The management education myth

This is one of the most interesting articles I’ve ever read about management.

That might sound like a backhanded compliment, the phrase “interesting article about management” has more than a whiff of oxymoron about it – but I don’t mean it that way. Matthew Stewart’s article from The Atlantic is a really interesting challenge to the value of traditional management and business education.

He comes at it from the point of view of an intellectual philosopher who never went to business school. This background suggests that he’s more than comfortable with theory and ambiguity and the inevitable uncertainty of human organisations, so he’s not getting impatient with the wooliness of it all. Quite the opposite, it’s the hack “science” of the business school (and the management consultant) that he finds frustrating.

Imprecision and guesswork dressed up to look like posh sciency numbers.

So far, so good. I couldn’t agree more!

I once silenced an irksome boss who didn’t like what I was telling him by switching my communication method from qualitative to quantitative mid-presentation. As soon as I spoke about “29% of customers” I was authoritative and knowledgeable and everyone breathed more easily.

It was just 2 out of 7, a sample size I regarded as too small to be useful, but he didn’t care, he just wanted statistics because they sounded like factsy science.

And leads me on to one major beef I have with management “theories”: how poorly understood they are and how they’re used to simplify and close down complexity before the issue is thoroughly understood.

I blame this one the inability to concentrate on anything complicated due to too much time spent being distracted by shiny things on the internet.

I know I am a victim of this.

I find myself skimming blocks of text and just reading the bold words or searching for lists of bullet points in articles. I have to force myself to slow down and read things properly.

I can do it but it takes self-awareness first, the self-discipline second, and that’s no easy ask.

And this leads to bite-sized versions of management theory … the easy-to-consume list for the busy executive, too delivery-orientated to spend time with wishy-washy theory and worry about nuance and ambiguity.

This demand for easy-to-understand quick fix universal solutions creates space for the internet guru:

Internet guru – (n, acronym) Someone able to create a list of top ten tips about a topic and then promote it via Twitter.

Internet gurus are a consequence of personal branding plus the need to produce infinite content to satisfy the Internet’s incessant thirst … and the first casualty of the demand for quantity is quality – something we know all too well from television

This adds to the idea that business and management education is built on very dodgy ground: universal solutions based on very little data, often promoted via gurus and their bite-sized lists of ten things.

The need to make these as generally applicable as possible means that one could be forgiven for thinking that managing a business is about little more than the charismatic application of prescriptive solutions to predictable situations.

Or, as Stewart puts it:

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.

This is true – but we’re still skirting about slagging off the rubbishy end of the Management Consultant market. Many of the better management education programmes fully understand these weaknesses and compensate for it, as Stewart himself acknowledges this:

The best business schools will tell you that management education is mainly about building skills—one of the most important of which is the ability to think (or what the M.B.A.s call “problem solving”).

But rightly goes on to ask:

But do they manage to teach such skills?

And this is the point!

Throughout my own MBA I found myself asking this same question. I was getting an academic education for a very practical discipline.

I even tentatively asked this question at the start of the course:

ME: I hope this won't be too academic.

TUTOR: It is! It's an academic qualification!

She was right, it was – but if their starting place had been customer requirements rather than academic qualification, they might have structured a very different experience.

I learnt a lot, but could I have learnt a lot more, a lot more efficiently, via other methods?

My MBA was good. They fully recognised the incompleteness and the fallibility of the “models” (they really shouldn’t be allowed to use the word theory), and they talked a lot about breaking away from “common sense” and understanding that management is highly context-sensitive – but did they really get the balance between knowledge and skills right?

Did I really learn the skills I needed, or did I just pick up theory, models and knowledge?

They taught us the models (most were little more than useful acronym checklists or matrices that helped structure a subject along two-dimensions to aid decision making) but did they really teach us how to use them?

This is important. It goes back to Stewart’s point about their supposed “infallibility” and how Management Consultants love to wheel them out as skeleton-key solutions to fit every lock.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Business models are ways to ask questions, not to give answers – and they need to be bent and twisted to fit unique situations; you don’t jimmy reality to squash into the model.

Stewart acknowledges that it’s not all just clumsy Taylorist pseudo-science number-crunching. He also mentions Professor Elton Mayo’s humanist approach to organizational theory. This is where Stewart’s argument is at its weakest. I guess having rightly dismissed Taylor for the quack he was, and by extension dissed the management theory that came from his “research”, he needed to knock aside Mayo and the humanist school or his argument would have lost its keen edge. The problem is that although Mayo and his theories may have been clumsy, the idea that employees are human and therefore should be treated that way (rather than the mechanistic Taylorist approach) is actually correct.

Stewart is left tilting at the edges to keep the pace of the article moving:

All of that humanity — as anyone in my old firm could have told you — was just a more subtle form of bureaucratic control. It was a way of harnessing the workers’ sense of identity and well-being to the goals of the organization, an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement.

Enslavement? Really? Does linking a worker’s motivation to the goals of the organization turn them into a slave?

slave [sleyv] noun: 1. a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another; a bond servant.


Perhaps we’re getting a little over-excited playing the enslavement card, but I get his point. So much modern people management is barely more deft than Mayo’s 1920s hamfistedness. I have heard people talking about motivating their teams with “beer and biccies” as if the people they lead were dogs who responded to yummy treats, and many corporate initiatives are barely more sophisticated that this.

Stewart’s conclusion is interesting.

He concludes that

management theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy

and that the former is:

unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable

Good points.

phi·los·o·phy [fi-los-uh-fee]: noun,  4. the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, especially with a view to improving or reconstituting them: the philosophy of science.



This does suggest an entirely different approach to management education.

A much more philosophical starting place, and a much more practical skills-orientated end place, with much less stress on models and theories that – whilst useful – are tools that are only as good as the worker using them.

Great article, well written and beautifully researched. If only all internet content were this good.


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