Scientific management's unscientific grounding: the Management Myth

Matthew Stewart, who went from a PhD in philosophy to an unhappy career as a management consultant, lays into the "science" of management, from its historical roots to the vacuity of its modern-day practice. On the way, he indicts the MBA program as a largely pointless exercise, and accuses business consultants of blindly applying simpleminded heuristics and deploying "obfuscatory jargon" to cover their pointlessness.
What they don't seem to teach you in business school is that "the five forces" and "the seven Cs" and every other generic framework for problem solving are heuristics: they can lead you to solutions, but they cannot make you think. Case studies may provide an effective way to think business problems through, but the point is rather lost if students come away imagining that you can go home once you've put all of your eggs into a two-by-two growth-share matrix.

Next to analysis, communication skills must count among the most important for future masters of the universe. To their credit, business schools do stress these skills, and force their students to engage in make-believe presentations to one another. On the whole, however, management education has been less than a boon for those who value free and meaningful speech. M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon--otherwise known as bullshit--to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.

Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. As I write this, I know that my M.B.A. friends are squirming in their seats. They've all been forced to sit through an "ethics" course, in which they learned to toss around yet more fancy phrases like "the categorical imperative" and discuss borderline criminal behavior, such as what's a legitimate hotel bill and what's just plain stealing from the expense account, how to tell the difference between a pat on the shoulder and sexual harassment, and so on. But, as anyone who has studied Aristotle will know, "values" aren't something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all of the time. Notwithstanding the ostentatious use of stopwatches, Taylor's pig iron case was not a description of some aspect of physical reality--how many tons can a worker lift? It was a prescription--how many tons should a worker lift? The real issue at stake in Mayo's telephone factory was not factual--how can we best establish a sense of teamwork? It was moral--how much of a worker's sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness for its purposes?

The Management Myth (via Making Light)

(Image: Ford assembly line - 1913, Wikimedia Commons)


  1. What every junior high student learns at some point: If you can’t bedazzle them with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit!

  2. I did a CMS, DMS and finally an MBA back in 1995. I’ve seen two types of people come out of these courses, the first already had some industrial/manufacturing/commercial experience and used what they learnt to add to their existing skills, they become in my experience very effective managers. The other type has no real working experience, only uni, or other higher Ed. These types can talk well, and be very persuasive, but I’ve seen them wreck and close companies on more than one occasion. One came into a company I worked for and brown nosed into a very senior position, he then basically fired/made redundant anybody over 40 or not directly involved in the manufacturing process. At first it all looked good on paper, profits where up, but only because overheads where down. Then the problems started, and they had no one left who knew the product, or the process, they’d binned them all! wiped out the company’s knowledge base. It then ended up in a death spiral, of lower productivity and constant cuts. It closed within 18 months of the MBA “golden balls” getting promoted. I jumped ship and started my own business. Don’t think I could have done it without my CMS, DMS and MBA.

    1. I jumped ship and started my own business. Don’t think I could have done it without my CMS, DMS and MBA.

      Sure you could have. The learning curve would have been a bit steeper but it would still be possible. A good friend of mine opened her own business–she has a bachelors degree in sports medicine and a masters in photography.

      1. “sure you could have”

        Psh. Yeah. Having an MBA was a detriment. It’s not like *that* many new businesses fail..

  3. The problem I have with this entire article is that the author, by his own admission, has never been to business school. He was a management consulting guy for a number of years and by his admission worked on large number of bullshit projects. And based on the enormous amount of BS he gets from what we can assume are his Ivy League MBAs, he points the finger at business school.

    I will graduate business school in May with a degree in nonprofit management & spend plenty of time with “normal” MBAs. It is borderline absurd to claim that you don’t learn anything in business school. I was a philosophy undergrad, and we never covered finance, accounting or marketing!

    As he mentions, a biz school is a lot about skill building. The majority of the people I go to school with want to advance their careers, and be able to lead a team. They teach you how to do this through practice, review and case studies. Good luck getting honest feedback in the real world.

