Management Gurus – TT Ram Mohan – 31 Oct 2009

The Schumpeter column of the Economist mentions three irritating habits of management gurus (the number is a sarcastic reference to these gurus’ penchant for reducing all topics to a given number of ‘easy steps’):

The first is presenting stale ideas as breathtaking breakthroughs. In a recent speech in London Mr (Stephen) Covey declared capitalism to be in the middle of a “paradigm shift” from industrial management (which treats people as things) to knowledge-age management (which tries to unleash creativity)……But management gurus have been making this point for decades. William Ouchi announced it in 1981 in the guise of “Theory Z”. Elton Mayo and Mary Parker Follet had made much the same point 60 years before. It makes you long for some out-of-the-box thinker who will argue that the future belongs to companies that are unfit for human beings (which it may well do).

The second irritating habit is that of naming model firms. Mr Covey littered his speech in London with references to companies he thinks are outstandingly well managed, including, bizarrely, General Motors’ Saturn division, which is going out of business. Tom Peters launched his career with “In Search of Excellence” in 1982. ……………Five years after “In Search of Excellence” appeared, a third of its ballyhooed companies were in trouble.

The third irritating habit is the flogging of management tools off the back of numbered lists or facile principles. ………….But most of these rules are nothing more than wet fingers in the wind. Gurus preach the virtues of “core competences”. But in the developing world many highly diversified companies are sweeping all before them.

Which points to the most irritating thing of all about management gurus: that their failures only serve to stoke demand for their services.

The article also points out that one of the gurus’ fecundity is not confined to the literary realm:

Mr Covey is working on nine other books, including one on how to end crime. He also presides over a business empire that is even more sprawling than his ever-growing family (he had 51 grandchildren as The Economist went to press)

My own view on management gurus is that there is only one original in the business and that is Peter Drucker. He said whatever needed to be said on the subject. The rest is elaboration, refinement or just plain repetition.

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