Friday, November 03, 2020

Why Management Education Sucks Too

Kathy Sierra has a great posting today about the mess that science education has been reduced to in the United States (and pretty much everywhere else in the world, I believe). It's called: Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?.

Here is some of what she says:
We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization. We work and test them even harder on using the tools for communication (e.g. code) rather than the tools for thought (e.g. intuition, visualization, etc.)

Our educational institutions--at every level--need drastic changes or we're all screwed. The generation of students we're turning out today need skills nobody really cared about 50, 40, even 20 years ago. Where we used to prepare students for a 'job for life', now we must prepare students to be jobless. We must prepare them to think fast, learn faster, and unlearn even faster ('yes, that drug was the appropriate way to treat the XYZ disease, but that was so last week. THIS week we now realize it'll kill you.')
Everything in her post applies just as much (maybe even more so) to management and so-called "leadership" education. Business schools and trainers focus on teaching people historical lessons about past leadership efforts, a mass of poorly-evidenced theories, and simplistic lists of do's and don'ts about what to do and not to do. Communication is the big kick—but almost nothing about what to be communicating.

Where are the classes to encourage lateral thinking, creative outlooks, innovative ideas, or challenging the status quo?
Where is the teaching about how to think, how to spot untested assumptions, how to apply logic and reason to find answers, how to understand the mass of numbers that managers are drowning in today, or how to use your brain instead of your mouth? Where are the classes to encourage lateral thinking, creative outlooks, innovative ideas, or challenging the status quo?

They aren't there for several reasons:
  1. Those in charge are afraid that encouraging people to think will also encourage them to think "heresy" and challenge the present way of doing things—their way. (It should—and a very good thing too!)

  2. Half the population in management offices fears they aren't as bright as they make out they are, and don't want the fact revealed. The other half has been brainwashed into believing they are much less bright than reality would prove, if only they tried thinking for themselves, but are too afraid even to try.

  3. Everyone is so damned busy and stressed that adding thinking to the mix seems altogether too much. Let's just get it done, is the cry. Having to think as well is something we can do without.

  4. Some nations, like the United States, have developed a severe case of distrust in anyone "intellectual" or clever. They prefer the Plain Man (and Plain Woman) to the one who has a brain. Mostly this is a mixture of envy and fear, since most people have been convinced by the education system that they are fairly stupid, because they cannot recall the capitals of all the US states, the names of every Founding Father, and how to solve differential equations on demand to pass some crazy test. If you need to know things like that, look them up. Use your brain to think, not regurgitate pointless facts.
Come on, guys. We all know this kind of learning has virtually nothing to do with actual business success, and everything to do with maintaining the status quo and minimizing the risk that someone, somewhere will (gasp!) do something new or creative.

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Robert Heath said...

Distrust of using the intellect has a long history in the United States, as chronicled in Richard Hofstadter's book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. It's been a few years since I read it, so I can't describe it in any detail here. I do remember being astonished at the similarity of the patterns in such behavior in the past and now.
Great (and free) tools are available for download for concept mapping and dialogue mapping. For the former, check out CMap Tools ( For the latter, visit Compendium Institute ( I use these tools now every day in my work as a technical writer in a large software company. One can build concept maps together with engineers to piece together how software works. One can use dialogue mapping for thinking, planning, keeping conversations on track in meetings, and more. I use the Compendium tool for my to-do list, as well.
Mind-mapping is another technique for brainstorming around a central concept, and I find it useful for outlining the docs that I write about how to use software. Freemind is a freeware mind-mapping tool that works very well.

10:53 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the very useful comment and links, Robert. I will certainly try these tools myself.

Keep reading, my friend.

12:42 PM  
JKB said...

I believe it is a mixture of all your possible reasons.

As I've risen in the ranks of the bureaucracy, I've found that no matter what you propose or do there are three people who work against you. It is never the same three people. If half the effort put into undermining others was directed at the bottom line, productivity would go through the roof. But they fear if they let someone else get ahead, their subterfuge will be revealed. Upper management generally were promoted by implementing the current way things are done, so they fear any questions that might undermine their accomplishments.

There seems to be a bias against any investment, even if that investment is in learning. In order to think you have to have some awareness of not only the subtleties of the problem but also a broad knowledge of possible solutions. If only there were time to think.

American society supports advanced degree education but not a diversity of knowledge. Eclectic interests are derided and God forbid you should attempt to associate research in one field to a problem in another. That is considered heresy beyond heresy. And yet management is the ultimate "renaissance" discipline. By the time you reach the upper levels of management, if your not well rounded, your always at risk of it all unravelling when your sharp edges snag upon the changing threads of business.

The best management education is to be well read in a variety of subjects and to always be trying to apply the knowledge gained in new and unorthodox ways. New management ideas are like stocks, by the time they are published most of the profit has been removed through arbitrage or by changing conditions.

8:04 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

How true your comment is, JKB.

Knowledge (i.e. facts) is considered acceptable, but thinking and exploration (i.e. challenging what is assumed to be known as a fact) is seen as deeply suspicious. Yet it is, and always has been, the only basis for any advancement of knowledge. I suppose that is why man's history is full of struggles between the forces of orthodoxy, whether the Inquisition or the academic establishment, and those who would move knowledge forward.

Business is no more exempt from this than any other discipline, I'm sad to say. People know (or I think they do) what really works to produce innovation and fresh insights, but reject it in favor of remaining within the bounds of what is socially acceptable.

Maybe the duty thus falls to those of us who are retired, and therefore exempt from most direct pressure, to speak out and say what others dare not. Or maybe we are all cranky old fogies.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:02 PM  
Lars G. Svensson said...

Point 4 in your list (Americans prefer the 'plain man/woman' is interesting to someone from the old world (like me). in the European debates, it's almost a topos that we due to inflexible higher education lack those brilliant people graduating from places like Harvard or MIT and that we desperately need similar elite institutions to be able to keep up with the Americans. If it really is like that, that MIT or Yale graduates are distrusted in the US, there seems to be little point in keeping those universities running... (or maybe we should just send more Europeans!)

1:54 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I'm from the old world too, Lars.

Maybe the distrust of intellectuals is an Anglo-Saxon trait, and is just worse in the USA. When I lived in Great Britain it was there too, but the class system ensured it didn't have too much effect (the upper classes tended to go to the best schools and universities, even if they weren't always the brightest people).

My own experience with US universities is that the best are very, very good, and the general run is somewhat more mediocre in academic standards. But the universities aren't the problem. It's the parochialism of the American media, where "foreign news" means what happens in the next state. When I want to know what's happening in the world, I need to read the British and Canadian papers via the Internet.

As for sending more Europeans here, good idea! I tell my American friends that my presence is due to a subtle plan by Great Britain to reclaim its wayward colony over time.

8:32 AM  

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