    And, we don’t read bullshit airport newsstand business books in class. We read a lot of case studies that force us to discuss as a class our opinions and solutions. Lots of times people are wrong and we talk about that. We don’t read “10 Tips to Be a Great Manager”

    Finally, I don’t want to sound like a support everything about business school, there are plenty of insufferable assholes. But if you follow the classes and do your homework, you emerge understanding much more about yourself and how to be a good manager. Are you going to apply it? That’s up to you!

    In conclusion: boo hoo, I am sorry this guy chased the easy money, sold out, made bank and now has to throw someone under the bus to feel better about himself.

    1. So basically you’re making an “Emperor’s New Clothes” sort of argument: begging the question by assuming that X has value and then using that assumption as the basis for your argument that criticisms of X are therefore invalid. You yourself admit that you haven’t had a chance to try and apply this stuff in the real world, as opposed to the author who has seen people try and continuously fail, but assume that it can be done: boy, have you got a surprise waiting for you! It’s this complete disrespect for operational experience that’s at the core of the problems with the modern MBA. There are several local firms that have a policy of not hiring fresh MBAs because they’d rather other people taught them the basics of manners.

      You say “Good luck getting honest feedback in the real world.” If you can’t get that, both from above and below, then you’re doomed from the start. If there was just one thing taught in management schools it should be getting that feedback.

      As it is there’s a grotesque over-emphasis on accounting and finance: narrow technical skills which are the least important part of any manager’s toolkit. If you need them at all, take a couple of night school courses and you’re done. As it is the curriculum imbues a fetish for bad hard numbers over good soft numbers and judgement: which is the second biggest problem with MBA courses.

      As an example, in project management you’ll have to develop a project schedule based on asking specialists on how long it will take them to do something. They’ll tell you something like “two days, maybe a little shorter if we’re lucky or three days if we’re not”. The MBA throws away 90% of that information to dump “2 days” into his MicroSoft Project malware and that becomes a sacred promise to upper management. The only thing that you know for sure about “two days” is that it’s a lie. The odds against it being finished in exactly two days is astronomical.

      A real manager knows that he’s just been given an extremely valuable probability distribution. A little bit of script-fu and you can merge the distributions for each sub-task into a project-wide distributions and track against that. However, that deals in ambiguity but, as davejenk1ns points out, most MBA graduates deny the existence of ambiguity. This is how we get things like the abomination of the cubicle. You can write the cubicles off as “office furniture” faster than real walls so you get a “hard” benefit from them. The 20 to 30 percent drop in productivity due to using them is a “soft” number so it doesn’t exist in the MBA’s mind – only in reality.

      1. Nadreck, I take it that you don’t have an MBA either?

        As a reluctant MBA student (I’d rather be doing an MFA in sculpture or perhaps a MSc in statistics but personal and career circumstances require otherwise) I can say that the explicit aim of the program I am in is to teach people how to build and work in teams. The ‘grotesque over-emphasis on accounting and finance’ you speak of does not exist – the technical bits are by far the most difficult for some and by their nature are ripe for comparison against other disciplines’ ‘weeder’ subjects.

        As someone who spent the past ten years swearing that I’d never be ‘like that’ & get an MBA, I’m very pleasantly surprised at the way my program addresses social responsibility & innovation, and I’m genuinely impressed with the character of most of my classmates & teammates.

        Also; “most MBA graduates deny the existence of ambiguity”? That’s just ridiculous. It’s one thing to call out ambiguous findings as useless; entirely another to “deny the existence of ambiguity”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

      2. Ha, I am actually getting my MBA through evening classes so I am certainly experiencing how classroom learning fits into the work environment. The average age of my cohort was about 28 – that is at least 6 years of work experience – so I think your local businesses would be just fine.

        It is pretty silly to demonize MBAs in general – there are about 250k enrolled every year. You really think all 250k are going to turn into little Portarian quipping drones, spreading 5 Forces and 6 Sigma into everyone’s spreadsheets?

        Or maybe there are plenty of people that are interested in learning how to do their jobs better, get MBAs and become better managers? Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, you should educate yourself on what coursework this degree actually entails. The “grotesque” overemphasis on finance and accounting = one required class of each, OH NOES!

        And then there are a bunch of unethical crooks and idiots that we can read about in the WSJ that ruin business, governments, etc. Would they still be crooks and idiots without MBAs? Yes.

