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A new book argues that scientific management isn’t scientific enough


Beware the guru with a theory that explains how companies behave or the perfect recipe for how firms succeed. Beware, too, the lengthy academic studies to similar effect. That is the stark warning of “Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research”, a new book by Dennis Tourish, a scholar of organisations at the University of Sussex.

The idea of “scientific management” dates back to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who wrote a treatise on it in 1911. One example invoked the Bethlehem Iron Company, where he supposedly persuaded an employee named Schmidt (about whom Taylor was very condescending) to work harder by paying a piece rate.Taylor claimed his schemes allowed employees to quadruple output. But he based his numbers on a handful of workers increasing their activity over a short period. Their improved work rate would, Mr Tourish calculates, have equated to 71 tonnes over a ten-hour day. But, he notes, “Taylor rounded this up to 75 tonnes, figured that such sustained work was impossible, and reduced the target by 40%.” Hardly a paragon of scientific rigour, then.

Elton Mayo conducted another much-cited early 20th-century study. He found that changes in lighting at the Hawthorne works in Illinois improved productivity. Remarkably, the work indicated that making the lights more or less bright made no difference; workers simply responded to the special attention paid them. This was welcomed by many managers as it implied it was not always necessary to reward workers with more money to increase output.

But as Mr Tourish points out, only five women were studied, two of whom were replaced during the experiment when their responses proved unsatisfactory. And the lights were changed on a Sunday, when no one was around. The increased productivity thus occurred on a Monday. Later studies have shown that workers are generally more productive at the start of a week than on Fridays or Saturdays.

The modern era is also full of dodgy theories based on limited evidence. A few years ago journalists noticed a bizarre tendency for British politicians to stand with their legs far apart like living croquet hoops. The fashion for the pose seems to have been driven by a paper from 2010 which suggested that any leader who adopted this strange stance would feel more confident and appear more powerful. Then a second team of researchers conducted a follow-up study with a sample size five times that of the original. It found no such effect.

At least these studies had two merits: they were easy to understand and it was possible to check their results. Too much modern management research, the author argues, is a mess of inconsequential jargon, tailor-made to appear in leading journals. Academics are judged on their ability to get papers published in these periodicals and business schools are ranked on their ability to employ the most prolific of these academics.

This rush to publish has led to management research being affected by the same problems as other disciplines. A bias exists to publish studies that show headline-grabbing results. Cherry picking—selective use of statistics in search of a striking conclusion—is commonplace. Results that show an effect does not exist, as scientifically useful as positive findings, are stashed away in a drawer. One survey of the literature found that 25-50% of management articles had inconsistencies or errors; another concluded that 70% of papers disclosed too little data to permit independent verification of their findings.

And then there is the language the research is couched in. As Mr Tourish puts it, “trivial insights are converted into theoretical statements that read like English translated into Esperanto and then back again.” He cites one 57-word sentence that begins “By introducing Heidegger’s distinction between the building and dwelling modes of engagement to the strategy-as-practice literature…” (In the spirit of seasonal cheer, Bartleby will spare you the rest.)

It is hard to believe that anyone, bar other academics, reads this stuff. So what is the point? How many chief executives base their strategy on theories gleaned from a management journal? Everyone would benefit if management research were clearly written, based on real-world examples and realistic about its broader applicability. Less Chomsky, please, and more cost-benefit analysis.


This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Clear as mud”, The Economist