Management; Manangement Fads and Witch-Doctoring

10 Apr 2009 17:40

Claimed to avert a catastrophe...
They're blind
Blind, blind
Blind, blind, blind, blind...
Why no, I don't have much respect at all for what passes as knowledge about management; among other things, I've taught too many proto-MBAs.
You might think people who buy business books would be a hard-headed lot; instead it seems that business — like weight loss — is a subject wherein hope and fear inspire limitless gullibility.
Paul Krugman
One might add stupidity and ignorance to Prof. Krugman's list. Management trends are however of interest for a couple of reasons.

First, since they do play to hopes and fears, they provide a window on the emotions and world-views of managers; they are white collar folk-tales.

Second, management preserves the condition of knowledge before the scientific revolution almost intact. Then, typically, in any field of endeavor there was a fund of artisan skill — of unsystematic, untheoretic, even inarticulate know-how — which could be capable of quite impressive achievements (e.g., metal-working), side by side with a theory which was metaphysical, full of human and ethical significance, and dead wrong whenever it was definite enough to make any contact with reality at all (e.g., alchemy). We are nowadays quite skilled at setting up and running institutions, and have in fact gotten a lot better at it in the last, say, two centuries. J. Random American Podunk Burg of a hundred thousand people displays a degree of formal organization which would have boggled any Sung mandarin or Roman proconsul (public school, police, post office, utilities, political parties). Managers and management are essential to this — but it doesn't follow in the least that what gets taught in business schools and said in business books plays any valuable role in it. That is the part which resembles alchemy. (There's a business book in that, of course.) — There is a substantial and respectable body of research on institutions, in economics, and on organizations, in sociology; but this is only peripherally connected.

Third, despite the fact that any genuine theoretical knowledge about management would, presumably, be extremely valuable, and despite the better part of a century of institutionalized management training, there really isn't any. Management is thus perfect for study by psychoceramics and sociology of science more generally. (The recent blatherings about "learning organizations" and the like make for a nice circularity here, since what these people are essentially claiming is to know what social mechanisms lead to the production of reliable knowledge, which is, precisely, the central question in the sociology of science, or anyhow ought to be.)

— In e-mail (July 2006), a correspondent suggests, from experience, that it would be useful to draw a distinction here between management in companies which engage in manufacturing, which he describes as fairly settled and routinized, and management in service companies, which is "often... a nightmare".

See also: Corporations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Finance