  4. In the process of earning my degree in Business I noted that many texts repeatedly stressed that morale is a major ingredient in a businesses success; I have come to realize through multiple experiences that morale is not even considered by many employers. “If you don’t like it here you can quit” is the cry of management in places such as Qwest, US Bank and local utilities. Not just in these tough economic times but even before management prefers to rule with a scowl as opposed to a smile; this then reflects upon the treatment of the customer or public.

  5. “As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.”

    If only there where not a growing group of people that live by being as obscure as possible…

  6. Cory, this is a really old and bad article, making obvious points about bad business education and management practice, kicking down open doors.

    For your information, I don’t even allow my students to use the term “core competencies” in class…


  7. It’s important to note the differences between a leader and a manager and how are each needed in varying times. It’s somewhat similar to specialists and generalists and how are each needed at varying times as well. Right now, it seems like we’re beginning a transitional period where we need more leaders and generalists (risk takers that can adapt to changing times quickly), rather than managers and specialists (efficiency experts that optimize during stable times).

    Books that cover these differences are “Finding Our Way” by Margaret J. Wheatley and “Paradigms” by Joel Arther Barker.

  8. I’m with Meerkat. The notion that one’s MBA (or any degree or any life experience) is all that defines someone is shortsighted. Surely Dr. Stewart knows the power of rhetoric in any discipline, and surely he understands that one can use their communicative powers for good or for evil. But that’s not what this is about. Business is about profiting for the good of its stakeholders – however they are defined – within the context of its values. Just as different people have different values, so do different businesses.

    My undergrad degree is in communication studies, but it’s not the reason for my extensive volunteer efforts, my love of humanity and my concern for the greater good. I certainly didn’t go to college to learn how to be a compassionate human being (although in retrospect, it helped). But I’d like to think my MBA has helped translate these qualities into leadership roles that impact others in good and powerful ways. It does matter how we reach the bottom line, but no degree from any university in any discipline is responsible for that one.

  9. “Here are the Six Sigmas: Teamwork, Insight, Brutality, Male Enhancement, Handshakefulness, and Play Hard.”

  10. Confession: I’ve spent most of my career in ecommerce management, which I would consider taking all the woo-speak of management and slathering on a completely new layer of technobabble meringue. People have asked me if I had my Master’s degree, to which I responded “yes”. Nevermind it wasn’t an MBA (mine was Intl Politics).

    The article resonates with me very much– I can usualyl spot the MBA graduates in a meeting within the first 5 minutes by the level of colloquialisms and bland profit-seeking chakras that spill from their mouths. I’ve often tried to introduce statistical science or regression analysis to a problem, but those “solutions” often get rejected pretty quickly when they show ambiguous results or no clear answer. Managers are more than happy to “knuckle down” or “cowboy up” or “lead from the front” and “soldier on” to find some profits somewhere. There is very little science in management. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly about personality grooming.

  11. I saw a lot of similarity between both the business classes I took and the philosophy classes I took. Both wanted me to regurgitate what was covered in class, and would dock me for evaluating the usefulness of applying the idea to whatever was being discussed.

    I found the Operations Research was by far the most scientific approach to solving management problems that I’ve ever seen, and somehow, it was only taught for people in computer majors.

    1. sry bout your bad philosophy profs.

      I’m struck by the naivety of stating that ethics and morality is a part of business: it’s a part of business, because workers and consumers have forced the owners/management to not treat them quite so badly. A corporation has only one goal: profit. Ethics and morality are only a means to achieve that. Similarly, it’s amusing to me that the writer brings up Kantian ethics, considering the treatment of workers is completely unethical in Kant’s view. A person is an end in itself, for Kant. To treat them as a cog in the machine is to treat them as a means to profit, a profoundly unethical act. Not to mention all of the actions of the financial sector that most definitely do not follow the categorical imperative.

      1. It’s a common refrain that ‘the only goal of a corporation is profit’.

        While that is certainly true of many corporations, it’s actually not always the driving force behind all corporations, and I feel that it’s a gross oversimplification.

