on August 13, 2009
Matthew Stewart takes on three major tasks in this book. He writes an expose of the management consulting industry; an historical account of the development of modern management; and an expose of the fallacious methodology of modern management. All three of these tasks are interspersed with an interesting account of his own personal experience in management consulting.
Stewart came to the management consulting industry straight out of college. Interestingly, his academic work was in philosophy and not management. Needing money, he submitted a resume to a management consulting firm and much to his surprise was hired. As an "outsider", and particularly as a result of his philosophy education, Stewart brings unique insight to this field.
My own undergraduate work was a BBA and in the thirty-some years since then I have kept up with developments in management during the course of a law practice that often involved advising businesses. This book challenges everything I thought I had learned about management.
The book is structured around Stewart's own foray into the management consulting industry. He discloses the way the industry works, the outrageous fees that are charged, and the worthlessness of the advice. I have no experience that would qualify me to evaluate those claims.
The entire "science" of management, according to Stewart, is truly only pseudoscience. Beginning with Frederick Taylor and Elton Mayo and progressing through Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, Stewart reveals in great detail the methodological fallacies of management theory and its shaky foundation in pseudoscience.
Stewart maintains that "management" belongs more properly in the humanities and in particular to the study of philosophy. "Management theorists lack depth," he writes, "because they have been doing for only a century what philosophers and creative thinkers have been doing for millennia."
The danger of modern management, Stewart contends, is that it offers pretended technological solutions to what are basically moral and political problems. When this happens, "it conjures an illusion ... about the nature and value of management expertise" and makes it harder to check the abuses of corporate power. "Above all," he writes, "it contributes to a misunderstanding about the sources of our prosperity, leading us to neglect the social, moral and political infrastructure on which our well-being depends."
Considering the economic scandal and crisis into which modern managers have led this country, his thesis deserves careful consideration. I will be watching for rejoinders to Stewart's thesis by others in the management field.
The book was enjoyable and entertaining to read. I will be pondering its thesis for a long time to come.
I believe the book would have been more useful if, as a conclusion, Stewart had provided more insight into the best way to learn to practice good management. However, he does make suggestions regarding business education.
on November 12, 2009
... because if they read it, they may quit your program.
As a university professor guiding MBA and Doctor of Management courses, I encourage only my more capable and thoughtful students to read "The Management Myth." Why?
It is because in this book, Matthew Stewart correctly points out and supports that management is not a science and is too often pursued as a fad. Using many examples, he convinces that a good person educated in almost any subject can be a successful manager in business. Plainly said, Bill Gates, a college dropout, is not an aberration.
What is needed to be a manager, Stewart says astutely, is critical thinking and a propensity to ethical behavior -- not some knowledge of whatever methods are in current vogue at business schools.
If you want to know more of how to achieve success in business and other organizations, and you can accept innovative thinking, read "The Management Myth."
on September 6, 2009
Save yourself 25 bucks and find Stewart's original article debunking management theory. It was published in 2006--Atlantic, I think--and is online. He gives it away in the opening of the book in the 80-20 rule applied to books like this. No doubt we need critics like Stewart, but the extended tale of his litigation with his firm and not-so-valiant quest to get every penny he could, then his gloat over every penny he got, suggests that he's just another opportunist. For years Stewart by his own admission ripped off his clients by providing them with a "service" they didn't need. He seems to take pride in his own lack of principle--that he knew he was simply a parasite while other, perhaps younger, colleagues actually believed they were doing some good. (If you actually get to the later chapters, you'll see that he quits the consulting life not because of any anguish over being a con man but because he realizes the lifestyle has given him a paunch!) I've looked at Stewart's history of philosophy, so I know he has read Plato, but I don't think he took anything Socrates said to heart. He lived the life of the sophist, gutting the treasuries of as many companies as he could, cashed out, became a philosopher and critic of the profession that made him wealthy. I'm sure there's some more technical term for this within moral philosophy, but amongst hoi polloi it's called "having your cake and eating it too."
on October 13, 2009
If you love to hate management consultants and newly-minted MBAs, you might enjoy this book. If, however, you are hoping for useful analysis from this philosophy student turned management consultant, you will likely be very disappointed. Stewart consistently overgeneralizes using just enough truth and selected examples to seduce, in a tone that suggests "you and I can see how empty these so-called experts are." His scornful critique of "management science" is interleaved with a "kiss and tell" insider's story of his years as a "good guy" within a corrupt, venal management consulting firm. The firm collapsed soon after forcing Stewart out, but fortunately for him not before he could extract by lawsuit some millions of their ill-gotten gains.
