Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"The Management Myth"

In a couple of posts Monday on her Atlantic blog, Megan Mcardle lamented that the skills of mortgage bond traders and structured finance associates might not translate to the job opportunities that might be created by an economic stimulus package. Those sentiments reminded me of a post Megan wrote in November, "Right to Work" (scroll about half way down that page to find it). In that post, by way of demonstrating her empathy for auto workers that would need to be laid off in a restructuring of the domestic automakers, Megan wrote about how the recession of 2001 dashed her hopes of becoming a management consultant. She described having an job offer in hand from a management consulting firm after getting her University of Chicago MBA in June of that year, only to have the offer rescinded shortly after 9/11:

For the next eighteen months, I struggled to find a job, in the teeth of a recession that kicked MBAs especially hard.


I remember going to see Avenue Q on a date, and writhing in humiliation, thinking that my date must be identifying me with the aimless failures on stage. I was 29 years old, and living at home. I had money--I always managed to work. But as far as I could tell, I had no future.

When I finally did get a job, with The Economist, it paid about a third of what I'd been expecting as a consultant. I had about a thousand dollars in loan payments, and of course, I had to live in New York, where my job was.

I'll pause briefly here to note, for those unfamiliar with New York, that, like most major cities, it is served by a vast network of trains and buses which convey those who live more cheaply elsewhere to their jobs in the city. These workers are known as "commuters". I'll note also that Avenue Q1 was mildly clever and original for Broadway musical, though it wasn't as good as you might have expected it to be, given the hype. Back to Megan:

For the first time in my life, I understood what Victorian novelists meant when they described someone as "shabby". Over the years since I'd had a steady income, my clothes had stretched out of shape, ripped, become stained, gone out of style. I couldn't afford new ones. And I wasn't one of those whizzy heroines who can make over her own clothes. Instead, I frumped around in clothes that never looked quite right, and felt the way my clothes looked.

Re-reading that November post from Megan jarred my memory about an entertainingly skeptical essay on the profession of management consulting by Matthew Stewart in the June 2006 Atlantic magazine, "The Management Myth". With that circuitous set up out of the way, below are the first few paragraphs of Stewart's essay.

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

After I left the consulting business, in a reversal of the usual order of things, I decided to check out the management literature. Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?

Stewart starts back with Frederick Taylor's "Scientific Management" experiments with Bethlehem Steel at the turn of the 20th Century in his attempt to answer that question. The rest of his essay is worth reading.

1As I wrote that sentence, I remembered a silly gratuitous anti-Bush lyric from the show, which I assumed at the time was an ad lib. It turns out it wasn't, and now the writers of the show are looking for a replacement. From the show's website:

It's of the most-loved lyrics in AVENUE Q. But starting January 20th,

Submit your idea for a replacement lyric for "GEORGE BUSH" -- and you could win a bunch of cool AVENUE Q stuff, including a revised script that includes YOUR LYRIC!


JK said...

Well there goes my plan to be a Master Black Belt in Six Sigma!

DaveinHackensack said...

Heh. You still see books on that in the bookstores.

I might have to check out for Stewart's book on Spinoza and Leibniz.