Management Studies and Capitalism

Or why the study of business is bullshit?

The prime objective of and semi-academics field called Management Studies is to legitimize management, Managerialism (the ideology of management), companies and corporations but foremost corporate capitalism. For that the crypto-academic field of management studies has been made part of business schools that are linked to universities. This further enhances the reputation of management studies. In his book recent “Management Studies in Crisis”, Dennis Tourish argues that Management Studies is plagued by fraud, deception and meaningless research. He is by no means the first to point this out. André Spicer, for example, says “Business is Bullshit” while Martin Parker claims that business schools should be shut down. Others say, business schools should be bulldozed.

With the exception of those working in business schools whom Upton Sinclair once described as a particular kind of man when he pronounced, It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! Many commentators would have predicted that studies funded by drink companies are five times more likely than studies not funded by them to deny the link between sugary drinks and obesity – surprise, surprise. Yet many if not all, business schools pride themselves on two things:

  • first, of having excellent links to business, boasting about this on their websites and in brochures, having business conferences, business seminars and, of course, business lunches while simultaneously hiding how beholden they are to corporations; and
  • second, of being able to attract plenty of euphemistically called industry grants, i.e., corporate funding and sometimes even the corporate lobbying that comes with it. As long as children get sugary drinks and profits are rolling in for large corporations, all is fine with the world of business schools and Management Studies which is just a “study” after all.

Since Management Studies is seen as a “study” and not as science like Geology, Sociology, Astronomy, Psychology, Anthropology, Toxicology and so on; Management Studies seeks to camouflage its very own inferiority. It likes to pretend to be a proper social science by enforcing yet another tautology: management theory. Ever since Fayol’s command-and-control and Taylor’s time-and-motion system, management is about controlling workers and administering factories and offices. It is not a theoretical issue.

Management Studies is largely about administration, as one can still see in the “A” (administration) in MBA. Because of being something akin to not much more than a high-school or trades college subject at best, Management Studies people lack confidence in their own academic status. As a consequence, they push theory development which has become an unhealthy obsession. Since neither management nor Management Studies nor management professors are theoreticians, the result is a great deal of pretentious gibberish while trivial insights are converted into grandiose abstract statements that are made to look like theory.

Management Studies Theory

As many so-called top-management journals place a strong emphasis on theory building it seems reasonable to expect some standard definitions that tell us what theory is in fine detail. Yet much of organisation theory is not much more than technocratic unimaginativeness spiced up with generalisations that often display a mind-numbing banality. The standard 7,500-word journal-science contribution, as we have noted above, follows a very tired formula of introduction, literature review, methods, results and discussion. Even more boring and painful is the fact that one might imagine that they are written by a computer rather than a human being. Yet sticking to this robotic formulae nevertheless, helps authors to achieve their primary goal – publication.

After having served this nonsense as president of the American Academy of Management (1992-1993), more than a decade later, Hambrick admitted, our field’s theory fetish prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists. In other words, journal editors serve the course of Management Studies and, once done, some admit the truth. In this case, there is a fetish-like fascination – in a Freudian not Marxian understanding – with theory in Management Studies. Quite often Management Studies theory development has led to what Shakespeare would have called Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, it prevents new research. Some blaspheming heretics might wrongly think that is the very purpose of scholarship in Management Studies.

Second, such admissions always come “after” journal editors have enforced the dogma of Management Studies for years. Perhaps, it is some top-journal editor’s McNamara Moment. Well, I bombed Viet-Nam into oblivion, killed two million of its people and poisoned the rest with Agent Orange for years on end, but now decades later, when all is done and dusted, I can lean back and freely admit that I was wrong.

Unlike real theories such as, for example, Einstein’s E=MC2 or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, no more than 9% of the theoretical presentations published in Academy of Management Review are ever tested. It is insular nonsense read by a handful of academics who aspire to get into the AMR. It is what Shelley Gare once called, The Triumph of the Airheads. The overwhelming number of so-called theories outlined in the AMR and similar periodicals have no predictive value at all. Much of all this applies to one of the stars of Management Studies, Gerd Hofstedte with an h-index of 97.

In Management Studies one can reach 97. Just produce a theory that puts virtually all countries into just six boxes of national culture and that is easy to comprehend. Following that, one also needs to produce a “theory” – well, six boxes labelled “theory”. Such a theory needs to be incapable of predicting outcomes and incapable of explaining why, for example, Austria – deemed to have a very low power distance culture with a fairly high uncertainty avoidance. It produced Sigmund Freud but also Adolf Hilter. This might raise the question of how useful can a theory of national culture be when it is held to explain one person’s behaviour in fine detail but fails to account for the opposite behaviour in someone else?

