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Monday, July 03, 2006

"The Management Myth"

UPDATE: From today's LA Times, Charles Kesler weighs in on why government is not a business.

I’ve long been skeptical of the MBA because I think it’s not applied usefully in business. How many businesspeople have alphabet soup behind their name and yet lack basic common sense? I find it a travesty to encourage young undergraduates to continue immediately on to graduate school when they have not one scintilla of experience, context or perspective in which to place their new education.

For example, How could a 24-year-old with limited business experience know that management is all about people?

And so it was with great pleasure that I read this piece by Matthew Stewart in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He writes:

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, 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.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

Something other than business. If I had the money and the time, I’d go back to school and audit courses to learn about things that interest me — history of the Middle East, links between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, how women writers of the early 20th century plied their craft…. In the absence of being able to afford formal education, I turn to the written word—both classic and current—for inspiration and knowledge.

(When my sons' wonder how I know some bit of info or history, I always respond with, "Because I read a lot.")

Rousseau and Shakespeare are every bit as relevant to the dilemmas faced by managers in their quest for productivity as any of the management literature.

Stewart gives a brief intro to management theory and its inherent flaws and concludes:

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.

Stewart’s theory boils down to three things:

Expand the domain of your analysis!
• Hire people with greater diversity of experience!
• Remember the three Cs: Communication, Communication, Communication! Remember Plato: it’s all about dialogue!


Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

I've always thought that the strength of my B.S. from O.U. (class of '84) was that of the 180 quarter hours required for graduation, less than 30 were Journalism classes. We were required to become generalists, to take those course in Middle Eastern History and Organic Chemistry.

In my years as a business editor I was often astounded that the CEOs I interviewed drew salaries at all.



Daniella said...

Corporations are not particurlarly original and like to follow internal dogmas. I have met few people in my business who had an MBA and also were well educated.

Come to think about it, business does not seem to care much about the value of a good liberal arts education.

It may explain a lot.

derek said...

I see the same trend in IT. Most of the best IT folks I know did not major in computer science, information technology or the like.

One of the most important skills in IT is acquisition and analysis of information. Another is problem solving. So many computer science grads can barely keep their Windows boxes from being overrun with malware while some of the savviest folks I know have training in fields such as physics and engineering.

Wendy Hoke said...

Jeff, I count my OU liberal arts education as one of the most valuable tools in my belt. I enjoyed learning about architecture of Chartres Cathedral in comparative arts, the fine points constitutional law, international relations and 20th-century history and symbiotic relationships through work of Umberto Eco as much as I enjoyed learning about journalism. In fact, probably moreso because the journalism courses, with the exception of foreign correspondence and reporting, were rather dull.

Daniella, I agree and have always been fascinated by the utter lack of common sense that exists in business. Simple things like follow-through and timely responses seem difficult most impossible to some in management. In my industry, if I had a dime for every time I heard how busy someone is to respond to e-mail or return calls I could retire a wealthy woman. Here's the newsflash: We're all busy! Get a grip and learn how to manage your time.

Derek, Thanks for the glimpse into the IT world. I advocate maintaining a well-rounded intellect.

Sandy Kristin Piderit said...

Wendy, I thoroughly agree -- a liberal arts education is a really valuable part of becoming a good manager, and more importantly, a good citizen. Whenever my undergraduates ask me if they should go straight into an MBA program, I tell them to work first -- and if they really want an MBA later, get their employer to pay for it.

Nationally and internationally, the bottom seems to be dropping out of the MBA market, and while it will mean big changes for business schools, I think it's a good thing for society as a whole.