What does an M.B.A. do for you that a doctorate in philosophy can’t do better?
M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch.
– Matthew Stewart, “The Management Myth”, The Atlantic, June 2006
I finally got a chance to read “The Management Myth” by Mathew Stewart after seeing links to it popping up in a few places in the investment blogosphere. Before working as a management consultant, Stewart completed a Doctoral degree in Philosophy from Oxford – specializing in 19th century German philosophy. He’s written a book on Spinoza and Leibniz, The Courtier And The Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and The Fate Of God In The Modern World (2006) and a book length treatment of The Management Myth (2009) is coming out later this year.
I found his essay a pleasure to read and insightful. Here are some excerpts:
On The Emptiness And Platitudes of Management Theory:
The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn’t usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It’s that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of “business process re-engineering,” the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as “BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!” and “BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!”
Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another—first it’s efficiency, then quality, next it’s customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it’s efficiency all over again. If it’s reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that’s because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn’t to say it’s completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.
The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year.
In one episode, when I got involved in winding up the failed subsidiary of a large European bank, I noticed on the expense ledger that a rival consulting firm had racked up $5 million in fees from the same subsidiary. “They were supposed to save the business,” said one client manager, rolling his eyes. “Actually,” he corrected himself, “they were supposed to keep the illusion going long enough for the boss to find a new job.” Was my competitor held to account for failing to turn around the business and/or violating the rock-solid ethical standards of consulting firms? On the contrary, it was ringing up even higher fees over in another wing of the same organization.
On Philosophy As Being About The Same Subjects As Management Theory – Only Better:
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.
The tragedy, for those who value their reading time, is that Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better. In the 5,200 years since the Sumerians first etched their pictograms on clay tablets, come to think of it, human beings have produced an astonishing wealth of creative expression on the topics of reason, passion, and living with other people. In books, poems, plays, music, works of art, and plain old graffiti, they have explored what it means to struggle against adversity, to apply their extraordinary faculty of reason to the world, and to confront the naked truth about what motivates their fellow human animals. These works are every bit as relevant to the dilemmas faced by managers in their quest to make the world a more productive place as any of the management literature.
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.