Finally, your theory needs to be based on very thin evidence. Hofstedte drew his data from Hong Kong, Singapore and Pakistan from just thirty-seven questionnaires. Hofstedte’s book was published in 1980. At that time Pakistan had about 80 million people. So 37 out of 80 million is 0.00004625% – hardly a convincing sample to make assumptions about the national culture of large complex country as Pakistan. Perhaps stuff like this gets you an h-index of 97 because it follows the old saying, never let the facts get into the way of a good story. Yet, despite their weak empirical basis such “research” fulfils the following three conditions:

  1. It offers a strong narrative that makes bold claims;
  2. It seems intuitively to have something going for them; and
  3. It can fit readily into pedagogy.

It is overblown nonsense that makes one wonder about an h-index of 97, just as one wonders when one sees the often flaunted title “Professor of Management Studies” on a business card handed out at every Management Studies conference one tends to attended until realizing what a scam the entire charade is. More often than not, one is left with the impression that certain authors are re-writing the same paper any number of times. This is called having an “established track record” by university apparatchiks. Careers have been built by these means, particularly Management Studies.

Careers are also built by stoically adhering to the fact that most mainstream journals are formulaic, cautious, dull and unreadable. Career progression comes with a hefty dose of subordination to the stringent recipe of a big claim + jargon divided by a humungous list of references. This comes in addition to the four golden rules for academic writing. Of course, the “gold rule” means that those who have the gold rule. In publishing in Management Studies, it is journal editors. In any case, the four rules are:

  1. Never use a short and familiar word where a long and unfamiliar one will do;
  2. Never use one word when you can stretch it out to four words;
  3. Bamboozle people with managerialist jargon; and finally,
  4. Fresh metaphors, humour and irony wake people up and are therefore your enemy; so rely on clichés. Plodding seriousness and tonelessness.

On the whole and, as at least one academic admitted, If I don’t write for our top journals, I might as well be writing a letter to my mother. I am tempted to suggest that writing a letter to our mothers, even those who have passed away, would be a better use of our time than writing many of the papers that appear in our hollowed journals. Many hollow management journals indeed publish articles with, as Henry Mintzberg once said, banal results, significant only in the statistical sense of the word. This is even more so in one of the greatest fads of Management Studies: leadership.

Authoritarian Leadership

One of the supreme ideologies that has been bequeathed to Management Studies by its Floundering Fathers is the ideology of leadership. Une idée fixe of leadership is a near perfect ideology for Management Studies because it serves three functions: a) camouflaging contradictions; b) supporting domination; and c) preventing emancipation. The ideology of leadership masks the three classical contradictions:

  1. between management and workers (wages, working time and working conditions; leadership supports the domination
  2. of management over workers; and finally it prevents workers from emancipation
  3. by making leadership appear natural, neutral and eternal.

As a consequence of the importance of this ideology of leadership for Management Studies, there are at least 94 academic journals devoted exclusively to leadership, in one context or another with 244,000 articles and 100,000 books on leadership. Nothing in the world of Management Studies beats the grant ideology of leadership. Not surprisingly, the ideological flagship of Managerialism’s fleet, the Harvard Business Review, is convinced that all our problems can be solved if only the right leader is in place. Mussolini and Donald Trump would agree.

Both of these Great Leaders (Il Duce and “Your Favourite US President”) would agree even more with une idée fixe of Management Studies that there is an enthusiastic army of devoted followers cheering on the great corporate leader. To improve the ideology of leadership, Management Studies has assigned the term authenticity. Authentic leadership sounds not only better but also fulfils its role as an ideology even more that simple leadership. In rhetorical theory it even fulfils what Poole calls Unspeak – nobody wants to be inauthentic. Self-evidently, the feeble theorising, shoddy empirical work, questionable research practice, a bias for positive results and dubious statistical analysis is cranked up by unctuous followers whenever management academics write about leadership.

Like Mussolini and Donald Trump, a Management Studies guru likes it when most power is concentrated in the hands of leaders like himself. The fact that all of this eliminates democracy escapes Management Studies in a reminiscence of nineteenth-century authoritarianism and today’s plethora of military dictatorships and many others. The word “democracy” is almost never mentioned by Management Studies. Simultaneously, we have been made to believe we live in a democracy even though the places where we spend eight (or more) hours a day for roughly forty years of our lives are democratic exclusion zones. To gaslight its own authoritarianism, Management Studies folk also like to talk of transformational leadership by which, of course, none of them means a transformation to democracy.