Now, full disclosure: I do have a management degree from one of those prestigious business schools Stewart excoriates, and I was one of those corporate executives that he takes shots at. I'm far from a rah-rah supporter of MBAs and unfettered capitalism, however, and I agree with the starting points of Stewart's criticisms: management is not a science; you can't run a business from a strategic model; management consultants often know less than the people they are advising; and MBAs sometimes overestimate the value of their degree. I do not agree with his conclusion, however, that "business schools as they are presently constituted are at best superfluous", or that there is no value in strategic analysis.
Stewart's chapters on the history of "management science" are both educational and misleading. While you will learn and laugh with Stewart about how unscientific and even fraudulant the pioneers of "scientific management" sometimes were, you will also be led to believe that modern business schools still uncritically teach those ideas. You will learn something about how business strategy became "a modern, professional discipline, bound up in lengthy textbooks, purveyed by consultants, and practiced within elite departments of large corporations," but Stewart would have you believe that business school graduates revere these textbooks as gospel revelations of timeless truth, and that naïve CEOs receive them as such, rather than as the contextually and temporally-bounded conceptual tools they are.
Good management, Stewart contends, is a personal art that can't be learned in school. In other words, reading Michael Porter at Harvard isn't sufficient to make a great executive, any more than reading Sun Tzu at West Point is sufficient to make a great officer. Well, duh! Stewart concedes that training in subjects like accounting, corporate finance, and marketing can be useful, but that such training is no substitute for a broad education and real-world experience. Wow! What an insight! Perhaps the business schools should consider prior education and work experience in their admission policies!
The intellectual content of an MBA, according to Stewart, could be communicated in a "three-week mini-MBA" within a liberal arts college, "to hone spreadsheet skills, review basic financial analysis techniques, and master some of the business jargon." Furthermore, he suggests, this would be preferable to the corrosive effect of business school on the moral fiber of students. Stewart references a Business Week story about a "recent" Aspen Institute study by telling us that upon entering business school students "cherished noble ambitions" to serve customers and "otherwise contribute to the progress of human kind," but by the time of graduation they "were convinced that the only thing that matters is increasing shareholder value." In fact, the referenced 2001 Aspen Institute survey asked students to choose three of nine "primary responsibilities" of a company. Upon entering business school, 75% of students included "serve customers", 68% included "increase shareholder value," and 50% included "invest in employee growth and well-being." On exiting business school, "shareholder value" had increased share to 75%, but "serve customers" had also increased to 72% and "employee well being" stayed the same. "Produce useful products and services" lost share while social responsibility and legal compliance gained share. The 2001 survey was a single point in a time-series study; subsequent re-runs of the same survey by the Aspen Institute showed an even greater shift towards the social responsibilities. The shifting perceptions of business school students is interesting and bears discussion, but does not justify Stewart's statements. Stewart's mis-representation of this research is representative of his cavalier attitude towards research in general -- it's so much easier just to wing it.
A business school education is just two school years out of a lifetime, and strategy models are just concepts that can sometimes help a manager think about things. I enjoyed learning these concepts, but they were just a small part of my two year business graduate degree at MIT. I never hired a management consultant, and never confused a model with the real world, but I did find some of those conceptual tools useful during my business career. Stewart vastly overstates the gulf between science and art: it is true that management is more art than science, but scientists still struggle to apply theories into a complex, evolving world, and even artists can find value in concrete methods and conceptual models. Puffery can be found in every academic institution and in every business setting, but that doesn't mean schools have no value or that all management consultants are con-men.
Stewart saves special scorn for evangelical "gurus" who write best-selling "business excellence" books based on platitudes and overgeneralizations. The joke is on the reader who doesn't realize that Stewart is mirroring their techniques to write this anti-business, anti-intellectual rant, targeted at the same frustrated middle managers! Stewart is laughing all the way to the bank.
on October 21, 2009
The Management Myth: Why the "Experts" Keep Getting it Wrong
Matthew Stewart has found his strategic niche. He can bill himself either as a former management consultant who writes about philosophy or as a philosopher who writes about management. Like a true consultant he adapts to meet his client's (reader's) needs. The audience for his current production, The Management Myth, is likely to be somewhat different from that for his last volume, an appealing interpretation of the reaction of Leibniz to Spinoza (The Courtier and the Heretic, 2006).