        For example, I run a small design-build firm with my wife. We make awesome interiors. We’re a corporation, but we’re only that because we have to be due to legal reasons for my Architect’s licence and the services we offer. Otherwise we’d be an LLC, like we were before I got my licence.

        Our main goal is pretty much to build a company that gives us the lives we want. ‘Profit’ in this context also includes things like personal freedom and being able to choose what we do with our lives. Which, as I get older, and see friends getting progressively more bitter about their day jobs, seems like a pretty good goal.

        We certainly focus on profits, sure, we have to. But our passon that drives us to do what we do isn’t solely based upon that. If we just wanted to maximize profit, I’d be better off dropping architecture, closing up our business, learning javascript, and getting some programming job instead.

        You might think it’s just because we’re small. But even many really large corporations have a primary focus on being awesome at something, so that they can make profit. Not the other way around.

        I read this book, and as a small business owner it was fantastic. It totally changed the way I approach other business books (for the better) and really made me think a lot.

        Business is an art and a science, and frankly I think a lot of what’s out there for business totally forgets the science part, or worse, uses it poorly to back an agenda that is based more upon worldview of the author than upon any sort of actual logical conclusions…

          1. “Nice try. “Physician, heal thyself.””

            I can tell you’re trying to be snarky, but I honestly don’t get what you’re implying.

            I guess your comment would apply quite nicely to someone running a consulting business, as in consultant::business as doctor::patient, but that’s not the case here. In this case, you may as well be saying “patient, heal thyself..”

            Or am I not getting some random meme?

    2. Operations Research is also taught to Industrial Engineers as well.. And I do agree that Operations Research is a scientific way to solving problems..

  12. MBA and neo-classical economics both appear to be more religion then science, as both discard any observations that do not fit the established doctrine.

  13. Current events seems to indicate that many business people have their morality and ethics surgically removed as they get promoted.

    1. Or is it just that the people whose senses or morality and ethics are intact don’t care to get into management?

  14. Funny comments from the MBAs! Somehow, the nonsense here is ridiculously obvious only to everyone else – it’s only MBAs who believe in the kind of stuff MBAs do. How did we let ourselves get into this situation, where clueless MBAs run things?

    I have no problem admitting that many of the details of the “business side” of a business baffle me. To me, a business should be about its end products, not the business itself, which is how MBAs seem to treat things. But then I guess I am a bit of a socialist, and I don’t believe in profits being above all things!

    Businessmen in my eyes are like the bad side of Wall Street – leeching middlemen who don’t produce anything.

  15. Stereotyping.

    People are given them for a reason. Usually enough people in a particular group exhibit a similar trait, usually one that is not look favorably upon.

    If you are not familiar with the concept, you can always start at the bottom of the barrel – 4chan.

  16. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.

    Um, like Heidegger?

  17. Interesting topic. I am disturbed by the idea posited above that business exists solely for profit. At one point in history, I believe there was a strong imperative that corporations were allowed to exist for the primary purpose of creating a social benefit.

    In general, the mythology surrounding notions of business and commerce is fascinating. Upper management and PR departments seem hell bent on spinning positive messages about their specific businesses, and there seems to be a lot of positive messaging about business in general. But the reality is that companies rise and fall all the time, they have life cycles and life spans. I am sometimes disgusted with my own company’s consistent aggressiveness when it comes to goal setting. When the whole economy is in the shit can (which, combined with several other factors, hit my industry particularly hard), why do we keep setting ridiculous revenue goals?

    I read a quote by I believe the creator (?) of Barbie. She said that any old idiot can manage a company when it’s on its way up, but it takes real talent to manage a company that is on its way down. But how often do we hear about a company on its way down? No company will ever admit to be shrinking, they’d much rather start in with the spin. And then there a few whispers about bankruptcy, and then a month later they are filing. They should have known years in advance that they were heading for bankruptcy. With all these highly educated MBAs running things, shouldn’t most companies know they are heading for bankruptcy well in advance? Yes there are accidents and unforeseen circumstances, but often times the technological/cultural changes that affect companies to the point of bankruptcy are like freakin’ giant, slow, inevitable icebergs that should be acknowledged and dealt with rather than freakin’ spun around.

