Management pseudo-science

I’ve always been amused by the term “management science” which seems to me as absurd as the term “yoga science”. This hasn’t stopped universities and their business schools using the term, though (see this Google search result for UK universities). I’ve been similarly amused by the big-selling business books that one finds in airport bookstalls — so amused, in fact, that I once proposed that people should be able to trade air-miles for an MBA degree. So it was refreshing to find this admirably acerbic post by Freek Vermeulen in – guess where? – the Harvard Business Review!

Management is not an exact science, they say. And I guess most things that involve the study of human behavior cannot be. But I sometimes wonder if that is the reason — or the excuse — that the business sections at airport bookshops are so full of nonsense.

Quite often these books are written with panache. And the authors — aspiring “management thinkers” and “gurus” (never scientists) — have an excellent sense of the pulse of the business public. They are neither crooks nor charlatans; they write what they believe. But that doesn’t make their beliefs right. People can believe vigorously in voodooism, homeopathy, and creationism.

A common formula to create a best-selling business book is to start with a list of eye-catching companies that have been outperforming their peers for years. This has the added advantage of creating an aura of objectivity because the list is constructed using “objective, quantitative data.” Subsequently, the management thinker takes the list of superior companies and examines (usually in a rather less objective way) what these companies have in common. Surely — is the assumption and foregone conclusion — what these companies have in common must be a good thing, so let’s write a book about that and become rich.

In Search of Excellence and Built to Last, to name a few classic examples, followed that formula — including the getting rich bit. One piece of advice to come out of such tomes, for instance, has been to create a strong, coherent organizational culture, like most of high-performing firms studied. However, we now know from academic research that a strong culture is often the result of a period of high performance, rather than its cause. In fact, a very coherent culture can even be a precursor of what is called a competency trap, where firms get stuck in their old beliefs and ways of doing things. Not coincidentally, the list of superior companies frequently starts unravelling when the book is still at the printer’s.

Right on! Worth reading in full.