In The Management Myth Stewart argues that management is not a science, and might be better thought of as an extension of the humanities. He seeks to debunk several icons in the history of management thought (most notably Frederick Taylor and Elton Mayo), popular contemporary management gurus (Tom Peters, Michael Porter, and others), business education (the Harvard MBA program and the like), and the management consulting business. Mostly he succeeds, in a very entertaining and often amusing way.
The chapters alternate between those that carry the substance of Stewart's argument and autobiographical pieces that recount episodes from his consulting career (which covered about ten years). This works quite well, I believe, helping to maintain human interest throughout. Stewart is cynical about his consulting employment from the outset, as you might expect from someone with no background in business who gets the job primarily because he impressed the recruiter with his educated guess about the number of pubs in Britain. Anyone who has been a management consultant or employed consultants will likely find much that is recognizable in Stewart's experiences.
Stewart is not the first to be critical of most of the targets he selects, as a perusal of his "Selected References" and ""Bibliographical Appendix" will confirm. His strength resides in his packaging at least as much as in his originality.
Overall he is convincing in his conclusion that much of what passes for the supposedly systematic discipline of "management" consists of "nonfalsifiable tautologies, generic reminders, and pompous maxims." He takes aim at Tom Peters' mega-seller Excellence, for instance, and charges that the evidence is all anecdotal and that several of the touted companies soon ran into difficulties. Yet that did not limit the influence of the book, and in the 1990s one could find several other leading consultants advocating its "lessons," a few of which were ostensibly best epitomized by Enron.
The generally hyperbolic tone of his criticisms, however, seems not fully justified (although it enlivens the reading). Stewart himself concedes that "Most managers, consultants, and MBAs ... are good people and do good work." In spite of his mostly negative evaluations of their output, he finds at least some value in the work of several of the theorists and gurus he covers. He allows that Mayo, for example, was correct that management is all about people, even though no "science of human relations" was required to achieve the insight; instead, such wisdom "comes to us either by virtue of being alive or with the aid of an ethical education." Even platitudes can often help motivate people to do the right things, Stewart recognizes.
"A good manager is nothing more or less than a good and well-educated person," Stewart declares -- that is, the very outcome that was the aim of classical philosophy, just as he studied it at Oxford.
on February 7, 2012
I've never laughed so much at a serious management book as I did with this one -- that is, in the places where the author *intended* readers to laugh. I have first-hand experience of the management consultant fabulizing described here: a major-league consultant once wrote a book featuring a strategic decision taken at a global company during the time I was in management there, explaining its rationale in a way that elegantly showed off the virtues of a nifty new service his firm was touting, while nimbly avoiding anything to do with what had actually happened. (The consultant freely admitted to me by email that he hadn't interviewed anyone at the company.) This book shows how common such practices are. The author (MS) is especially good at debunking some of the foundations of management "scholarship". While the problems with Taylorism and the Hawthorne studies have long been known, MS provides deeper detail and context than one will usually find. His demonstration that Peter Drucker, too, lacked substance was especially well-done and new to me. The story of MS's own experience at a management consulting firm was a good object lesson, and usually told with very effective deadpan humor.
That said, I have a couple of reservations. The flaming arrows shot at strategy management consulting, especially the big-firm variety, may be well-aimed, but there are other, more specialized consulting engagements and other consultants who may be able to provide some benefit (such as when it comes to helping companies with communications, with choosing strategic investments in fields or technologies new to the company, etc.) Not all consultants are so expensive, lacking in expertise and insincere; it would have been good for the book to have made this distinction clear. Another issue is more with the marketing than with the text: the book's philosophy angle is over-hyped. Sure, MS has a PhD in philosophy, and there are occasional references to Plato's cave, Rousseau's Geneva and to Nietzsche, but such names are dropped only occasionally and for the sake of some piquant analogies, without any serious application of these thinkers' ideas to the problems of management. Finally, it's unfortunate that MS adopted such a utilitarian approach to his own working life, i.e. that the ends (big bucks) justified the means (spending years working in such a hypocritical or even sham industry). While his criticisms are well-deserved and on good authority, and his literary and comedic skills are outstanding, the fact that MS's hands are so unclean makes me hesitate to give this book a rave review.
on October 6, 2009
I loved this book. Finally someone stood up and stated the obvious: the science of business management is a sham.