  18. My experience with MBA’s parallels my experience working with engineers (civil, mechanical, agricultural, electrical, etc). The best ones spent time “in the trenches” either during the summer break or before starting college. Gave them a better appreciation of what work was really like, gave them credit with the others, and let them get a taste to decide if this was what they REALLY wanted to do and study. Many found out they didn’t like it and avoided spending 4+ years on the wrong track

  19. “M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon–otherwise known as bullshit–to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.”

    Well, philosophy isn’t really innocent of that. In fact, I’d say it’s just as full of meaningless terms and self-reference as the worst corporate doublespeak. Especially nowadays when everyone and their mom is into postmodernism.
    Zizek, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Debord all use an embarrassingly huge amount of meaningless vocabulary and philosophical jargon that obscures and broadens their message. Many academics love that stuff because, like any other group-slang, it makes them feel superior and/or different and/or separate from mainstream society.

    David Foster Wallace is the only recent author whose philosophy writing is truly free of bullshit.

    1. I would go further and say that the ‘obfuscatory jargon’ we’re talking about isn’t actually that: it may be difficult for an outsider to comprehend, and some of the insiders may be driveling idiots, but the terms themselves genuinely have specific, if contrived, meaning that necessarily exists to describe complex scenarios (which may or may not be legitimate representations of reality).

      I say if you want to find obfuscation, look at anyone in marketing or advertising. As someone with a B.Comm, I’m ashamed that they lump marketing in with us.

      There’s nothing wrong with the skills associated with marketing, but it’s quite clear to me that ethics has no place in the advertising world. I find it surprising that people have such disdain for subjects that are, in effect, auditable (finance & accounting) while they let the ‘soft’ subjects walk right in and take a dump on their rug.

  20. I’ve read this before. I’m an MBA graduate but I did it more to understand the globalisation enemy than anything else… I did a further semester of journalism and media studies as a specialisation and i had previously completed a Bachelor of Computing… both degrees I earned an average mark of just on 80% across everything.

    First, to qualify into the MBA program that I entered at the University of Tasmania I needed to prove 7 years business experience if you didn’t already have a business degree. But also, the curriculum isn’t just management subjects – only about 1/3 are management and the rest are statistics, law, economics and a few finance units plus electives. Which makes me realise how little this author understood the MBA. It’s like me saying I’m an engineer and know all about engineering from reading the text books (or computing for that matter). All formal educations are simply about creating a standardised product – doctor, psychologist, whatever – with their own industry jargon and culture.

    The good PhD in Philosophy, a branch of academia with waffle coming out it’s backside (I might add), has pushed what we called in the old days ‘corporate speak’ into the MBA graduate’s repertoire of skills. No, don’t forget that’s a facet of all large (particularly public) organisations and not just the MBAs. Also, there are people who do the MBA and just pass and there are those who get it.

    Here’s a question… as a standardised product to train middle managers in a globalised world the good PhD doesn’t think they need ethics training, mocking the ‘categorical imperative’? Now that is a scary thing. Unfortunately ethics training is proven to have an impact regardless of which organisation this guy worked in.

    And that’s the crux. It’s really an exit rant from a PhD who thought he was beyond the position that he left to return to the PhD… because a man only needs to understand and read the classics of literature to run globalised companies. I’m calling bullshit on that one.

    Porters 5 Forces may be lame but if you aren’t forcing yourself to look laterally when you are steering a multi-billion dollar company’s entry into a foreign market then WTF? He doesn’t believe in strategic management? Phone Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, or whatever and ask them what they think of that one? Because what the doctor proposes ‘on top of a small seed of populist driven truth’ is that strategy isn’t important. He would run businesses like a household, on a wing and a prayer.

    The article itself showed this guy went to meetings where he intentionally and proudly undermined other business consultants when they showed their ideas to the client, siding in a mocking position with the client. Does that give anyone a signal? Now why isn’t he a management consultant anymore?

    Sorry, but this article has had a little too much traction not to have a close pick at the weak points. Apologies for the lack of waffle that you were obviously expecting from an MBA graduate with a Bachelor of Computing and a bunch of industry IT certification in web technologies.


