Friday, August 07, 2009

Useless "business management" education and theory

I hate to be so cliche, but my success in business was learnt in the school of hard knocks. My social science doctorate was no help at all. So I heartily agree with the article below -- JR

Three years ago, Matthew Stewart published a ­provocative article in The Atlantic magazine blasting modern management theory and ­education. His advice to anyone considering an MBA was “don’t go to business school, study philosophy.”The ­secrets of business, he said, were to be found in ­history, literature and the classic ruminations on life and existence, not in the half-baked ramblings of ­business academics, consultants and “gurus.” In “The ­Management Myth,” he expands the Atlantic article into a devastating bombardment of managerial ­thinking and the profession of management consulting. As a former management consultant, Mr. Stewart lived long enough in the belly of the beast to know its ­nature.

Mr. Stewart quotes Bruce Henderson, the founder of the ­Boston Consulting Group, who describes consulting as “the most improbable business on earth” and who goes on to ask: “Can you think of anything less ­improbable [sic] than taking the world’s most ­successful firms, leaders in their businesses, and ­hiring people just fresh out of school and telling them how to run their ­businesses, and they are willing to pay ­millions of dollars for their ­advice?”

Yet jobs at ­consulting firms are still the brass ring for many graduates from elite schools. Chief ­executives continue to blow shareholder money on teams of ­outside consultants, and business schools and ­corporate ­managers routinely ­promote management as a ­science—which might all be fine, Mr. Stewart says, if the effects of management consulting were trivial.

But they are not. Consulting “contributes to a ­misunderstanding about the sources of our prosperity, leading us to neglect the social, moral, and political ­infrastructure on which our well-being depends.” Mr. Stewart argues that the profession is built on a science of management that is both narrow-minded and ­intellectually bogus. In its pursuit of single goals, such as efficiency, it ignores the broader purpose of ­business.

The business world, according to Mr. Stewart, has become so obsessed with its own perverse value ­system and view of human nature that it is ­undermining the “commons” of society. Workers, for instance, are regarded as dehumanized labor, tools for businesses to use and dispose of at will. Management “science” also fails to take into account the broader ­context in which businesses function, choosing to focus on the ­interests of individual businesses at the expense of the rest of society. Mr. Stewart blames the enablers and peddlers of management science, including the consultants who seem to be everywhere.

Mr. Stewart interweaves the story of his own ­inglorious consulting career with his reflections on management’s history as a science. Upon graduating from Oxford with a master’s degree in philosophy, he drifted into a job with a small consulting firm. For the next decade, he bounced around the profession, taking a couple of years off to write an unpublished history of philosophy, rising to be a partner at a new firm and then getting fired before it collapsed.

His account of his consulting work leavens what is a serious and valuable polemic. For an entire year early in his consulting career, Mr. Stewart stashed his ­belongings with his family and moved from hotel to ­hotel on assignment. “Almost all of my interactions with people,” he writes, “were connected to work in some way. . . . With my overpriced advisory services and profligate spending on luxury travel, I was a grossly inefficient efficiency expert, a parody of ­economic virtue.”

The consultant co-workers he describes are a ­collection of intelligent nut-jobs devoted to corporate in-fighting, client-gouging, psychological humiliation and sexual harassment. Mr. Stewart does not name his employers, but he implies that their conduct is ­symptomatic of the profession.

Mr. Stewart traces the problems with management theory back to Frederick Taylor, the early 20th-century evangelist of efficiency. Taylor’s study of the way pig-iron was handled by laborers at Bethlehem Steel was adored by industrial leaders of the time. It led to the notion of scientific management, even though it was soon discovered that Taylor had fudged both his ­research and his results. One of his lead associates called parts of Taylor’s work “nothing but fiction.” It was the original sin behind a century of increasingly influential management science.

Mr. Stewart also takes a scalpel to contemporary business thinkers, including “On Competition” author Michael E. Porter, whose primary aim seems to be ­“figuring out how to secure profits without having to make a better product, work harder, or be smarter.” This is clever but unfair. Mr. Porter’s work on business strategy is in fact considerably richer than Mr. Stewart suggests, pointing to the ways in which businesses can benefit from a proper awareness of the structure and context of their business environment.

The greater cause of “The Management Myth” is to introduce more humanity and apply less bad science in the way we think about business. To judge by the slew of unorthodox business books in recent years inspired by the research of sociologists and behavioral ­psychologists (“The Tipping Point,” ­“Freakonomics,” “Nudge ”) thing may already be going Mr. Stewart’s way. Timothy Ferriss, the young author of “The 4-Hour Work Week” and as influential a figure to his ­generation as Mr. Porter has been to his own, believes that most of what we need to know about work and life was written down centuries ago by Seneca, the Roman philosopher. In the hip, technology crowd, Seneca’s ­essay “On the Shortness of Life”—about living well and behaving honorably—is now required reading. Mr. Stewart should be pleased.


British grade school exam results fall for the first time in 15 years

DESPITE all the grade inflation that now has to be taken for granted!

