Matthew Stewart, former founder of a consulting firm, wrote a fabulous article for The Atlantic in 2006 about his experiences of the value of management education and theory for business practice and success. It is probably one of the articles in the recent months I enjoyed reading most. Having a doctoral degree in philosophy and having been a management consultant for years Steward has a unique insight in the matter and his account on the usefulness of management theory seems to be well founded. And beyond it’s full of wonderful lines, some I like to quote in the following.
On the state of modern management theory and its ever new concepts he writes:
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.
Having been through a large and diverse pile of management theory tomes Steward summarizes:
[...] 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! [...] Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion [...]. The tragedy, for those who value their reading time, is that Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better.
To conclude, this has been my favourite paragraph:
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.
And if you’re by now not hooked up for this reading, I really can’t help you.