I promised this post in comments to Chris’s on Blackburn’s myths below, where I took my life in my hands and disagreed with John. I think that actually, there probably is “a general skill called management which works in any and all domains”, and, just to raise the tariff and secure gold medal position for myself in the Steven Landsburg Memorial Mindless Contrariolympiad, I’ll also defend the proposition that this skill is pretty closely related to what they teach on MBA courses. But first a couple of remarks on Blackburn’s own “Myth of Management“.
In his very definition, Blackburn pretty much gives it away; he says that “[the myth of management] claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports”. What does this even mean? How do you manage a warehouse or an airport if it’s impossible to manage people? If he had said “like machines” or even “like factories”, then it might have been comprehensible, but a warehouse which doesn’t have any people working in it is just a shed full of stuff and doesn’t require any management because no deliveries or shipments are being made. And an airport without people is just a warehouse for planes. Warehousing and transport are two very labour-intensive industries.
There are two possibilities here. One is merely that Blackburn is a snob – that writing as a professor of philosophy in the THES, he felt entitled to assume his audience would know that “people” meant “middle class people”, and would agree with the implicit assertion that “people” of this sort were capable of independent thought and could not be tied down, man, unlike the meat robots who packed their books for Amazon or swiped their tickets at Heathrow. But to assume this would be wildly uncharitable. The other, and I think more likely, explanation, is that Blackburn has no idea whatsoever about what managing a warehouse or an airport would entail, and no real interest in finding out.
There is a clear analogy here to CP Snow’s famous point about “Two Cultures”;
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had
What I mean, of course, is that if a middle manager were to mention over the dinner table that one of his proudest boasts was that he had never engaged in abstract thought in the last twenty years, had consistently managed to avoid doing so throughout his career, and that indeed whenever he was asked to provide an informed opinion on a general or abstract subject, he typically did it intentionally badly in order to make sure he was never asked again, then we would presumably agree that we were dealing with an unusually awful species of pig-ignorant chucklehead.
And yet of course, for both of CP Snow’s intellectual cultures, the parallel view of administration and management is so commonplace as to be a cliche. The abhorrence of academics of management is notorious (the abominable fashion in which so many academic institutions are actually managed even more so). Conversely, the practical men of engineering have developed an entire culture of their own based round the assumption that everything in the world is done by small groups of engineers who spontaneously organise themselves into work units, with occasional interference and distraction caused by “marketroids” who perform no function at all. Very rare indeed is a figure like Fred Brooks who actually applies scientific principles to the analysis of the organisation of computer programmers, and when he does arise, he’s honoured but largely ignored; real engineers write code, they don’t do admin.
This of course has fairly severe real-world consequences. As anyone who followed the link to my comment in the first paragraph will know, the kernel of my argument for the existence of a general skill of management is that it is pretty obvious that there is a general deficit or “negative skill” of mismanagement, which equally obviously appears to work in roughly the same way in a variety of fields, and that therefore an opening stab at a definition of the general skill of management would be that it’s the absence of this deficit. Someone like Larry Summers had a particular form of this deficit in spades. It was widely known, throughout the economics profession and beyond, that Summers was not good at handling people. The job of President of Harvard is a management job, the vast majority of which involves being good at handling people. Nevertheless, Summers was given the job by fellow academics who respected his intellect, energy and ideas and who either rationalised to themselves or never even considered the fact that they were giving an important job to somebody who very clearly didn’t have the necessary skills for it.
Then a year later, he had crashed and burned in the job, because he was no good at handling people. Nobody learned a damn thing from this debacle, of course; in general, lots of institutions are surprisingly resistant to the idea that talent in management ought to be a criterion for awarding management jobs, and the reason is that they don’t believe in a general skill of management, despite universally recognising (and often admitting to possessing) a generally applicable skill of disorganisedness.
The general skill of management has two basic components – administration and leadership.
The first is the ability to keep track of and prioritise detail. Some people are naturally better at this than others, but natural ability doesn’t actually make much of a difference in terms of one’s possession of the skill of management. The reason for this is that more or less any management task bigger than a single in-tray (and there are plenty of us, including me, who are flat out keeping control of one of those) is going to exhaust a normal human being’s memory and attention span. In order to cope with this, people through the ages have come up with a number of technologies to extend the human ability to administrate, such as alphabetical filing systems, double-entry accounts, activity reports and so on; the majority of the structures in Fred Brooks’ book fall into this category too. The majority of the skill of organisation is having the mastery of these tools and the self-discipline to use them consistently. The first is what they teach you in business schools; the second sounds more like an innate ability, but I would guess that it too can be taught.
The second is basically a species of emotional intelligence; some people are better applied psychologists than others. I must say I didn’t get much out of the “leadership” course I went on, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is nothing about motivating and managing people that can be taught; at the very least there’s an obvious body of applied economics which could be brought to bear to make sure that you don’t create incentives which are fundamentally inimical to yourself. So in summary, I think that there is a pretty identifiable set of skills, which can be grouped together into a category at least as coherent as most of the other things that we regard as subjects and which can be defensibly identified as the general skill of management ability.
Of course, the fact that there’s a general skill of management doesn’t mean that everything can be managed, any more than the fact that there’s a general attribute of strength means that everything can be lifted. Organisations have a lot more to them than the simple will of the people managing them and some organisations can be (or become) so pathological that there’s no managing them – either they’re too lacking in the necessary infrastructure to administer, or they’re so riven with interpersonal conflicts or perverse incentives that they can’t be led, or both.
Nor does it necessarily mean that there is a caste of individuals who can be dropped into managerial roles in any organisation and immediately start managing successfully; any organisation above trivial size is going to have a lot of idiosyncratic information (explicit and tacit) which is relevant to its management, and learning this is a difficult or even impossible task. On the other hand, it does suggest that if you have a management problem, there is some sense in asking someone who’s really good at management if they have some advice about it, which is the basis of the consultancy industry (a rather large global industry, which certainly might owe its existence purely to the desire of a self-perpetuating elite to look after their own and act as scapegoats for unpopular decisions; on the other hand, a lot of people think university education is just a racket providing certificates of entry to the middle class, and they’re wrong too).
What it does mean is that the fundamental attribution error is not always an error in this context. As in military matters, where the different abilities of generals often really do make an important difference, it really can be the case that one company succeeds and another fails because of the abilities of the person at the top. There really is a right way and a wrong way to run a warehouse.