I have spent 21 years in the private sector working for large, publicly held companies. I will even admit to working on my MBA here and there along the way. Through the years I've been through several consultant engagements. They had various names such as "process re-engineering", or "management by numbers". Regardless of the consulting firm involved, the tactics were the same: use statistically skewed spreadsheets to scare top management, then cut customer service to temporarily shore up the bottom line. In the process dehumanize the employees until half quit, then call it a job well done.
I have often sat in the back of the room during a consultant informational session and thought "let's bring in a village witch doctor or an astrologer as long as we are at it." Since top management is usually out of ideas and fearful by the time they bring in a consultant, any dissent is an invitation to gather your desk possessions and follow security to the door. So you sit there and let the absurdity happen, hoping one day someone will have the guts to tell the truth. That is exactly what Mr. Stewart has done in this book.
His background information on Taylor and Mayo style time study methods was most interesting, establishing the framework for most management methods followed to this day. In the process the author brutally exposes the flawed or nonexistent science involved in such studies.
Mr. Stewart is a great writer: funny, enlightening, insightful, and engaging. I have read most of the popular business and economic books of the last 15 years. This is one of the best. I highly recommend it.
on September 20, 2009
Four stars seems a little generous but three would seem way too harsh (3.8 stars?). The chapters alternate between the author's own experiences as a management consultant and a short history of the discipline of management. Somehow, through persistence (and probably a little luck) he was hired by a management consulting firm despite having a PhD in philosophy and no business experience. He seems just as surprised by this as the reader, and it gives him a unique perspective on what followed.
The historical chapters cover the evolution of the idea of management as a profession and a discipline. Basically, how business schools and their curricula came to be. Each historical chapter focuses on one significant figure in the field. He starts with the father of "scientific management", Frederick Winslow Taylor, and proceeds through the formation of institutions such as the Harvard Business School and today's big consulting firms. Finally, he takes on the management gurus of the last 25 years or so.
As the title suggests, he doesn't think much of any of these people or their ideas. Much of the humor comes from how comically unscientific and arbitrary their "research" was. They come across as unintentional con men, people offering near-useless advice to business leaders but blissfully unaware of their own BS. An excellent chapter towards the end points out the parallels between management gurus like Tom Peters and evangelical preachers, who are perpetually claiming that the end is nigh and only they can save us.
His own story is more darkly humorous- the people and firms he ended up working with were much more blatantly geared towards ripping off their customers. There are many comparisons with parasites burrowing into hosts and feeding off of them for as long as possible. If he is to be believed, all management consulting firms are like this to varying degrees- hopefully his was on the extreme end.
I really enjoyed this book. So, why 3.8 stars and not 4 or 5? Mainly because I was left wondering how fair it was. I'm an engineer, not an MBA, and have little prior knowledge of the field or the people he wrote about. But it was such a harsh, blistering, comical takedown of an entire discipline that I can't help but wonder how one-sided it is. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't- I suppose docking a star for this reflects more on me than the author. I can see the BS of the management gurus from miles away, but I wouldn't have thought that MBA programs in general were just as contrived. Then again, maybe he's right. It makes me want to learn more about the subject.
on December 8, 2009
Stewart is spot-on. He knows his subject inside & out. Book has a good, critical review of the history of "management science" and management consulting. He is very well-read (being a Philosophy grad) and can bring a broad perspective to the management story. His views are well researched, so he has a right to criticize "management science" for its lack of a substantial experimental basis. For a serious book, it's a fast read - amusingly written.
on June 22, 2015
Iconoclastic and insightful, this book alternates between a damning exposure of the so-called science of management and a biography of the author'e improbable career as a management consultant working for a consulting firm that betrayed the very principles it espoused and suffered the fitting denouement it deserved. He basically says there are only two valuable things a consultant can do for your company and these things are grossly overpriced. A type 1 consultant can show you where the Pareto 80/20 rule applies, and a type 2 consultant can show you how to cut costs without wrecking the company. He expounds at great length on the legendary figures and present day gurus of the management advice industry and shows that there is no there there. That great length is the only caveat about this book, I found myself skipping over some of the diatribes because of repetition, just as probably would read the works of Tom Peters or Peter Drucker. One other thing. He seems to believe that the 80/20 principle was an application of Pareto's Law that was popularized by the advent of management consultant firms, I know for a fact that we were using ABC target pricing and 80/20 customer analysis in the 60s, both Pareto based.