Last 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.