    Steven Clark

  21. Financial Times had an article this week about how people are willing to travel thousands of miles one weekend a month for executive MBA programs and pay ungodly tuition fees for the privilege.

    The take-home lesson for me was that the primary goal of enrolling in EMBA programs is to meet and make business contacts other people with enough money to blow on an otherwise pointless exercise. The 2nd order point of EMBA is to get the name of a fancy school on your CV.

    1. By extension, then, what does that make those of us taking regular MBA programs at cheap schools? I’m curious as to your opinion, honestly.

  22. I should also add that business jargon is an essential part of being a business professional… imagine if some doctor couldn’t talk to doctors in the ‘proper words’. There is patient talk and doctor talk (jargon). It sounds like from day one the PhD in philosophy went from being ‘know it all in his field’ to playing catchup with old management text books to understand the jargon. That would have been a big ego hit at the time and probably the fuel behind much of his article.

    It’s not the MBA program that you should be concerned about but what ‘some people’ do with it.

  23. Here’s my anecdote: I recently started a little side business so that I would have a slush-fund with which to buy tools and stuff. My educational background consists of an aborted English degree and a BS in Interior Architecture. When my little side business flukishly turned a profit and started to grow, I didn’t know anything about accounting methods, planning for taxes, insurance, inventory management, etc. Enter my wife, whose educational background consists of a Bachelor’s in Sociology and an MBA. She quickly and effortlessly sorted my small operation. She did this using the nuts and bolts of her MBA.

    Ethics and management case studies are not the entirety of that degree. There’s a good deal of valuable technical knowledge that also comes with it.

    This article and a lot of the comments here are focused on a caricature of business, capitalism, and management training.

  24. half a dozen jobs across the range of work environments and a plethora of manager types, and MBA has become pretty damn interchangeable with “clueless profit driven boob”

    The only one I met that was competent and gave a rat’s arse about the employees had 15yrs experience at the bottom, and only got her MBA after getting into a managerial position.

  25. A lot of wounded egos in the comments above, I see.

    It is worth reading the whole article (carefully, and maybe less self-defensively). The paragraph right after the excerpt answers many of the complaints above:

    “The recognition that management theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.”

    1. You do realise all that paragraph really says is ‘my school (philosophy) is better than their school (business)’ and that ‘my school knows what it doesn’t know (which is blather)’. A very common academic stance on any university campus.

      I am not sure but wasn’t this three year gig his only job outside academia? And as a management consultant not a project manager, financial manager, human resource management manager, board member, CEO, resource manager, etc? So I guess he was a mere management consultant at one firm of one size in one place. Which is like saying all engineers are crap because some buildings fell over in Christchurch on a fault line one day.

      I am also not completely sure that I understand the quality of a schoolyard taunt about bruised egos (above). Is that a technique to invalidate the case for anybody who disagrees? Bruised ego? I am left wondering whether a recent article was correct where they were discussing the university bubble – ploughing out degrees that are overvalued in ALL fields to far too many people to turn profits for the universities and faculties to grow. Because an odd relationship exists between faculties of philosophy and their economic success… look at any university and you can assess their academic cred via the number of philosophy PhDs on their staff. Go have a look, it’s interesting. Start with Oxford, Harvard etc and move down to the less prestigious.

      The PhD, after all, is no different a maligned mass produced product than the business graduate.

      1. “You do realise all that paragraph really says is ‘my school (philosophy) is better than their school (business)’ and that ‘my school knows what it doesn’t know (which is blather)’. A very common academic stance on any university campus.”

        No, that isn’t what that paragraph says. Read it again.

        This paragraph isn’t about comparing graduate schools, he’s talking about schools of thought. He thinks of management theory as a “subdiscipline” of philosophy, not even a different, competing school of thought. Whether or not you agree with him about philosophers themselves, knowing what you don’t know is not “blather,” it’s vital to solving problems and thinking logically. (Think about knowing where your blind spots are when you’re driving a car.)

        I honestly did not mean “bruised ego” as taunt. Pretty much the opposite—a lot of the responses above me seemed very defensive, as if they thought the author was personally attacking them. My point was just that (in this paragraph in particular), the author seemed pretty humble about philosophy; in the next paragraph he himself expressed doubt about the discipline as it’s currently practiced.

