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Computing Thoughts
"Stand Back! I Have An MBA!"
by Bruce Eckel
January 28, 2010
We're cranking out MBAs 10x faster than we did 10 years ago. Is there any real value in an MBA, or is it just an irresistible money-mill for universities? I'm reading a book that makes a rather strong case that all management is built on illusions.


Harvard was the first to create an MBA program, around 1900. That's the same revered institution that, after it had become the mecca for business knowledge, failed the business plan for FedEx.

We publish about 10,000 business books a year. Yes, of the approximately 50,000 nonfiction books published each year, 20% of them are business books. So we're trying. Admittedly, a lot of those books are published by people attempting to boost their consulting career or fees, so out of that 10,000 there aren't too many that really have new and interesting insights. The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong by Matthew Stuart is one of the rare ones, because the author's goal is to tell the truth about the illusion that management is scientific.

For example, instead of harrumphing and pretending that everything was OK, Harvard and the whole MBA industry might have stopped in their tracks and said, "Hey, we must be doing something astoundingly wrong, the way we said FedEx would fail." But that's not the business they're in, and self-examination would be bad for business. Everyone secretly knows that if they really looked at the value of an MBA, it would only cause problems.

That very self-reflection would be an indication that management was some kind of science. Even more interesting would be to discover the hidey-hole where all the experts disappear when whatever they're currently touting fails. Remember Y2K and all the expert predictions of disaster? Those experts must have been teleported off the planet on January 1, 2000, because you couldn't find one (maybe they just climbed into bomb shelters and are still there). How could Harvard have any pride after failing the FedEx business plan -- how could they not say "let's go back to first principles and see what we missed here?"

I don't really expect a cogent answer to that last question; one of the things that I have been trying to learn about is self-deception itself, and how and why we make mistakes. A big part of this is accepting, as one with a scientific background, that people don't pay attention to facts. As Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, people are wired for stories, which means that any facts you hope to convey must be ensconced in stories (or for that matter, any lies you want to be absorbed).

A story makes things real to a person; indeed, it's how we remember things. The fact is that Harvard failed the FedEx business plan, which strongly suggests that an MBA is not going to produce much in the way of interesting or revolutionary ideas. The story is that you could burst in with the headline to this article and people will bow down and defer to you. Which one gives you positive vibes when you imagine yourself in it? (Part of the problem is you can't imagine yourself "inside" a fact. You can only imagine yourself in a story).

Apparently there is a thriving religion founded by a guy who predicted the end of the world, got it wrong, then just kept predicting it and getting it wrong. More and more people kept showing up until they decided to just institutionalize it. Matthew Stuart's telling of the creation of "scientific management" doesn't make it sound much different. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the creator of "time and motion studies" and the "father" of scientific management, just made stuff up. According to Stuart, Taylor's own disciples often observed that he would go off on meaningless rants. But the "studies" that he based his conclusions on (and he was also the first management consultant) were just stories. Taylor's success was not that he actually applied science to management, but that he told good stories about applying science to management.

How do you do that, anyway? Apply science to management? When have we ever, for example, run two projects to produce the same thing, in parallel? We mostly can't get one project off the ground. And everyone who's worked on a project knows that there would be no way to repeat conditions, even in parallel (different people produce different conditions).

The idea that management could be a science makes a great story. We really want to believe that it can all be as predictable and repeatable as a scientific experiment, because that means we can control everything, and we like to think that we can control things.

One of the oft-repeated maxims is "you can't manage what you can't measure," but that's only for the scientific management crowd. THEY can't manage what they can't measure, so they pretend that anything you can't measure is unimportant. A real manager knows that most of what you have to manage is not measurable, as is most of the stuff that has the biggest impact (I've talked about this in a recent blog).

I'm only partway through Stuart's book, but the destruction he has wrought so far on the value of an MBA and management consulting in general is satisfying, somehow. Probably because the damage that MBAs have wrought on business and the economy has been so deep.

There's even a phrase that's been going around for awhile, among MBAs themselves (as they figure out the holes in what they're being taught): "It's not really about the education, but the people you meet." Seems like there should be a better, and far cheaper and less damaging, way to rub elbows with interesting people. An open-spaces conference, perhaps.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( 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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