Thursday, May 25, 2006
Déjà Vu All Over Again
The recognition that . . . [x] theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad . . . [x] books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is . . .
. . . money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.
From Matthew Stewart’s “The Management Myth" in the June issue of The Atlantic. (For x, read “management.")
Of course, bashing MBA-speak is by now nearly as staple a journalistic genre as bashing MLA-speak. (Nice not to be alone isn’t it?) But I found the version offered by Stewart, who became a partner in a consulting firm during the 90s without ever studying anything but philosophy, particularly eloquent and entertaining as I was flipping through the Atlantic today. Thought he made one especially nice point, apart from his suggestion that, if weren’t for credentialism, a lot of MBA candidates might do better to be studying Shakespeare and Rousseau. (Is this true? I have no idea, but it sure doesn’t seem out of the realm of probability.) By Stewart’s ruthless reduction, all management theory can be traced back either to Frederick Taylor or Elton Mayo--i.e., either deskill and speed-up the proles or talk teamwork and humanize the workplace. Here’s what I thought was the good part:
Mayo’s work sheds light on the dark side of the “humanist” tradition in management theory. There is something undeniably creepy about a clipboard-bearing man hovering around a group of factory women, flicking the lights on and off and dishing out candy bars. All of that humanity—as anyone in my old firm could have told you—was just a more subtle form of bureaucratic control. It was a way of harnessing the workers’ sense of identity and well-being to the goals of the organization, an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement.
So why is Mayo’s message constantly recycled and presented as something radically new and liberating? Why does every new management theorist seem to want to outdo Chairman Mao in calling for perpetual havoc on the old order? Very simply, because all economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off. That is the human condition. At the end of the day, it isn’t a new world order that the management theorists are after; it’s the sensation of the revolutionary moment. They long for that exhilarating instant when they’re fighting the good fight and imagining a future utopia. What happens after the revolution—civil war and Stalinism being good bets—could not be of less concern.
Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.
Oh, yes, and there’s a lot of good anecdotes about silly consultants, too.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you might be very interested in Alan Liu’s new book, The Laws of Cool, which is, among other things, a rather exhaustive history of the emergence of contemporary business “philosophy” - in particular, the two threads that you named 1) deskilling 2) team-building.
In fact, (and this is as far as I’ve gotten so far) he discusses the deployment of the “team” as a present day replacement for /sublimating simulation of class/race/gender identity.
Anyway, I think it’d be right up your alley.
Yesterday’s verdict was deskilling with conviction?
Tyler Cowen points to selfhelp business being more or less on the same page, though it may apply to Stewart as well: Stewart’s dichotomy is too facile (and prepostindustrial), and sweeps much under the carpet (Deming falls under neither Taylorism nor Mayoism). As regards training:
“On the whole, however, management education has been less than a boon for those who value free and meaningful speech. M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.”
Current trends show that knowledge, by its nature, is monetizable; patents on business methods and algorithms have rendered the environment Scholastic.
On the other hand, I enjoy the coincidences afforded by seemingly unrelated readings: Per note 6 to WBenjamin’s On Some Motifs in Baudelaire:
“... Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularized the watchword ‘Down with dawdling!,’ carried the day.”
Well now… the Stewart piece had a certain charm, but as someone who studied philosophy as an undergrad and later started and ran a software company (without, granted, an MBA), I say “Pshaw!”
The Taylor-Mayo split proposed by Stewart is, in my opinion, neatly split by some of the counter-intuitive studies by Demarco and Lister in Peopleware--the most interesting of which was that the productivity of individuals depended on which group they were assigned to: a result political philosophers and social scientists might benefit from, no? Further, though things like GAAP rules, product marketing principles, and project management are certainly not beyond the ken of philosophy (or english) majors--they do take a fair amount of learning.
Most important, however, is the practical benefit of studying business for business--or rather, being business- oriented regardless of what you study. Herbert Simon’s principle of “satisficing” (achieving the first acceptable result to a problem rather than the best result) is a good shorthand for what you have to do every day in business. My experience in hiring/managing was that the higher degree held/the better grades achieved (past a certain minimum threshold), the least able people were to let go and just get something (possibly very provisional) done--and use that as both a concrete achievement and usable experience for moving forward in their learning (note to my future writing students: this is especially true for you).
For all that, the best part of the Stewart piece--and one he didn’t go far enough into--was the idea that the “Mayo” method of management can in fact be sinister indeed. The Fast Company subscription you see in your manager’s office is nothing if not a tool for him to get you to do more to make more (Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union: A Century of American Labor goes on at some length about the corrosive history of so-called “humanistic” management methods). I would note that it doesn’t have to be sinister--just that it often is.
Finally, Sean: am about half-way through your Gumshoe Nation and it’s the best cultural studies book I’ve read since John Hoberman’s The Dream Life--and ranks up there with Davis’ City of Quartz and Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence on my all-time fave list. Nice work!
Thank you, guys. Since I’m congenitally uncool, I probably would’ve assumed Liu’s was a how-to book. Thanks for the recommendation, CR.
And thanks for the rejoinders nnyhav and Joel. I suspected Stewart’s division might be some journalistic facility. (The reason/passion bit was the giveaway.) fwiw, Joel, it was precisely the point about the discomfort re power that was the reason I excerpted that bit.
And, Joel, you make me very happy indeed! Thank you so much for the extraordinary generosity. I’m painfully aware of the flaws, but am just hugely grateful for your kindness.
Fascinating exchange. I am a former English major,former PhD candidate in economics, holder of MBA, reader in philosophy, teacher of undergrad courses in business. Joel’s comments on workers and education level is spot on; as a worker and as a manager I have experienced the same thing and have to remind myself and workers that “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” As well, most of business school is like any other program but for hard sciences: it is enculturation as much as hard facts/hard knowledge.
Or, in the words of one of my bosses in the litigation support firm I worked for: “If you can’t aim for mediocrity, then we can’t use you.”