The Atlantic has an interesting article by Matthew Stewart where he posits that most management theory is useless and you don’t need an MBA to succeed in business. Some of the major points that he makes are
- He worked seven years as a successful management consultant despite having no MBA, but only a doctorate in philosophy. He felt that the business school graduates that worked alongside him were no better.
- After leaving the consulting business, he decided to read some management literature and felt that it had nothing to offer him. He never felt that he was learning anything new.
- The person behind the origins of management theory, Frederick Taylor, use questionable methods in his “scientific management” approach, relying on experimental data that was never published or replicated.
- Management theory is for the benefit of the “management class” in opposition to the interests of both the capitalists and labor.
- There are so many management fads, one after the other, each paying attention to some virtue. Stewart attributes this to the management theorists’s dislike of power and longing for utopia.
- A MBA is less useful for education than as a way of signaling to recruiters. Business schools rarely teach people to think.
Read the whole article. Many observations are true, but I think Stewart is wrong on the overall picture. Here are my objections:
- An unthinking person with an MBA is probably no better than a smart person without one. There are many students who have the means to attend business school. It doesn’t mean that they will have a clue after graduating. But the question that should be asked is, what if someone is smart? Does spending 2 years learning management skills help them?
- There are many fads in business management. But you need to spend enough time to understand the main theories out there, learn how they have worked in practice and separate the gems from the fads. For example, take something like “Six Sigma” which was a huge thing several years ago. What are the lessons we learnt from “Six Sigma” initiatives?
- There are many management thinkers who have done a lot of work in the field and others who have made useful contributions. For example, I like Peter Drucker, Clayton Christensen, Eliyahu Goldratt, Phil Rosenzweig, Robert Sutton, among others. Everything they say should not be taken as gospel, but there are many insights you can gain from reading them.
Good management does not necessarily mean market success. First, even if you do everything “right”, there are many things outside your control (the state of the economy, what your competitors are doing, etc.) Second, what is “right” can be a matter of dispute. There are different schools of thought for every topic in management and rightly so, since different tactics and strategies work for different situations. Finally, you cannot do “everything” right because you usually will not have the resources to do that.
Most business success stories are because of doing the right thing rather than doing things right. The trick is knowing what the “right thing” is because that depends on the market. Successful people like telling stories about the process by which they got to the “right thing”. Sometimes, those stories are true for them, but they don’t need to be true for you.
If you, through whatever means, can find the “right thing”, then you too can be successful. You could be illiterate, even. And that was true before we had management courses. In today’s world, it is more difficult to succeed without proper education, but education is not the only skill that will get to the right thing. So all things being equal, a better educated person is more likely to succeed. But all things are, like always, not equal.