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The Clay Feet of Management Science

A review of The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong, by Matthew Stewart.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong

By Matthew Stewart
W.W. Norton & Company, 2009, 352 pages

Matthew Stewart, a peripatetic American who writes with an English accent, is a former management consultant with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford. Hitherto a writer of philosophical tracts, he has produced a highly readable take on the business of management in The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong.

Stewart seeks to address a number of questions in the book, including a professor’s puzzled question about consulting: “How can so many who know so little make so much by telling other people how to do the jobs they are paid to know how to do?” Some other questions he tackles: Is business a profession? Do managers need to be trained in a discipline of business management? Why do business schools exist? In the process, he raps sharply on many of the idols of management and finds them hollow.

Unable to find a job in philosophy upon his graduation from Oxford, Stewart turned to management consulting. Over the next 10 years, the consulting company, which he does not name (but which some Web reviewers have identified as the Mitchell Madison Group), took off like a rocket and then exploded in a civil war. After that experience, Stewart decided to catch up on the history of management thought, which he covers here with a discerning eye and a sharp mind. The result is funny and erudite by turns as Stewart weaves together history, theory, and practice, and slowly reveals his personal story, which adds just the right amount of suspense.

Matthew Stewart divides the book into four phases of management thought: the measurement and efficiency movement pioneered by Frederick Taylor, the human relations school begun by Elton Mayo, the strategy phase spearheaded by Igor Ansoff, and the excellence movement triggered by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. In his iconoclastic, slightly jaundiced view, Stewart maintains that “hucksters” (Taylor), “charlatans” (Mayo), “obsessives” (Ansoff), and “preachers” (Peters and Waterman) have featured prominently throughout the history of management thought and continue to play significant roles in its development.

Stewart’s bottom line is that management is a neglected branch of the humanities and is better studied as part of a revitalized liberal arts program that embraces mathematics and economics more heartily than at present. His rationale and his critique of the current status of the management field are trenchant, and his writing style and a marvelous feeling for a phrase make them even more compelling.

Stewart declares that management science was never a science; it was a program aimed at the legitimization of managerial power through the application of pseudo-technical solutions to social, moral, and political problems. The widespread application of one such pseudo-technical solution, the shareholder-value model, “has induced executives to engage in asset stripping — destroying the long-term productive potential of a corporation for the sake of short-term stock market gains.” The process at a more general level has resulted in “a demolition of the trust on which society is founded.” The author has all the zeal of a reformed consultant, but in your heart, you know he may be right.

Author profile:

  • David K. Hurst is a contributing editor of strategy+business. His writing has also appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications. Hurst is the author of Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).
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