Safford disses management theory

Sean Safford, about whom I’ve said good things before, has taken management theory to the woodshed:

It does raise a question of where the line between management theory and organization theory lays. To some degree, this is the analogue to my earlier post on Richard Florida, only substitute managers for policy-makers. Stewart’s claim—parallel to mine—is that management theorists are basically just confirming what managers already think they know. They are popularizers of more “serious” research which leaves both students and the originators of the “serious” stuff feeling empty in the end. But, after spending four years teaching in a business school, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that this is driven less by supply than by demand. MBAs have little tolerance for “theory”; they want packaged answers. Delivering what they want is a proven money-maker. So, rather than “management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much” (underlying theory: money corrupts), I’d say it’s closer to “management theory is what happens when students pay so much for their education they can effectively dictate the content” (underlying theory: money leads to lowest common denominator outcomes which confirm rather than challenge orthodoxies).

There’s a heavy “ouch” factor to the post on first read, partly because I came to the study of organizations through organization development, which is far closer to management than theory.  Once engaged in the purer study of organizations, I became pretty confident that the enterprise of organization development is a doomed endeavor due to the counterbalancing effects of unintended consequences.  That would put me closer to Safford and Stewart’s views on management.

Another reason I cringed, though, is that I am a manager.  That is, I am actively engaged in an activity in which I am highly skeptical that the results sought will outweigh the unintended consequences my actions produce.  That, my friends, is what we call an ontological crisis.

Yet another cringeworthy moment came from seeing exposed that dynamic we all know is there but rarely discuss:  the mutual contempt of academe and business (Alex Pang writes well about this).  Having straddled business, research, and teaching, I have let myself in for the ire of both sides.

I buy Safford’s general drift, but I think it’s worth noting that it isn’t theory itself that is being compromised; it is the teaching of it.  Unless the theorists are taking money for making the results emerge a certain way–and academic payola is not unheard of–the real problem is that those who teach and write books on management are ignorant of or diminishing emphasis on research that would provide a more complete view of the practice of management.  If that is the case, it might imply an insecurity about the whole of management.

On the other hand, academics should understand this:  there is no credible voice on management among those who have not done it.

MORE:  In case I didn’t make it clear enough, I agree with Safford.  It stung a little, but I dug it.

2 responses to “Safford disses management theory

  1. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 18May2009 « PublicOrgTheory

  2. seansafford

    Read this when it came out, but just re-read it and wanted to weigh in some. First, agreed that we agree! I think you are right, first of all, that there is often a disconnect between “good” research and teaching. The article that I was reacting to was not written by an academic, but by a former MBA. They don’t really see the research side and so it is an indictment of us professors if we aren’t bringing quality research into the classroom more effectively.

    I would say, though, that research is–in some instances–driven by the demand. Its not to say that the books are cooked. But the choice of what to research and certainly how to package the results is influenced by student demand. Perhaps not what appears in, say, ASQ or Org Science. But certainly publications like HBR.

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