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Matthew Stewart and Blogger Willmon

Matthew Stewart has a wonderfully funny article in the current Atlantic, mocking "The Management Myth." As "founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees," Stewart "interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates," and in this June Atlantic concludes their time getting an M.B.A. hugely a waste of time.  In exchange for spending two years in business school, and going far into debt, the most that most got out of it was "learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like eout-of-the-box thinking,' ewin-win situation,' and ecore competencies.'"

Stewart's take on the funniness of all this goes back to the history of business schools and their successions of management theories.  He recounts these from  back in 1899, when Frederick Winslow Taylor posed the first questions famously seeking systematic productivity from workplaces.  From experiments he did then, Taylor got his classic text, The Principles of Scientific Management.  He got an appointment to teach "Taylorism" at America's first graduate school offering a master's degree in business (Harvard, in 1909).  But something odd was going on underneath all this, writes Stewart.  Much as Taylor claimed scientific objectivity, he never published the data for his first key observations, and such data as vouched these claims in his textbook proved to be non-reproducible:  not "scientific" after all.

The subsequent history of management theory proves similarly amusing for Stewart, recounting as he does the "revolutions" in gurus urging changes in business organizations, most recently with people like Tom Peters and Gifford Pinchot and their "end of bureaucracy" and the "perpetually creative organization."  These were the reforms for the 1990s – but one thing, he says, cannot be said of all this newness:  it's not new.

Stewart shows the history of "reforms" in business theory as making the same loops generation after generation.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter a decade before Peters and Pinchot was also urging ridding the old "segmentalist," vertical business hierarchies for ones more "informal," "integrative," and "change-oriented."  But even in her 1980s Kanter wasn't new.  Back in 1961 Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker had their turn with a best-selling diatribe against the old "mechanistic" flow charts and for the newly "organic."  They, too, notes Stewart, wanted less vertical dynamics, and more lateral ones, and "ad hoc" coordination centers and jobs continuously redefined.  But these weren't new.  James Worthy had celebrated the "flat" organization in the 1940s, "and W. B. Given coined the term ebottom-up management' in 1949.  And in the 1920s Mary Parker Follett was attacking "departmentalized" thinking.

Management theorists, says Stewart, don't practice science any more than did founding guru Taylor, and that's because M.B.A.s have turned "obfuscatory jargon – in other words, bullshit" into a collection of quasi-religious dicta . . . ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies)."  Theirs is at best, Stewart says, "a subgenre of self-help," a discipline that mainly consists "of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers."

Stewart nevertheless finds all this funny for the simple fact that in their rush for re-fashioning jargon all hew close to one delectable fact, one great old theme:  the perennial contest between efficient rationality on one hand, and human emotion on the other.  "And the debate goes on," he says, one side always putting stress on efficiency, the other on people having feelings.

Literature and philosophy have posed this same basic theme, says Stewart, much better than management theory ever can:  "In the 5,200 years since the Sumerians first etched their pictograms on clay tablets . . . human beings have produced an astonishing wealth of creative expression on the topics of reason, passion, and living with other people."  Thus he contrasts the looping rounds of management theorists with a someone like Descartes, who as "students of philosophy know, . . . dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure."  Stewart urges the best of our "books, plays, music, works of art, and plain old graffiti" as "every bit as relevant to the dilemmas faced by managers in their quests to make the world a more productive place."

He sees something else key to literature and philosophy, and missing from management lit:  the awareness that "values" even in the business world imbue everything, all the time.  Corporate America, for instance, typically measures productivity as if it were an objective issue, and neutral – a mere "description of some aspects of physical reality":  how much stuff can a worker lift?  Stewart argues instead that questions like this always carry moral issues:  how much stuff should a worker lift.  Workplaces are all about power, he says – that's why every issue has rational, efficiency sides inevitably weighed against the human.  It is always power that settles these equations, though at the same time, "All of business is about values, all the time," he says.  Power fits the human to its bottom line, always by one perspective:  "how much of a worker's sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness for its purpose?"

