Can management be taught?

Synopsis: No.

Daniel Davies has an interesting post which starts:

I think that actually, there probably is “a general skill called management which works in any and all domains”, and, just to raise the tariff and secure gold medal position for myself in the Steven Landsburg Memorial Mindless Contrariolympiad, I’ll also defend the proposition that this skill is pretty closely related to what they teach on MBA courses. But first a couple of remarks on Blackburn’s own “Myth of Management“.

In his very definition, Blackburn pretty much gives it away; he says that “[the myth of management] claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports”. What does this even mean? How do you manage a warehouse or an airport if it’s impossible to manage people? If he had said “like machines” or even “like factories”, then it might have been comprehensible, but a warehouse which doesn’t have any people working in it is just a shed full of stuff and doesn’t require any management because no deliveries or shipments are being made. And an airport without people is just a warehouse for planes. Warehousing and transport are two very labour-intensive industries.

There are two possibilities here. One is merely that Blackburn is a snob – that writing as a professor of philosophy in the THES, he felt entitled to assume his audience would know that “people” meant “middle class people”, and would agree with the implicit assertion that “people” of this sort were capable of independent thought and could not be tied down, man, unlike the meat robots who packed their books for Amazon or swiped their tickets at Heathrow. But to assume this would be wildly uncharitable. The other, and I think more likely, explanation, is that Blackburn has no idea whatsoever about what managing a warehouse or an airport would entail, and no real interest in finding out.

I agree with Daniel at the fundamental level: management is a skill; many components of that skill are transferrable across industries; and it can be learned.

But I do not think it can be taught. Definitely not in an MBA course.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But in my opinion an MBA is a good way to get some very general analytical tools that you can build on when you actually get a job, a great way to meet future successful people who will help you get your next job, and a fantastic way to signal to future employers that you are smart and motivated enough to get into a good program. It's also a decent way to meet your future spouse, and a hell of a lot of fun. And of course, in America has become the most efficient way to pile up gargantuan quantities of student loans.

But a freshly minted Harvard MBA is, IMHO, barely more competent to manage a company than he was when he went in; there are a fair number I wouldn't trust with a warehouse. Some of them just aren't management material--me, for example. Others will learn, on the job, the combination of leadership skills and strategic thinking that make someone a good manager--or at least, hone the ones they already have. But two years of listening to teachers talk, no matter how many projects and management labs you garnish it with, is not, in my opinion, sufficient training to manage anything besides the task of getting yourself into a good company where you can learn the rest.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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