Wednesday, April 18, 2020

A failing grade for the world’s business schools?

Are they a route towards a solution to today’s workplace issues; or a major part of the problem?

A little while ago, I posted an article about Professor Russell Ackoff’s “Management f-Laws.” Professor Ackoff, now 88 years old, has a mind as sharp as a razor and a subversive wit to match. These laws cleverly expose many of today’s conventional management ideas and assumptions as flaws in the process of running a business, not well-established steps to success as is usually believed. Here’s Ackoff’s take on business schools.
Recently, Professor Ackoff was in London to promote his book. He was interviewed by Peter Day, the dean of British business correspondents, and the interviews are posted on the BBC’s web site. In this two-part article. I want to draw your attention to Professor Ackoff’s thinking about two issues critical to leadership and management: the role of business schools, and the impact of our modern culture of suppressing or denying many of our mistakes.

Here are some choice extracts from what Professor Ackoff had to say about business schools:
Business schools are way back. They’re behind even corporate practice. They are a major obstruction.

Information is more valuable than data, and knowledge more valuable than information, and understanding more valuable than knowledge. We devote all of our time and energy to information and a little bit to knowledge. None to understanding and still less to wisdom.
Heady stuff, but not, I suspect, that far from the truth in many cases. Hamburger Management has infiltrated business schools in a big way, causing them to turn out mostly people polished in applying today’s orthodox style of macho, finance-obsessed, short-term management, not knowledgeable, thinking professionals equipped to make up their own minds and challenge sloppy thinking.

Peter Day summarizes Ackoff’s observations on business schools like this:
When he retired from the Wharton School in 1986, Professor Ackoff wickedly identified three contributions of a business school education:
  • It gives students a vocabulary that enables them to speak with authority on things they do not understand.
  • It gives them a set of operating principles that enable them to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence.
  • It gives them a ticket to a job where they can learn something about management.
Let’s consider each of these points from a Slow Leadership perspective.

Does an MBA help people to speak with authority on things that they don’t understand? I suspect it does, at least in this sense. To understand something fully takes time and experience, plus a willingness to reflect deeply on what you have observed over many different situations. It used to be that expertise went with age; mostly because age allowed for enough time to have passed, not because older people are automatically wiser. Now bright, young MBAs are assumed to know more than managers twice their age.

Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth?

Does time at a business school count for so much more than experience doing a management job? Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth? No, just another one of those conventional cultural myths that bedevil all societies, like wearing top hats or growing luxuriant whiskers marked out Victorian times. There are older people who refuse to stay current, but I strongly suspect that they were just as reactionary when they were 20 as today, when they are 60 or older. There are many young people who care nothing about new ideas, preferring to rely on mindless slogans and whatever is the currently fashionable clap-trap. Getting an MBA gives you access to today’s fashionable buzzwords, that’s for sure. I’m not convinced it always offers much else. Maybe that’s why so many businesses suffer from jargon-monoxide poisoning and creeping consultantitis.

In place of experience, we tend to rely on qualifications. Fine, if it’s also proof of some level of knowledge and hands-on training, as in the case of doctors. Not so good, if all it means is that you were able to absorb theoretical information and write term papers, as in the case of many MBAs.

What about the idea that business school student absorb a set of principles that are proof against all subsequent evidence that they are wrong?

. . . a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

Also true. When I worked in management and executive posts, I came across hundreds of managers who had shown neither the inclination, nor the wit, to keep their knowledge up to date. Most relied entirely on a few basic principles they had learned maybe 25 years ago. They didn’t question them, because they had nothing to put in their place. Besides, questioning them would have taken time and thought, and they never slowed down enough to apply either. Since they were surrounded by others behaving in exactly similar ways, they appeared to fit in perfectly: a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

The last of Peter Day’s points does at least offer hope. The best way to learn about management and business is by doing it. You’ll get ample experience and have the chance to test your ideas in realistic situations. So far so good.

There’s one catch. You have to be willing both to make mistakes and reflect on them honestly afterwards. Pushing them aside, or hiding them from everyone (including yourself), renders this chance for learning null and void. And it’s not just mistakes arising from what you did that count. More problems are caused by mistakes based on not doing what you ought to have done.

But that’s the topic of part two of this article.

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Caroline said...

Dear Carmine
We're delighted that you mention Russell Ackoff's latest book, Management f-LAWS, on your blog. We'd like to offer you and your blog readers a 10% discount on the full price. To claim your discount, simply enter triarchy-ten at the Triarchy Press checkout:
Best wishes, Caroline
Triarchy Press Ltd
[email protected]

1:06 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thank you, Caroline.

It's a book that is very well worth reading.

6:37 AM  
Eclecticity said...

Facinating that you and I are on the same wavelength about this. I just got Management f-Laws and really like it.

I posted this recently:

The post right after this mentions f-Laws after I did a quick search to see if RA was still with us.

Keep up the good work! DF

12:38 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, DF.

RA is very much still with us, and not a whit less iconoclastic for his advancing years.

Glad you liked the post.

Keep reading, my friend.

2:19 PM  
dzed said...


I agree with you wholeheartedly. However there is at least one business program whose DNA is infused with a different perspective. The GreenMBA.

"Transform Yourself, Business, The World"

The program grows out of a culture of compassion, respect and intellectual humility. It is about doing business as if people mattered, as if the more than human world mattered.

Business as practiced now is a soulless machine. A golem. Most business schools train engineers to oil the wheels.

All involved are dehumanized. Desacralized. We are taught that everything has a price but that nothing has any value. Meaning is removed from the world.

Nature is destroyed as if it had no import.

And we state our amazement at the high levels of mental illness, the high levels of consumption of prozac, alcohol, painkillers, tv, food, of meaningless crap.

It is the story of the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, looking for his heart.

It is the story of King Midas turning all that he touches into gold. We know how that story turns out.

Moloch is an enlightening mythical form to contemplate in this regard too.

Two interesting news stories I saw yesterday:

Study Documents the Power of Indoor Plants

"Green thumb or not, most of us have at least one houseplant because even the most pathetic mini-shrub offers our citified selves a slender link back to nature, according to new research."

Survey Reveals Most Satisfying Jobs

"Firefighters, the clergy and others with professional jobs that involve helping or serving people are more satisfied with their work and overall are happier than those in other professions, according to results from a national survey."

Materialism is a cancer of the psyche. Business practices, business schools are a symptom, not a cause.

We have to change our thinking, all else will flow from there.



david at

8:30 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a great comment, David.

I'm sure that many of the readers of this blog will thank you for the links to take this topic further. You certainly opened my eyes to things I did not know about before.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:38 AM  

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