Letters to the editor

The Management Myth

Matthew Stewart confuses the shallow brand of management consulting he peddled with graduate business education (“The Management Myth,” June Atlantic). The vast majority of M.B.A.s do not aspire to a career in management consulting, nor are most business-school curricula laden with the pseudoscientific literature he so readily cites. His belief that a liberal-arts education is more fitting training for managers reflects his limited experience in the business world. Nietzsche isn’t going to cut it when you have to discount the cash flows of a complex capital budgeting problem, implement a new software system, or navigate the current thicket of employment law. For real problems, real skills are needed, though they may certainly be acquired in a venue other than graduate business school.

Tim Semple
North Pomfret, Vt.

Matthew Stewart’s critique of case-study management education is based on a single case study: namely, himself. Since he studied philosophy and apparently succeeded in a consulting business, he argues that everyone else should follow the same path. But a sample of one proves nothing. Stewart also seems to have fallen into the trap of assuming that what goes on at the Harvard Business School is the quintessence of management education. But other leading business schools, such as Chicago and Stanford, stress basic disciplines and analytical techniques rather than case studies. Their rigorous versions of management education differ profoundly from the one that Stewart lampoons.

And given what passes for philosophy these days at most colleges, imagine the outcome if everyone followed Stewart’s advice: a whole generation of business managers thinking and communicating like Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and the rest of that deconstructionist, postmodernist gang. I am going to lay in a supply of earplugs.

James Horrigan
Professor Emeritus, Accounting & Finance
University of New Hampshire
Portsmouth, N.H.

While dismissing the “core competencies” taught in M.B.A. programs as outdated and theoretical, Matthew Stewart demonstrates core incompetencies in the very skills he was supposed to have gained in such a program. The subtitle of the piece suggests the author will explore the correlation between an M.B.A. degree and “success in business.” Instead, Stewart focuses on just one career path and a handful of management theories. He claims to have applied statistical methodology in his study, but his hypothesis regarding the value of an M.B.A. education is tested with insights gained from summer reading and hearsay from former colleagues. Perhaps “sampling error” is not a buzzword the author learned in his former career. One hopes that the future armies of philosophers storming the world of business will bring sharper analysis to the front line.

David Armitage
Los Angeles, Calif.

As a professor of management I found Matthew Stewart’s critique of management research and theory to be a delightfully engaging but ultimately disappointing read. He is dead-on in his various criticisms, but eventually the cynic needs to come up with a better alternative than the one he is dissing. Stewart asserts, “Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better.” But what is the “all” that Rousseau and Shakespeare said better? Stewart does not give us much help, other than to note that humans seem to have a tendency to be ugly to each other as they engage in corporate versions of civil war.

I am not looking for a “three-point program,” but I would like to see Stewart do more than confirm what Dilbert has already pointed out with devastating clarity in hundreds of cartoons.

George Lehman
Howard Raid Professor of Business
Bluffton University
Bluffton, Ohio

Matthew Stewart replies:

Whether or not you believe your correspondent suffers from limited business experience, as Mr. Semple presumes, the fact remains that the management professions are rife with paradox: so-called experts who peddle faddish platitudes, consultants who offer advice on businesses about which they know little, and CEOs who reward themselves lavishly come good times or bad. To be sure, some of these paradoxes can and should be explained away. I’m still waiting.

Prof. Horrigan seems intent on rescuing the honor of management education by casting the Harvard Business School overboard—surely a drastic measure. Mr. Semple insists that success in business requires real skills, but then abandons the business schools altogether when he acknowledges that such skills “may certainly be acquired” elsewhere. He misses the mark when he dismisses consulting as being of interest only to an insignificant minority of business-school students. In a recent Fortune poll in which M.B.A. students were asked to name the sector in which they would like to work, consulting came in first, with 25 percent of the votes. Mr. Armitage has taken my claims to statistical rigor a little too seriously, and further seems to think that only a statistical-correlation analysis will yield answers about the worth of management education. While such studies have been performed and do have some value, the idea that they exhaust the analysis of the subject is about as fine an example as I can name of the drive for specious precision that characterizes so much of management thought. Personal testimonials and historical analysis have their limits too, but to dismiss them out of hand, as Prof. Horrigan does, as a “sample of one” is just pseudo-rigor.

Some of the confusion in the discussion stems from my decision to cover the distinct activities of management theory, management consulting, and management education in a single article. It would be a mistake to assign all the sins of the theorists to the business schools, as Mr. Semple notes, since the schools do more than just pass along the theory. My aim in treating all of these activities together, however, was not to pass a single judgment on all, but to examine the way the fundamental idea of “management” manifests itself in each.

My critics do score some points against academic philosophy—points that I willingly concede. I, too, would lay in a set of earplugs, if, as Prof. Horrigan warns, business managers began imitating Derrida & Company. To identify all philosophy with the postmodernist gang, however, seems even less accurate than to equate all management education with the Harvard Business School.

Prof. Lehman is right to point out that my article offers more criticism than it does a constructive program. To this I plead, first, that there is value in supplying a corrective to the incredible lack of self-criticism that characterizes the management world, and second, that perhaps he will consider buying my next book, in which I plan to offer a solution to all management problems.

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