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)