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The Management Myth

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Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

The Management Myth (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Feb 11, 2010 9:38 AM
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Summary
This book should be required reading for anyone considering business school. By methodically exposing their extremely shaky foundations, it strongly suggests they are doing far more harm than good.
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The two philosophy courses I had in college left me with a chasing-my-tail feeling. Most philosophers could never seem to write clearly and get to the point, instead endlessly gnawing on a problem.

One thing you can say about philosophers, however, is that they have nothing to work with but ideas, so they become very good at detecting flaws in arguments. Matthew Stewart, author of The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong got a Ph.D. in Philosophy before tripping into management consulting, and this left him uniquely suited to dissect this thing called "management" upon which we have heaped so much.

He intersperses the history of management with the story of his own experience in a consulting firm, and both come out looking pretty bad. Indeed, it appears that management "science," starting with Frederick Winslow Taylor (the "time and motion studies" guy) up to and including all the "gurus" like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and the like, is stock full of charlatans who are happy to cherry-pick data (or just as often, make it up) and present it as science. What's dismaying is that the original business schools (Harvard and Yale) were founded, apparently, in response to Taylor's work and upon his principles -- virtually all of which have been since discredited and discovered to be based on sham data.

What all of the later "pioneers" of management learned from Taylor was not the "science" part of his feeble attempts to turn management into science, but rather his ability to manipulate his listeners into belief by telling a good story. All of the successors who have made their fortunes by "advancing" management have done so by telling good stories. With his philosophical discipline, Stewart produces hundreds of references to support his virtually complete destruction of business schools and management gurus.

For me, however, one of the most deeply disturbing passages came in the last chapter: "A recent study by the Aspen Institute appears to confirm that business school is, in fact, damaging to the moral fiber of students. Upon entering business school, the researchers found, students cherished noble ambitions to serve customers, create quality products, and otherwise contribute to the progress of humankind. By the time of their graduation, however, students were convinced that the only thing that matters is increasing shareholder value." Stewart suggests that many of our current problems may come from this corrupting influence of business schools.

The formula appears to be this: find out what people want to believe, then concoct a story and discover (or just make up) some data that supports that belief (Egads. This applies to far more than just management). They'll welcome you with open arms and pocketbooks. In Taylor's time, it was much easier to access this wealth where it was concentrated, and top-level business managers were ripe for the picking. Tom Peters discovered that, through mass media, he could reach the mass of middle managers and reap even greater rewards, producing "In Search of Excellence," his multi-million copy breakthrough book (a number of years later, most of the companies he put forward as "excellent" were in disarray, and one study showed that doing the opposite of his excellence principles produced better results. In a later book, Peters himself denigrates the idea of excellence. None of this has stopped him from writing books, nor people buying them).

Is it hopeless? I don't think so, but it's very difficult and expensive to restore a house built on a bad foundation. There are certainly people at the business schools who know how bad their history is, and are doing their part to make inroads in the mess. But in the meantime, the juggernaut continues to quash idealism and produce "greed is good."

The foundational concept that management can be a science is doubtful. It comes from a strong desire that everything can be repeatedly controlled, like in science. From this we get the "fungible employee," where any person can be an interchangeable cog in the machine. Indeed, they've gone as far as applying this to themselves, saying that "management is management" and once you know "it," you can manage any business regardless of what it makes.

Does this mean that we cannot apply science to issues of management? I believe we can, but only in bits and pieces -- management is mostly about dealing with individual personal issues, the things that make employees non-fungible. It's not a science, and I don't think it ever will be. But we can learn useful things by applying science. For example, experiments show again and again that rewards decrease motivation for anything but assembly-line jobs. And Peopleware is filled with studies of actions that do and don't work. New studies and books are appearing that show hope. The whole field of management can't be reduced to a science, but science can help.

It was also disappointing to see how much corruption there is the field of management consulting. They have learned well from the founders of their craft, and are good at making up stories which they'll sell you for lots of cash (it's only shareholder money, after all).

Whenever I've consulted, it's often become clear that I wasn't really dealing with programming problems ("... always a people problem," as Weinberg says). It was equally obvious that (1) I hadn't been hired to solve management problems so that wasn't in my purview and (2) Anyone who said they could solve the management problems was almost certainly lying. Only in a few isolated cases have I been called in to actually help, early enough when that help could have a useful effect, and those have been my most satisfying experiences (and have ruined me for the unsatisfying ones).

I've always imagined consulting as giving useful advice and help, to improve the situation of the client. The best part is the feeling that something I've done has helped make a company better somehow. Reading this book has not made me want to help any less, but it means that I could never call myself a "management consultant." I'll have to come up with a new title (and certainly, a new way of helping) because that one has been spoiled forever.


Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 11, 2010 10:15 AM
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A friend just pointed me to this article in the New Yorker about the book:
http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2009/10/12/091012crat_atlarge_lepore

Christopher Mahan

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Nickname: chrismahan
Registered: Aug, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 12, 2010 3:38 AM
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You should read the book "The Puritan Gift". It discusses this very subject in detail, and with good background info.

Fred Finkelstein

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Nickname: marsilya
Registered: Jun, 2008

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 16, 2010 9:00 AM
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That something is not a science does not mean there cannot be some rules. It may well be some craftsmanship. Just like being a teacher. You have no scientific basis how to be a good teacher but you have some basic rules, the so-called classroom rules. An experienced teacher may write a book where he explains how to deal with different kinds of pupils. That may be valuable for young teachers. To see things in black and white is not the solution, it's part of the problem.

James Watson

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Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 16, 2010 9:32 AM
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It seems to me that consulting in general is full of charlatans. Having worked at a technology consulting firm and having worked with many I have very little faith in them. The main issue is that no one who is fresh out of school (no matter what level of schooling or which school) can be an effective consultant. Just as no one accept being operated on by an unsupervised doctor right out of med school, no one should accept a 'consultant' in any field that has no real-world experience in their field.

What I don't get is why one person without an MBA reads a book written by another person without an MBA about management consulting and decides that MBA programs are the issue. When did basic logic go out of fashion? Not all people who get MBAs become management consultants.

Michael Goldman

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Nickname: keppla
Registered: Jul, 2009

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 16, 2010 11:36 AM
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> That something is not a science does not mean
> there cannot be some rules. It may well be
> some craftsmanship

i don't think these are opposites.
In my opinion, craftsmanship is often _more_ scientific than some theorizing approaches.

As a craftsman, you produce something, and ulitmately measure yourself by the outcome. Therefore, you neccessarily have some "reality feedback", to test your work hypothesis, even if you do not formulate it explicitly.

Basically, i would say, if you establish falsifiable rules to predict outcomes, it is "kinda" scientific.
If the teacher in your example justifies the rules by something other than "rules is rules", maybe with "learning success", it is basically scientific.

In my opinion, the problem with most management is, that it lacks the reality feedback. Especialy in IT, to measure the quality of the product is hard. So, how is the manager supposed to measure how his management works, if he can not understand the product?

If they do not get, that an 2*X lines application may be more as twice as hard to maintain as an X lines application, how can they get deadlines right?

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 12:21 PM
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> What I don't get is why one person without an MBA reads a
> book written by another person without an MBA about
> management consulting and decides that MBA programs are
> the issue.

Or how someone who hasn't read the book can decide that it doesn't make an effective argument.

MBA programs are not the (foundation) issue. What I said is that Management is based on the work of charlatans, which is the issue. Alas, MBA programs were based on the work of those same charlatans. And those MBA programs do seem to be creating people who are doing damage, not just to business but to the world.

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 12:28 PM
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> In my opinion, the problem with most management is, that
> it lacks the reality feedback. Especialy in IT, to measure
> the quality of the product is hard. So, how is the manager
> supposed to measure how his management works, if he can
> not understand the product?

One maxim in some management schools of thought is "you can't manage what you can't measure." I would add "just because you can measure it doesn't mean you should manage it."

Just because management is not a science -- it is mostly the art and skill of working with people -- doesn't mean you can't apply science to it, but only in spots. That's very useful but it doesn't make it a science.

In a science, you get repeatable outcomes. That sounded really good to the folks that Taylor pitched his ideas to, so Taylor presented it that way. Do what I say (and pay me handsomely for it) and you'll have full control of everything. But with real management, you can only do things that will push the results in your direction. There are no guarantees that you'll get any result, much less a repeatable one.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 1:04 PM
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> > What I don't get is why one person without an MBA reads
> a
> > book written by another person without an MBA about
> > management consulting and decides that MBA programs are
> > the issue.
>
> Or how someone who hasn't read the book can decide that it
> doesn't make an effective argument.

I wasn't commenting on the book. I was commenting on your posts.

> MBA programs are not the (foundation) issue.

Sorry, I thought when you wrote "they are doing far more harm than good" you were writing in English.

> What I said
> is that Management is based on the work of charlatans,
> which is the issue. Alas, MBA programs were based on the
> work of those same charlatans.

Whether or not that is the case, you are talking about something that occurred about a century ago. Do you feel the same way about medical doctors? Consider the state medicine 100 years ago. Going to a doctor would increase your chance of death at that time. Why would it surprise you that management science would be on shaky foundations before it was study based on formal research?

> And those MBA programs do
> seem to be creating people who are doing damage, not just
> to business but to the world.

I hope you realize that you are responding with nothing more than a reassertion the exact same logic I questioned. I see IT consultants creating real damage to the world. Why don't you attack CS or MIS programs? Why are you focusing on something in which you have some expertise?

