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Computing Thoughts
The Management Myth
by Bruce Eckel
February 11, 2010
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.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2010 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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