A quest for truth


Management, like medicine, can be taught. Sadly, the state of the art is a couple of centuries off the pace.

As with other applied professional activities – law, or medicine or engineering – management requires natural ability, enhanced by practical experience, which no-one can teach. But there is an obvious difference between business and these other subjects. No-one is now taken seriously as a lawyer, or a doctor, or an engineer if they have not been through an extended course of formal education in the subject. But only a small minority of practising managers have studied management. And many of them barely disguise their contempt for the kind of business training exemplified by an MBA.

Now there is a valid reason for this. It is certainly not that management is fundamentally different from these subjects. It is hardly likely that we can train people to be qualified, and better lawyers, doctors, or engineers: that we can teach them French, wood carving, or how to have a more fulfilling sex life: and yet find it impossible to teach them to be better managers. It is quite wrong to claim that practical skills cannot be taught, or made the subject of systematic research. Of course you need innate ability, and of course you improve with experience, but it does not follow that your innate abilities cannot be enhanced by training, or that practical experience cannot be modified and accelerated. How often have we learnt something by experience, and thought “if only someone had told me that”?

What differentiates the study of management from these other subjects is rather different. Rather it is that in law, in medicine, in engineering and French – and even in wood carving and sex therapy – there is a broadly agreed body of knowledge which every competent practitioner must acquire. Not so in management -or at least it is hard to disentangle that agreed body of knowledge from all the guff. You will find many textbooks on medicine in the bookshops, as you will find many texts on management in the bookshops. But the texts on medicine which cover the same subject will all say broadly the same thing. The corresponding management texts will say very different things. Indeed most of them will tell you that what is in all the others is wrong.

Management today has barely emerged from the pre-scientific era in which medicine existed two hundred years ago. Eighteenth century medicine was mostly nonsense. Doctors peddled universal remedies for all ailments, prescribing absurd treatments like sweating or bloodletting in nearly complete ignorance. The status of these practitioners depended less on the evidence of their cures than the confidence of their assertions and the prestige of their patients. (There is a striking resemblance between Shaw’s great physician, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, who would shout “stimulate the fagozytes” to great acclaim on every possible occasion, and the modern management guru.) Sometimes the results were harmful, sometimes fortuitously beneficial. But that was mostly a matter of chance.

Yet people went on believing in this pre-scientific medicine – indeed some still do today. Everyone wants to believe that medicine works, and clings to that faith despite contrary evidence. And the evidence is difficult to interpret. Mostly you get better anyway: and when you die it is probably not your doctor’s fault. And this is true of management theories also.

And yet the evolution of modern medicine should give us hope. While there is still a lot that we don’t know about medicine , there is today a lot that we do. That knowledge came partly from careful observation, such as the studies which established the links between cholera and polluted water or malaria and mosquitoes. Rather more, it came from the development and application of fundamental knowledge in physics, chemistry and biology, which enabled us to understand the transmission and development of disease.

And curiously, one thing that did not help at all was asking very old people for the secret of their long life. It is possible to be very good at something – staying healthy, running fast, or managing a business – without understanding why you are good at it. All those who succeed can tell you is what they do, which isn’t enough to tell you what is really important in what they do, or to enable others less talented to do it. The skills needed by the physiologist and the coach are simply different from those of the runner. Run like me, says the Olympic medallist, and disappears into the distance. Do it like me, says Alfred Sloan, or like me, says Lee Iacocca; or like me, says John Harvey Jones. But you can’t just do it like them. There is often much of interest in business autobiographies, but they are not management textbooks and never will be.

The future of management research and education will be constructed in the same ways. Some of it will depend on accumulations of empirical evidence, like Dennis Mueller’s systematic research on the success and failure of mergers and acquisitions, on the work of the Aston group on the relationship between styles of organisation and the nature of production. Then there is a role for brilliant theorising There is David Teece’s exposition of why innovation so rarely establishes competitive advantage for the innovating company. Or there is the Modigliani-Miller theorem, the financial equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics. It shows that you can’t add value through financial engineering (and. like the second law of thermodynamics, is persistently challenged by naive cranks.)

And essential to the analysis is the application of what we know about economics, sociology and psychology, the disciplines which play the same role in relation to management as physics, chemistry and biology do to medicine. Knowing these things won’t make you a good manager, any more than knowing law, chemistry or physics will make you a good lawyer, doctor or engineer. But one day it will be ludicrous to believe that you could be a good, or a professional, manager if you don’t.

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