing this in a meaningfully-tangible fashion, or if it’s just one more excuse for pushing tools and abstractions…

  8. Mark Crofton

    Some of this has to do with how you think about “managment theory.” I can think of at least two types of knowledge imparted in an MBA program:

    – “science” – these are the harder skills: cost of capital, how to value a floating rate bond, statistics for marketing etc.

    – “don’t reinvent the wheel” – Using cases you, hopefully, learn from others’ mistakes in organizational change, leading people, buying/selling a company etc.

    How useful you find either of these is going to depend on your pre B school experience. Obviously, Intro to Corporate Finance is not extremely useful to a former I banker. But what about the ex-marketing exec, non-profit guy or former software salesman (that would be me)?

    You could argue that you could get either one or both from a book, but then couldn’t you do the same for engineering or english lit?

  9. sternthinker

    IMO, this is a false dichotomy. Efficiency is a worthy pursuit for sure. Humans are the main means by which efficiency is achieved.

    Isn’t the question: “How best to treat/manage people to achieve the employer’s overall goals, incl. efficiency?”

  10. R2

    As a philosophy major turned management consultant (via an Ivy League MBA) myself, I recognize that Matthew Stewart has learned the tricks of his trade well! Here we have a broad, thought provoking concept which is so well packaged and articulated that one might not detect it’s propaganda factor.

    Stewart’s article appears to me as another in a tired line of criticisms of scientific management, in general, and MBA’s in particular. Yes, Mr. Stewart, there is room in the world for thinking and communication. No, however, such training is not fundamentally flawed if it does not involve Rousseau and Shakespeare. You apparently did just fine with this kind of background, but it is not the only way. There is certainly room in the world for the knowledge base and analytic techniques which are taught in business schools. Perhaps you worked for the wrong consulting firm.

  11. Andrew Luttrell

    I was starting to think it is a lonely place out here. The only thing scientific about the whole lot including Tailorism is based on near outright fraud, and Elton Mayo’s credentials were forged, even to the Prime minister signing his reference of Professorship of Psychology; so with that type of Intellectual behavior, what else would one expect but Bank Account exploitation. Professionalized Looting.

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