Do management gurus really improve your business? 

  
There is probably nothing less connected to everyday business management problem solving than early medieval philosophy. 

Recently I stumbled across a classic of this genre called The Consolation of Philosophy written by a chap called Boethius. It is a collection of his thoughts on life the universe and everything as he awaits execution after being wrongly found guilty of a crime. 

Just the sort of light reading you need after a hard day at the office you might think! 

In his prison cell he is visited by the goddess of philosophy who helps him make sense of his predicament and gives him peace of mind.

It was something in the first couple of pages that caught my and got me thinking about the impact and value of whole management education and consulting industry. 

Boethius is initially visited by the Muses – who inspire him to write down his initial thoughts. Then the goddess of philosophy and wisdom turns up (conventionally called Sophia – hence philosophy – love of wisdom) who sends the muses packing:

“Who,’ said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man—these who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison?”

Excerpt From: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. “The Consolation of Philosophy.” iBooks. 

Check out this book on the iBooks Store: Consolation of Philosophy

I wondered after reading this if management gurus of all types from university researchers and educators through to management consultants are as much to business as the Muses were to Boethuis. Do they actually provide deep insight and wisdom or do they merely peddle tool kits that simply structure the analysis of issues, the ranking of options and the selection of the silver bullet. 

(Ha! My predictive text suggested mullet – silver mullet eh? well they say the fish rots from the head cf Bob Garrat) 

So there we have it! From  Fish bone diagrams (cf Ishikawa) to Porters Five Forces, Prestcom to strategy canvas. From Belbin to Myers-Briggs. All very a-musing. Rather than giving businesses medicine are these really sweet poison?

‘Don’t be ridiculous Paul’ I hear you say. ‘These tools are really helpful, what’s your problem?’ 

Well to some extent I agree. Where I start to have a difficulty is when these tools are talked about ‘as if’ they the only game in town, the only way of understanding problems, the definitive way to describe the competitive space or the definite way of characterising people. 

Then I think these tools are ‘muse-like’. Tending to poison rather than medicine, something to be rote learned rather than understood and unthinkingly applied without a care for the assumptions they are built upon. 

Assumptions such as ‘the business environment can be objectively analysed and measured’ or ‘human beings can be categorically typed regardless of social context’.

Eric Fromm in his book To Have or To Be offered what I believe to be sage advice. He said we should beware of people who claim to have the answers. In the world of management this manifests itself as Normative advice. Advice that is purportedly factual and uncontestable, the norm, what you should or must do.

So what is a management educator to do? How can they create value if they aren’t telling executives what to do to solve their problems?

I wonder if it is fundamentally about developing awareness of how we make sense of this thing we call management (cf Alvesson and Wilmott). Thus it’s about inviting practioners to think about their assumed philosophy, about the nature of the business world and how it influences the reasoning they use to decide the actions they take?

Perhaps we are about visiting practioners in their psychic prisons and providing some intellectual medicine? 

What if businesses followed the advice of Plato mentioned by Boethius.

“That states [substitute organisations here] would be happy,  either if philosophers ruled them, or if it should so befall that their rulers would turn philosophers.”

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