The Science of Management: does it really help us?

science help businessLast week I’ve been talking to a friend who was just editing the final exam for his course “Decision-making in Disaster management”. Living aside the nice feeling of talking to people from the academic environment, there was actually something in our conversation that troubled me to the level of feeling a need to share it with the readers of my blog. Because as we finished talking, I could not shrug the sudden understanding of the gap between academically correct and real-life practices of Management, a gap so wide that it puts into question the whole usefulness of Scientific Management to the managers in the field.

While it’s completely clear to me, that this situation is not necessarily particular to Management, and in many other professions yesterday’s students have to start learning from scratch as soon as their enter their first position, it seems to me that in our profession the situation is more critical.

Here are a few of my thoughts about the subject.

1.       Ignoring the application of knowledge

The main difference between scholars of Management and actual managers is motivation. The scientist is motivated mainly by his curiosity to know how things really are and the desire to systematize the acquired knowledge for future use, while someone who is managing a team at the workplace is above all interested in getting things done right now. This means that for a manager the benefits of new knowledge are tangible only if they help him or her to get better results.  The scientist, on the other hand, sees “practical recommendations” just as another paragraph in his paper, having no direct interest in actual application. The reason for that is that scientists mainly write for other scientists, while many field specialists do not even read the respective periodicals of their professions. They are just too busy to divert their attention from the immediate problems of missing schedules, high turnover of resources and exceeding budgets.

Nowhere is this gap between knowledge and its application more visible than in improving our decision-making. It has been quite a few years since scientific research of human rationality, led by distinguished scientists such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Arieli and others, opened our eyes to the influence of biases on our decisions. Even though books have been written and read, university courses prepared and taught, whole communities dealing with the subject created, it is quite doubtful that someone can sincerely state that the quality of decisions actually improved. And why should it? Intelligent and curious people in the universities are usually quite happy just with learning something new and the ability to flaunt their knowledge in the faces of others. But for us, the “dung-beetles” of the trade, what’s really important is that our everyday work-share becomes a little bit easier. Is there a scientist who is really interested in doing so?

2.       Buzzwords and fashion

Another problem with scientists is that because they are not weighed down by the load of everyday managerial chores, their preferences tend to be influenced by fashion trends rather than by actual state of the art. This need to follow fashion trends instead of actual requirements of the filed raises the banner of constant innovation, leading to a situation when clients start to complain why a user-friendly interface was changed or when employees struggle to implement the new system which just happens to be much less robust than the previous one.  The need to innovate becomes a goal in its own right, therefore creating new problems instead of solving previous ones.

Another related negative influence on the market is the abundance of buzzwords that scientists happen to like so much. These buzzwords invade our workplace through the social media, professional conferences and news, frequently without adding a lot of actual meaning. Because every such buzzword is there to describe a whole phenomenon, and the nature of new scientific phenomena is such that they are usually too complicated to be described by a single word. You can throw as much new terms as you like at a person, but without actual understanding of what’s going on, and even more importantly – training, no actual results are to be expected.

3.       Forgetting the basics

This pursuit of everything new creates another serious problem – important basic things become forgotten, as they happen not to be new because they are universal, clear-cut and do not need improvement. It’s the very law of evolution – by introducing something new, you discard what’s been before. And when those are the basics of your trade – it may very well become a problem. Our over-reliance on technology to solve every possible problem makes us forget the basic skills we utilized for the same task before the respective technology has been introduced.

It’s very important to state here: I’m completely not against technological progress! However, I am against an illusion of progress which simply supposes that newer means better without actual comparison. Because once you throw away the basics – there is no coming back! That’s why they still teach soldiers to use the compass despite the abundance of GPS-navigation apps.

4.       No feedback from the field

My final criticism towards the interaction of Workplace Management with the Science of Management is that I’m not sure such an interaction even takes place. There is not much feedback going back to the academy from the field about what to research. Think about it: when pilots need better planes – they present the contractors with clear specifications for the aircraft they want; drug companies, despite all the controversy around them, have a pretty good understanding of what diseases require new medications to be developed. The scholars of Management, however, do not know too much about our problems because we don’t talk to them about them (as we are so be busy solving those problems).