English test results for 11-year-olds have fallen for the first time in the 15-year history of the national curriculum SATs. Figures published yesterday show one in five youngsters failing to master English – with the percentage reaching the required standard dropping by one percentage point to 80 per cent this year. All told, that means a total of 115,000 primary pupils beginning secondary school next month still struggling to master English. Of these, 46,000 failed to gain any grade at all and are borderline illiterate.

In addition, the percentage mastering the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic has also fallen from 62 per cent to 61 per cent. This, again, is the first fall since joint statistics were first collected four years ago and shows 225,000 struggling to succeed in all three areas. The biggest problem identified by yesterday's results was with boys' writing – where four out of 10 still leave primary school struggling to write properly.

The results are an embarrassment for ministers who now face going into a general election with reading and writing standards in primary schools – their top policy priority in 1997 – falling.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, said: "Progress in primary schools has clearly stalled and in some cases has even slipped backwards. The yawning gap between girls and boys in literacy is very worrying. One in four boys now starts secondary school without being able to read or write at the expected level."

Yesterday's results show that – at 80 per cent – the numbers reaching the required standard in English remains doggedly at the target set by ministers for 2002 when Labour first took office in 1997. In maths and science, the percentage reaching the required standard remained the same as last year – 79 per cent and 88 per cent respectively.

A second target of achieving 85 per cent in both English and maths – originally pencilled in for 2005 – lies in tatters. A new target of 78 per cent reaching the required standard in both subjects by 2011 looks unattainable, too – the figure slipped from 73 per cent to 72 per cent this year,

Yesterday ministers were at pains to point out that those just failing to reach the target – achieving what is called level three as opposed to the target of level four – should not be considered illiterate or innumerate. Diana Johnson, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Schools and Learning, insisted: "A child at level three, for instance, is able to read and understand a Harry Potter novel." Guidance notes show a level three candidate can read independently and write a sound sentence. In maths, they can do two-figure additions and subtractions in their heads.

Ms Johnson took heart from the fact that, in the-worst performing schools, there had been a six percentage point rise in pupils achieving the standard expected. However, this means there are pockets of under-performance in some of the schools experiencing the best results in the past.

A breakdown of the results show girls are way ahead of boys in reading (89 per cent of girls reached the standard as opposed to 82 per cent of boys) and writing (75 per cent and 60 per cent respectively) and just ahead in science (89 per cent compared to 88 per cent). Boys nudge ahead in maths (79 per cent compared to 78 per cent).

The number of bright youngsters going on to reach a higher level in English – level five – has also fallen by two percentage points in reading to 47 per cent and one percentage point in writing to 19 per cent. In maths, it has gone up four percentage points to 35 per cent....

Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, added: "We have seen a historic drop in English results, the brightest students are not being stretched and the weakest are being failed the most. "This is final proof that Labour, elected on a platform to raise standards in education, has failed to deliver."

Ms Johnson said that plans to introduce more one-to-one coaching for struggling pupils from September would help to improve standards.

More here

Running out of rationales to oppose DC school vouchers

Washington, D.C. is about as politically liberal a city as there is anywhere in the United States. President Barack Obama rolled up a 93 percent landslide win over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to garner D.C.'s three electoral votes last November. The District has never come close to going Republican since the 23rd Amendment gave its residents the right to vote in presidential elections beginning in 1964.

So if school vouchers are part of a right-wing plot to take down public education, as teacher union leaders often insinuate, this method of advancing school choice ought to be despised by the vast majority of D.C. residents.

To the contrary, the latest public opinion poll on the issue shows 74 percent of D.C.'s registered voters view favorably the federally funded program that provides vouchers of up to $7,500 to 1,700 needy children to enable them to attend private schools.

Moreover, nearly eight in 10 parents of school-age children in D.C. oppose ending the vouchers, which are officially called D.C. Opportunity Scholarships.

Will this impressive show of public support make a difference? In March, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill with a provision engineered by Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin that targets D.C. vouchers for extinction. President Obama intervened only to the extent of preserving the tuition aid for students already in their chosen schools, refusing to extend this educational lifeline to future students.

The opinion poll was commissioned by the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and released by it and eight other groups, including the Greater Washington Urban League. The polling was done by a respected firm, Braun Research, Inc., which has done work for such organizations as Gallup, Pew Research Center, and Newsweek.

The research showed deep support for school choice beyond just this voucher program. For instance, 74 percent of voters had a favorable view of charter schools, which are independently managed public schools parents are free to choose.

As Friedman executive Robert Enlow wondered aloud, what more evidence could possibly be needed to show official Washington this program is both valued and valuable?

In addition to the show of public support (which also includes a letter of endorsement from a majority of D.C. City Council members), a U.S. Department of Education study has shown voucher students reading at a significantly higher level than their public-school peers.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is still trying to lead a bipartisan effort to rescue the voucher program when it comes up for reauthorization. However, unless President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan join in and defy the National Education Association, which virulently opposes all school choice vouchers, the D.C. program will likely die on the vine. Lately, the two have been courting the teacher unions as backers of national education standards and assessments, along with more government scrutiny of charter schools.

One might think the wishes of voters in a city that gave Obama 93 percent support would carry more weight with the president, but the NEA has a huge political war chest, thanks to its ability to collect hefty mandatory dues from its 3.2 million members. Sometimes, however, money talks louder than voters.


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