The Management Myth

Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead
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My colleagues usually spoke fondly of their years at business school. Most made great friends there, and quite a few found love. All were certain that their degree was useful in advancing their careers. But what does an M.B.A. do for you that a doctorate in philosophy can’t do better?

The first point to note is that management education confers some benefits that have little to do with either management or education. Like an elaborate tattoo on an aboriginal warrior, an M.B.A. is a way of signaling just how deeply and irrevocably committed you are to a career in management. The degree also provides a tidy hoard of what sociologists call “social capital”—or what the rest of us, notwithstanding the invention of the PalmPilot, call a “Rolodex.”

For companies, M.B.A. programs can be a way to outsource recruiting. Marvin Bower, McKinsey’s managing director from 1950 to 1967, was the first to understand this fact, and he built a legendary company around it. Through careful cultivation of the deans and judicious philanthropy, Bower secured a quasi-monopoly on Baker Scholars (the handful of top students at the Harvard Business School). Bower was not so foolish as to imagine that these scholars were of interest on account of the education they received. Rather, they were valuable because they were among the smartest, most ambitious, and best-connected individuals of their generation. Harvard had done him the favor of scouring the landscape, attracting and screening vast numbers of applicants, further testing those who matriculated, and then serving up the best and the brightest for Bower’s delectation.

Of course, management education does involve the transfer of weighty bodies of technical knowledge that have accumulated since Taylor first put the management-industrial complex in motion—accounting, statistical analysis, decision modeling, and so forth—and these can prove quite useful to students, depending on their career trajectories. But the “value-add” here is far more limited than Mom or Dad tend to think. In most managerial jobs, almost everything you need to know to succeed must be learned on the job; for the rest, you should consider whether it might have been acquired with less time and at less expense.

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 do they manage to teach such skills?

I once sat through a presentation in which a consultant, a Harvard M.B.A., showed a client, the manager of a large financial institution in a developing country, how the client company’s “competitive advantage” could be analyzed in terms of “the five forces.” He even used a graphic borrowed directly from guru-of-the-moment Michael Porter’s best- selling work on “competitive strategy.” Not for the first time, I was embarrassed to call myself a consultant. As it happens, the client, too, had a Harvard M.B.A. “No,” he said, shaking his head with feigned chagrin. “There are only three forces in this case. And two of them are in the Finance Ministry.”

What they don’t seem to teach you in business school is that “the five forces” and “the seven Cs” and every other generic framework for problem solving are heuristics: they can lead you to solutions, but they cannot make you think. Case studies may provide an effective way to think business problems through, but the point is rather lost if students come away imagining that you can go home once you’ve put all of your eggs into a two-by-two growth-share matrix.

Next to analysis, communication skills must count among the most important for future masters of the universe. To their credit, business schools do stress these skills, and force their students to engage in make-believe presentations to one another. On the whole, however, management education has been less than a boon for those who value free and meaningful speech. M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.

Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. As I write this, I know that my M.B.A. friends are squirming in their seats. They’ve all been forced to sit through an “ethics” course, in which they learned to toss around yet more fancy phrases like “the categorical imperative” and discuss borderline criminal behavior, such as what’s a legitimate hotel bill and what’s just plain stealing from the expense account, how to tell the difference between a pat on the shoulder and sexual harassment, and so on. But, as anyone who has studied Aristotle will know, “values” aren’t something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all of the time. Notwithstanding the ostentatious use of stopwatches, Taylor’s pig iron case was not a description of some aspect of physical reality—how many tons can a worker lift? It was a prescription—how many tons should a worker lift? The real issue at stake in Mayo’s telephone factory was not factual—how can we best establish a sense of teamwork? It was moral—how much of a worker’s sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness for its purposes?

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.

The idea that philosophy is an inherently academic pursuit is a recent and diabolical invention. Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and most of the other great philosophers of history were not professors of philosophy. If any were to come to life and witness what has happened to their discipline, I think they’d run for the hills. Still, you go to war with the philosophers you have, as they say, not the ones in the hills. And since I’m counting on them to seize the commanding heights of the global economy, let me indulge in some management advice for today’s academic philosophers:

Expand the domain of your analysis! Why so many studies of Wittgenstein and none of Taylor, the man who invented the social class that now rules the world?

Hire people with greater diversity of experience! And no, that does not mean taking someone from the University of Hawaii. You are building a network—a team of like-minded individuals who together can change the world.

Remember the three Cs: Communication, Communication, Communication! Philosophers (other than those who have succumbed to the Heideggerian virus) start with a substantial competitive advantage over the PowerPoint crowd. But that’s no reason to slack off. Remember Plato: it’s all about dialogue!

With this simple three-point program (or was it four?) philosophers will soon reclaim their rightful place as the educators of management. Of course, I will be charging for implementation.

Matthew Stewart is the author, most recently, of The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World.
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