How about this... Describe what is taught in an MBA program and which parts are causing harm. You could even suggest some changes. That would be useful. Vague suggestions that MBA programs are evil are not going accomplish anything.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 1:09 PM
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> Just because management is not a science -- it is mostly
> the art and skill of working with people -- doesn't mean
> you can't apply science to it, but only in spots. That's
> very useful but it doesn't make it a science.

This is a statement that demonstrates a misunderstanding of what management science is. Moreover, based on this definition, all soft sciences and many hard sciences such as geology and cosmology are not science. It's valid to assert that but you should be honest in that assertion instead implying that it applies only to management science.

> In a science, you get repeatable outcomes. That sounded
> really good to the folks that Taylor pitched his ideas to,
> so Taylor presented it that way. Do what I say (and pay me
> handsomely for it) and you'll have full control of
> everything. But with real management, you can only do
> things that will push the results in your direction. There
> are no guarantees that you'll get any result, much less a
> repeatable one.

Sounds like a good story to me. Maybe you can sell it.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 1:10 PM
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> Why are you
> focusing on something in which you have some expertise?

Should be: "Why not focusing on something in which you have some expertise?"

robert young

Posts: 361
Nickname: funbunny
Registered: Sep, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 3:30 PM
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> And those MBA programs do
> seem to be creating people who are doing damage, not just
> to business but to the world.

Let's see if I can rephrase. I was born into the working world just down Storrow Drive from The B-School, and knew and worked with more than a few of its graduates. While not the first B-School (Wharton, as I've mentioned earlier), by the 1960's it earned the mantel of archetype. (It didn't hurt that A.D. Little was just across the bridge.) Quantitative analysis was never the hallmark of The B-School; that belonged to the Sloan School across the Charles at MIT. (The B-School is in Boston.) The B-School stressed the case study method, and its point was that a Manager could manage any activity without regard to subject matter expertise; which could be bought in the form of underlings.

This notion that management is both separate and superior (attested to by that MBA, for sure) to all other skills in the organization is the source of the evil. It's not Taylor, but the psychology of entitlement. It is a fact that the MBA, as exemplified by The B-School, was created as an advanced degree for experienced managers without profession, i.e. not an engineer or scientist or the like. It was intended as a merit badge to counter the general lack of professional credentials of old boy network promoted middle managers vis-a-vis the, often, highly trained staff they were assigned to manage.

The MBA has everything to do with face validity and nothing whatsoever with science or psuedo-science. Think of it as finishing school for 30-ish white guys. It was only later, the 1970's, that one could even go to The B-School straight away from the BA/BS; one had to *be* a manager.

So, you're right (in my experience) that the MBA cabal has wreaked havoc; I'd wager that the movers and shakers of The Great Recession were widely of that ilk. It is not Taylor that made it happen, but rather a form of tribalism. Those of The B-School Tribe (or fraternity) "networked" better than the engineers and scientists. It didn't hurt that the fundamental course work of the MBA is accounting; always, always cry the bottom line in decision making.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 4:59 PM
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> This notion that management is both separate and superior
> (attested to by that MBA, for sure)

Not in my program. Quite the opposite.

> to all other skills in
> the organization is the source of the evil. It's not
> Taylor, but the psychology of entitlement. It is a fact
> that the MBA, as exemplified by The B-School, was created
> as an advanced degree for experienced managers without
> profession, i.e. not an engineer or scientist or the like.
> It was intended as a merit badge to counter the general
> l lack of professional credentials of old boy network
> promoted middle managers vis-a-vis the, often, highly
> trained staff they were assigned to manage.

The school that you are talking about is built entirely around Little Lord Fauntleroy training. If you live in Boston, I can see how you might feel your world is dominated by it but it's hardly representative.

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 5:11 PM
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> Whether or not that is the case, you are talking about
> something that occurred about a century ago.

Go back and read my article: "starting with Frederick Winslow Taylor (the "time and motion studies" guy) up to and including all the "gurus" like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters." It began a century ago, but has continued, built on the foundations of fabricated data and faked science that Taylor started. Mayo's "work" was also faked, and this is followed by most of the other figures in the history of management "science."

And yes, I stand by my statement that at the core of science is reproducible results. On top of that, any theory must be disprovable. Any practice that doesn't follow these principles is not a science.

My article is a summary of the book. I am not providing all the arguments and citations that the book makes -- which takes the book to do so. I am, however, pointing out the results. Arguing with my article is fruitless; you can only argue with the book -- which I readily admit is far better argued than anything I present here.

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: The Management Myth Posted: Feb 17, 2010 5:14 PM
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> This notion that management is both separate and superior
> (attested to by that MBA, for sure) to all other skills in
> the organization is the source of the evil. It's not
> Taylor, but the psychology of entitlement.

The book certainly made the observation about the fallacy of the "management is management" concept. I would rephrase to say "It's not ONLY Taylor."

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