During the same week that the June Atlantic appeared, someone by Web name "Willmon" posted a blog with the title "Leviathan," relating the issue of values to Big Brother government (http://billmon.org/archives/002440.html, May 13, 2006).  Willmon raised this question when polls were showing 63% of Americans willing to defer to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) mining our private phone calls by the billions.  We are so deferential, Willmon guesses, speaking of us in third-person, for perhaps the oldest illusion:

By giving up their privacy and – potentially – their civil liberties in exchange for a degree of protection (real or imaginary) from terrorism, they've sacrificed items that apparently are of only marginal value to them for something more important – their belief that the organization is looking out for them.

Willmon also nods to Stewart's contrast between values economic and human – how organization leaders may be ruled, unknown even to themselves, by their own comfort issues:

This is particularly true when the officials at the top of the heap – who are theoretically in the driver's seat – are either incompetent, corrupt (and thus not inclined to challenge the status quo) or driven by their own personal imperatives, such as obsessive fear of external or internal enemies.

And he sees, too, how the high-ranking often deny huge areas of their own emotional lives, ascribing them instead to bureaucracies.  And

the modern bureaucracy (and I would include the modern megacorporation in that category) functions more like a machine, or perhaps a colony of one-celled organisms like a coral or a sponge. It's essentially mindless, driven by a set of basic imperatives, of which the most relentless is the urge to grow, to expand both in size and power.  To paraphrase Edward Abbey: It has the ideology of a cancer cell.

Willmon sets the allure of growth as the primary value goading organizations.  He sees how Dick Cheney has fed NSA's spying engorgement as "one of a horde of data mining organisms cloned form Admiral Poindexter's original Total (as in totalitarian) Information Awareness program."  This cloning growth has come logically because, when humanity most denies other values, it can most further debase itself in thrall to cancer-metastasizing growth scenarios.  Bureaucracies can sink to this logic when managers losing sight of other human values thus turn to technology as efficiency substitute.  Cheney and his Sorcerer's Apprentice clones have themselves massively turned to technology, Willmon says, to compensate for the "U.S. intelligence community's . . . obvious deficiencies in human intelligence gathering."  This has happened, too, as part of an "even more long-standing tradition – at work since the first Europeans arrived on the continent – of substituting cheap capital (processor chips) for expensive labor (spooks)."  It all follows the "economic need to stuff the giant, gaping maw of the defense industry with IT contracts."  Worse, it all happens due to the

complete lack of any countervailing force in American politics, to the point where it is no longer possible to imagine any president – much less a retired general – standing up to warn his fellow citizens about the growing power of the military-industrial complex. 

"Two world wars," Willmon says, "a dozen genocides and innumerable police states later, the piranha truly has grown into a whale: an armor-plated, nuclear-armed, supercomputing whale with a bad case of paranoia."  So we not only have "a national security bureaucracy running completely out of control," but also have its debased values replicated "throughout corporate America and in American society as a whole."  Willmon admits himself as one of the "millions of Americans . . . in the corporate or public sector white collar world" who "have already grown accustomed to a loss of personal privacy and a degree of social control" – even if "most shops don't expect the rank and file to act like the smiling idiots in the latest corporate training film."

He locates the moral position most of us have reached in the other parts of our bureaucracies, all of us accommodating in a singular way: "The lesson learned is submission to authority, or at least the passive acceptance of hierarchical relationships."  We've learned

to be good bureaucrats, and good bureaucrats understand that if the organization is tapping phones – or infecting test subjects with syphilis or dumping toxic waste in rivers or shipping undesirable people off to concentration camps – it must have a good reason. 

Both Matthew Stewart and Willmon understand the degrees of the "belief that the organization is looking out for" us when, really, it contrarily but follows the most debased allures of efficiency, surrendering all other views of humanity to the lowest, where otherwise cancerous bureaucracies float their most-privileged in protective bubbles, all masked by clouds of cant, cliché, and specialized sloganeering.  Stewart and Willmon both agree that this reduced form of culture permeates all the bureaucracies of corporate America – but neither ever wonders where it was that we all systematically learned the values of giving up our privacy, stepping outside of our personal lives, playing sucker to the living dead.  Neither ever looks to that greatest metastasizing crèche – our massively replicating corporate academia in it all its mutually-isolated specialist departments, and impersonality conceits.

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