        I don’t think this is a yay philosophy PHDs, boo MBAs article. He’s pretty critical of management theory as he witnessed it in action, yes. He doesn’t believe it’s a science, no. But he’s also critical of philosophy as it’s currently practiced, as an “inherently academic pursuit.” He’s essentially arguing for a more rigorous, more practical economic philosophy.

        In other words, I think he’s making similar points to yours. I think the article doesn’t disagree with a lot of the defensive comments I read. But it looks like a few people are too blinded by their egos (omg, he’s attacking MY mba), to know that. Which was…kind of the point of the whole article, sadly.

  26. To the previous anon… from the article quoted by you… “The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know.”

    Mmm & yet in one gallant swoop he isn’t aware what he doesn’t know about the MBA program or a whole bunch of stuff. Let’s just face it, the guy wrote a bit of a rant about management when it didn’t work out for him and he went back to being an academic. There really isn’t much more of a story than that.

    I’d like to know the backstory on where this occurred (so he’s only able to talk about 1 company not every company in the world – again knowing that he doesn’t know stuff, right?) and that he had a specific set of circumstances that led to his leaving the job and returning to academia? Did his relationship break down? Was there conflict with another team member? Had he found it hard not to criticise other managers in client meetings? How were his performance reviews? Maybe he was about to be fired anyway, we just don’t know. Somehow this guy because he has a phd in something is given the credibility of Moses – it’s all just one spin from his perspective. So I’m just curious. Because nothing in there attests that this guy was ever the best manager in town, beyond his own arrogant blather. And to be honest I was surprised he picked up on crap from a Management 101 text for 1st year undergrads about Taylor’s theories. Seriously?

    So my theory is this guy has some sort of chip on his shoulder & this is his vent to the world so he can sleep at night. Great, I’ve read psychology books and I think the same about psychologists and therapists and I even hypothesise all they do at university is read the same cheap psychology books I trolled up 20 years ago. But that just makes me ignorant about psychology as a profession… because I actually do know what I don’t know (to some extent). Unlike the PhD author who believes like many PhDs who bluff the world that they know about everything about everything.

    Here’s what a PhD is… you draw a circle, that’s everything about a very specific subject… a question. Then draw a tiny bubble on the outside. That’s their contribution to new knowledge ‘about that question’. End of story. More people draw new little bubbles & so on over and over until their thesis just becomes reference material for new faces to step into PhD hats. A PhD in philosophy does not the omnipotent being bestow all wisdom. Please, keep this guy in context.

  27. C’mon we all know a doctor who doesn’t know his bum from his elbow or an IT graduate who couldn’t program a VCR. Generalising about MBA graduates from all over the world in all types of business from all types of social positions is almost pointless. At best this is a heresay piece that many people buy into because it suits a pre-conceived notion of what they want to believe an MBA to be (or mean).

    The buddha said ‘All criticism is based on ignorance’.

  28. A bit surprised at the number of negative comments. For a more sustained and thorough debunking of the tools taught in an MBA, via philosohy, see the black swan by Nassim Taleb. The book concentrates mainly on modelling risk but shows how the treatment of the various MBA tools as scientific and true denies the reality that the methods are consistently shown to be wrong. The biggest failure, for Taleb, is the ignoring of outliers, hence they never see the big crash coming.

    I think there is a lot of common sense taught in an MBA but in certain aspects there is a little too much faith rather than critical thinking. Matthew Stewerts piece is interesting as it shows right from the birth of the discipline it made a grasp for authority, that continues to this day, when it adopted scientific language or mathematical models for attempts at, basically, fortune telling.

  29. Let’s get my ‘pedigree’ out of the way before I comment, just so you know I have at least some credibility on this topic. Undergrad was a double major in Computer Science and Business Management then 10 years working as a programmer during which I did a Masters in Computer Information Systems. Note that my masters program was basically an MBA with a focus on the IT industry.