Therefore, even when they achieve an actual breakthrough, as in the case of decision-making biases, they do not know what else to give us in order for this knowledge to start working for us. I am pretty sure that if managers were more proactive in stating what troubles them, demanding a systematic solution, our job were to become much easier.

Until then, do not expect too much from academic courses, books and articles on Management – they are rarely created with your actual problems in mind.

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6 thoughts on “The Science of Management: does it really help us?

  1. As usual, you’re right on the bull’s eye.
    The situation may not be as bad as it looks. Some of us part time academics are aware of the importance of daily life results.
    There is a struggle, and we are improving, even if it is inch by inch.
    Sometimes it is not easy dealing with our more academic colleagues (and administrators) who are more focused on elegant theories than hard results. Sometimes it is not easy dealing with hard boiled managers who think kicking more pants and working harder is enough to succeed.

    I will certainly re-read your post.

    Thank you for spotting relevant issues and explaining them in terms we can all understand.
    – Fungus

  2. I’m glad to know that it was a thought-making post 🙂

    I didn’t try to diminish the importance of Management Studies (or the Management scholars themselves), but rather wished to provide some feedback of how they’re seen from the market’s viewpoint. If only everyone out there was as reflective as you are, my dear Fungus 🙂

  3. To get a job as an actuary, you have to study mathematics. To get a job as an engineer, you have to study both math and science, and a variety of other topics. To get a job as a manager, you have to be able to fog a mirror held under your nose. Oh, most hiring organizations look for experience and certain personality traits, but formal study? Not so much. Consequently, the market for the output of management scholars is both limited and self-selected, and has little impact on practitioners. Practitioners generally return the favor.

    Note that “popular” management books, like cookbooks by celebrity chefs, aren’t sold for study, but as a source for pithy quotes that will be recognized by other poseurs. You can get nods of recognition and acceptance when you slip in a quote from Dan Pink or Seth Godin. Chantal Savelsbergh and Peter Storm, probably not. Is there any science behind Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to achieve mastery?” No, but it resonates. And when Godin opines that 10,000 hours is necessary but not sufficient, it rings like a Fender Stratocaster through a giant Marshall stack of amplifiers and speakers. Whereas “Team Learning in Projects: Theory and Practice” is more like a ukelele, played on a bench in the park.

    Meanwhile, UC Irvine recently ran a course called, “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead.'” Academia porn …

  4. I see that the post rang a bell with you, Dave; It’s nice to know there are people out there who understand the situation 🙂
    Putting too much trust in “gurus” and their writings is something that I was planning to write about next week, so stay tuned 🙂

  5. Now for a longer comment on your post.
    I believe a solid answer to the problem you describe will need a lot of thought and research on (at least) four related topics:
    1. Incomplete (view of the) system.
    Small groups of people work in their small ivory towers because we don’t usually see knowledge-sharing as a system with a unique goal, and so we cannot spot other people’s need for specific pieces of information and we don’t see the need to share knowledge with others.
    2. Deep thinkers and shallow thinkers
    Original, deep thought is hard to do and not easy to explain, while it is very easy to repeat shallow phrases with resounding echoes (call them mantras if you will). You don’t need proof as long as it is catchy.
    3. Short range vision (time and scope),
    Measuring systems, both in academy and in industry put a premium on short term goals. Sometimes one semester is the longest we measure. The key word is measure. Without measurement, the beautiful shared vision of the ten year plan will be forgotten before the first crisis is over.
    4. Trust
    Since we don’t share vision and objectives, we will not believe what other people say (not invented here).

    Finally, a word of hope.
    I’ve seen some enlightened managers teaching practical management with sound theoretical bases in Tech Schools.

    Thanks for the challenge. 🙂
    – Fungus

  6. You are completely right, Fungus, much could be done to improve the situation and I’m glad that at some places it’s already improving.

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