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 / Winter 2008 /Issue 53(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2008: Miscellany

But Sennett’s book should be read by everyone who employs another human being or who is responsible for what is called “human resources.” In recent decades, corporate executives, HR professionals, and business professors have lost sight of what a previous generation — I think of Herman Miller’s Max De Pree, Nucor’s Ken Iverson, W.L. Gore’s Bill Gore — understood well: It is incumbent upon organizations to create “good work” for all their employees.

Sennett writes that John Ruskin “sought to instill in craftsmen of all sorts the desire, indeed the demand, for a lost space of freedom; it would be a free space in which people can experiment,” much as Bill Gore, 100 years later, gave all his employees time and space to develop their own innovative projects. When able to exercise such control over their own jobs, employees become empowered to develop their skills and to realize their humanity through their work. By putting the focus back on the profound issues of job design and the nature of work, Sennett provides a needed antidote to all those HR texts cluttering the shelves of managers on such trivial topics as outsourcing the firm’s dental plan, online recruiting, and “rocks and ropes” training.

History (Somewhat)
Sennett makes an ethical connection between being a craftsman and being part of a community, a connection that Rakesh Khurana finds almost entirely missing in the management profession. In From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Man­agement as a Profession, Khurana, a management professor at the Harvard Business School best known for his writing on leadership, has produced an instant classic.

Earlier this year I recommended this book to scholars and university deans and administrators; subsequently, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of business managers who are reading and quoting from it. I believe this scholarly book has become popular because it describes the historical context in which graduates of the nation’s leading business schools ended up becoming perpetrators of fraud at companies like Enron.

Khurana has a simple explanation for why unethical business leaders aren’t condemned by their profession in the fashion of medical and legal malpractitioners: Management isn’t a profession. Unlike the “learned professions,” management lacks an established body of knowledge, a community of practitioners with standards of expertise and conduct, qualifying examinations, and “attitudes of communalism, disinterestedness, and a societal orientation.”

In essence, the malefactors at Enron couldn’t be read out of their profession because they were not, in fact, members of a profession to begin with — even though the convicted Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow held MBAs from prestigious schools of business. Rather than professionals, they are more accurately characterized as self-interested technicians and hired guns. And sadly, that’s what corporate executives are assumed to be by many leading scholars in top-tier business schools; by extension, that is how they are taught and, in many cases, how they end up acting.

But things didn’t start out that way. Khurana shows that the stated purpose for founding the first business schools a century ago was to educate a class of business leaders who were intellectually and morally equipped to address the nation’s fundamental social and economic problems. The founders of the business schools of the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Harvard were public-spirited men intent on turning management into a respected calling with a higher purpose in terms of public service — similar to law, medicine, and even theology. Khurana describes the near-religious beliefs those founders had about the potential for business leaders to make great contributions to society, if they were broadly and liberally educated and were socialized to see themselves as members of a profes­sional community.

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