Beyond that, experts and exponents of Management Studies pretend that authentic leaders are paragons of perfection and candidates for canonisation. And indeed, Management Studies encourages business leaders to regard themselves in a messianic fashion. Lagging never far behind, the Harvard Business School, a fad surfer par excellence, now offers executive education courses on it telling its disciples you are to become the type of leader you most admire. In Harvard’s case the cost for this hierophany is US$15,500 for five days.

Some of the great corporate leaders once paraded by Management Studies include, not only Enron boss Ken Lay, pyramid-builder Bernie Madoff, Blockbuster’s John Keyes, Time Warner’s Gerald Levin, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, HP’s Carly Fiorina, IBM’s John Akers, Toys R Us’ Santa’s little helper Robert Nakasone, Polaroid’s Gary DiCamillo, BlackBerry’s Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, Ford’s Mark Fields, Mattel’s Margo Georgiadis, etc.; but also Linda Wachner who Fortune Magazine once called the toughest boss in the US. Why? Because she had a brutal attitude towards people. On one memorable occasion, she ordered a colleague to fire people at random to show that he was serious about improving performance.

These and plenty of others, like BP’s Tony Hayward overseeing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that also killed eleven workers, are hardly mentioned when Management Studies trumpets the great corporate leader. Perhaps most of what Management Studies scribes are writing about as leadership is written to conceal rather than reveal. Much of this extends to the fact that writings on leadership tend to present an over-attributed responsibility for organisational outcomes to leaders. It stands to reason, they say, if an organisation succeeds, the leader was authentic. If it fails, the leader was inauthentic. Great managerial ideologues live from simplicity and a willing business press to push the party line. ABB CEO Percey Barnevik is a case in point,

Harvard Business Review described him as a corporate pioneer building the new model of the competitive enterprise; Fortune magazine offered the view that if lean and mean could be personified, Percey Barnevik would walk through the door; Business Week opined that the hard charging executive of ABB has seen the future and it contains no boundaries despite a manic drive and a fast-track career, Barnevik is surprisingly unpretentious; Forbes claimed that Barnevik relishes taking a scythe to corporate bloat. But when performance dipped so did the narrative around its leader. He had build walls around himself; he had been high-handed in his treatment of the bloat; he has monopolised the flow of information, and much more.

Virtually, the same happened to Enron CEO Kenny Lay virtually overnight. Undeterred, leadership as presented by Management Studies just adds a few positive-sounding adjectives like transformational, servant, spiritual, complexity and authentic to leadership and the ideology can roll on. Perhaps the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was correct when saying, if you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. Without this, we have pseudo-science. Researchers into authentic leadership have fallen into this trap, willingly at best. At worst, they are the propagators of an empty and fatuous ideology.

Much of this is in line with the core task of Management Studies, namely the privileging of a management voice above that of other organisational actors. As you would expect, this is enforced by a positivist and functionalist paradigm within Management Studies flanked by obscure topics and impenetrable jargon that fill the pages of our journals. Within the broader scheme of Management Studies, this applies to some extent to human resource management as well. The study of human resource management showcases this problem perfectly. Despite decades of work and the publications of hundreds of studies, we are still in no position to assert which any confidence that good HRM has an impact on organisational performance.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics

Overall, empiricism fails to come to grips with real-world problems because of its scientific reduction of complex multi-dimensional and multi-causal problems to that which can be measured. This explains why none of the books ever written in the area of Management Studies will ever feature on the list of the one-hundred most influential books ever written. Much of Management Studies is narrow-minded garbage that is irrelevant to humanity. Worse, Management Studies offers an enriched theoretical lexicon but a diminished sense of social responsibility. To camouflage this, Management Studies has invented not just business ethics but also yet another ideology that pervades the pages of Management Studies journals – corporate social responsibility.

In leadership studies, business ethics and CSR, one finds an unremittingly pro-top-management tone [almost] to the exclusion of any evidence that might cause us to reflect. What defines Management Studies, then, is profitability, control, and so on. Like the aforementioned democracy, profits and control are avoided like the plague by Management Studies. For profits, MS tends to use the nice-sounding words “shareholder value” even though one of their most celebrated and notorious gurus and the uber hero of maximizing shareholder value (according to Forbes magazine), GE CEO Jack Welch (1981-2001) admitted half a decade “after” leaving his position in 2015 that Shareholder value is the world’s dumbest idea.