    I will say this for my various stages/levels of higher education. My undergrad was mostly a waste of time. All of the semesters of programming courses could have been boiled down into a single semester of key programming principles. Which would still have left me equally as unprepared for the actual business world as I was. I didn’t even know enough to be dangerous. What I learned in my first job were these two things. I didn’t know jack-squat and I was about as important to my company as the post-it notes in the supply closet. The only thing my undergrad did was get me a pass into an entry-level job (which I’m not actually complaining about), but that’s the reality. Now, my masters was more of an exercise in critical thinking than anything else. Sure, we learned management theory, had discussions about case studies, and practiced project management. However, the actual value was then being able to recognize the jargon and BS in meetings, picking up on little moves the company made and being able to see what’s coming before it happened. And like my undergrad, it gave me a pass to enter into a different level of employment with more responsibility, pay, and risk. I boil higher education down to developing critical thinking skills and opening doors that would otherwise stay shut.

    Managers are either great, good, or god-awful regardless of their level and/or type of education. It’s been my experience that great managers are born that way. They know how to take raw data and blend it with soft skills (a.k.a. being able to successfully interact with other humans) to create a realistic and logical road map for their team to follow. They know that changing their mind is not a bad thing if it makes sense and are open to suggestions from their team. The ability to collect raw data and successfully interact with humans has nothing to do with 6 Sigma, Steven Covey, Microsoft certifications, or any other BS program designed to steal your money and waste your time.

  30. Could I also add that within an MBA program Taylor & Mayo get approximately 5 minutes allocated on 1 day of 1 unit & only then in a historical perspective.

    It therefore strikes me as quite odd that they run through a great percentage of the linked article under discussion. Beyond historic context, it’s no more relevant to discuss the state of engineering today as proposed by the inventor of the steam piston.

  31. I am sure that the offer article offers plenty for MBA students to quibble about but the bottom line is that in my experience MBAs do more to dismantle businesses than to build them. I have seen a lot of revenue streams destroyed by MBAs and it’s always in the quest of the bigger profit at the cost of building a business the hard way, making good products and building customer relationships.
    -MBAs care about making a business profitable as opposed to making the best damn widgets anyone can make. Thus, the business stops being known as a provider of good products and loses focus…either axing smaller parts of the business or introducing higher cost widget purchasing options to boost the bottom line. Of course, this makes it easy for competitors to step in with quality products at a lower price.
    -MBAs talk amongst themselves. They speak the same tribal language and they hire other MBAs who do the same. They lose touch with the business as they are blathering on about their synergies and blue ocean strategies.
    -MBAs think that their degree qualifies them to operate any business without bothering to learn about what built the business or the people who built it. They think that in a matter of months they can learn a new industry and offer superior strategies. Hubris.

  32. Ah finally, anon above drives to some of the real issues with the generic MBA program… that’s why they say MBAs ruined the world and behind every bad idea is an MBA. The problem is that an MBA, rather than being management based, is a financially based and motivated qualification. It’s about learning how to value and compartmentalise a business and chop it down into a lean harley. Only lean harleys in business aren’t always going to look good or work very well. The real danger of MBAs is that tribalism and the mantra “the purpose of business is to maximise shareholder wealth”. Which is exactly why they try to include management ethics courses within an MBA because the mantra is reintroduced as “the reason for being in business is to supply a need not already provided by government… filling that need well means we will make money.” So, again, the anti-ethics stance in the article was a little counter-intuitive.

    Don’t forget though, this Mathew Stewart guy writes books about management… albeit populist in that it’s an anti-MBA management book we’re talking about. Google his name or go to Amazon. So the crux is he wants to make money off us reading his wares & how better to sell a product than to push something out you know there is an existing not-entirely-aware audience is waiting with their existing biases to read… ah The Management Myth.

    In the end, because there is so much that can and has been said about the management myth, I’ve penned a rebuttal of a number of points that I thought relevant, with several helpful links. The bottom line is the Management Myth article could apply to just about anything… journalism could be better achieved by philosophers by this logic, medicine (if you overlook anatomy), engineering (if you overlook science, physics & maths), art and design, psychology (if you’ve read the same airport books as I’ve read over the years). Anyway, I think he gets way too much traction on this one but great Marketing 101 from an academic author pretending to sell us some degree of non-fiction –

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