Undeterred by the admission of one of their own heroes, the ideology of shareholder value defines business schools and Management Studies. They and their ideology exist only to serve the needs of managers. As a consequence, both push une idée fixe that the managerial voice articulates a universal interest, another empty product of ideology. Management Studies represents the very opposite of a universal interest. The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, represents the universal interest, but not Management Studies.

Management Studies represent the sectarian interest of managers, companies, corporations and corporate capitalism. Just imagine if medical schools were told that their research should aim to meet the needs of the pharmaceutical industry. It is this skewed logic that animates much of the writing of Management Studies. They aren’t even ashamed of what they do.

Much of this is built into the system constructed by business schools, university apparatchiks and corporations. The interest symbiosis between them – and adjacent players – creates an ever greater reliance on funding from companies and well-off alumni which has led to a decline in research on topics that attempt to measure social impact. Global warming is a case in point from which we all will suffer for decades to come.

Part of that is the university apparatchik’s relentless pushing of student satisfaction surveys which are increasingly common in universities’ and business schools. Some even suggest that academics should maintain a certain level of smiling behaviour before, during and after lectures, and that these behaviours should be carefully monitored. This is not only Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” come true and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish but also Orwells Big Brother is Watching You!.

Critical Management Studies

However, during the 1990s a few people inside Management Studies started to detect that not all is well in Management Studies. They introduced a corrective system to Management Studies by adding the term “critical”, and Voila! you get “Critical Management Studies”. CMS tends to claim that it originated, at least in parts, in the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In a rough understanding, Critical Theory works to end domination and to introduce emancipation. By contrast, CMS has none of this but seeks to deliver better management, better Management Studies and better end products. Whatever better means. CMS operates on four key premises:

  1. Critical thinking – the critique of rhetoric;
  2. Being sceptical of conventional wisdom – the critique of tradition;
  3. Being sceptical on one dominant view – the critique of authority; and
  4. Being sceptical of information and knowledge – the critique of objectivity

Despite or perhaps because of CMS and Management Studies, we have made even more progress towards the dystopian goal Orwell has identified. In the dystopian world of Management Studies, business schools and CMS publishing has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end – the dissemination of good ideas. In a way, Management Studies and even CMS represents the very opposite of what Chomsky said, It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. For Management Studies and business schools this creates two problems. First, Management Studies and business schools are full of academics – not intellectuals; second, both are working hard to cover up lies using the crypto-scientific methods at their disposal while adding a hefty dose of ignorance and narrow-mindedness.

Today the Academy of Management has a CMS sub-division with over 700 members. CMS has become part of the mainstream – CMs has failed. If Critical Theory would have become part of the mainstream, probably it would have lost all sense and purpose. Not so CMS. Once CMS has become part of the mainstream, it has fulfilled its task. Overall, CMS sometimes resembles a fire fighter who spots an inferno but decides to write a report on it rather than help to extinguish the flames. In other words, CMS is about moving about the deck chairs on the Titanic so that these can float better. Perhaps Paul Thompson was not off the mark when saying, CMS is predisposed to problematize everything and resolve nothing.

As a consequence, Mats Alvesson, Yiannis Gabriel and Roland Paulsen’s admission that high-quality journals bore people by writing little more than tedious rubbish. And yet, young academics at such institutions supposedly world-class business schools arrive in a blaze of glory after publishing a few papers in world-leading journals, only to find with horror that they are now expected to maintain barking-mad work norms for decades to come to make your career your life. For when the music stops, the applause fades and speaking invitations dry up, it is easy to see one’s whole-life achievement as little more than an empire built out of sand.

In the end, there is more to life than publishing in top journals, slogging along for the benefit of Management Studies and working in a business school. Conceivably, the author of Shut Down the Business School and enfant terrible of CMS Martin Parker wasn’t wrong when advocating that business schools should be abolished and replaced instead by schools of organising serving humanity rather than the narrow interest of the self-serving elite of Management Studies.

Despite all this the pathologies of Management Studies serve its core constituencies, namely, business schools and academic journals, as well as university apparatchiks with their obsession with rankings, KPIs and the fetishism of impact factors and, most importantly, companies and corporations and, above all, corporate capitalism.

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