Don’t Hire An MBA, Hire A Philosopher

Lynne Kiesling

Matthew Stewart, philosopher-turned management consultant-turned philosophy writer, has an essay in the Atlantic on “management science” (subscription required) that is amusing and interesting. [full text available here]

Stewart goes through the origins of scientific management, its justifiable place in the dustbin of ideas (although it certainly scared the bejeesus out of Josef Schumpeter, who thought it presaged the downfall of capitalism by excessive routinization of innovation), and the remnants of it that remain pervasive in modern management consulting practice. Not a pretty story.

Interestingly, I am just finishing Stewart’s recent book on Spinoza and Leibniz, The Courtier and the Heretic: Spinoza, Leibniz, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. While I’m sure that professional philosophers would find it superficial or overly speculative or too historical, I have really enjoyed it. His narrative is engaging, he makes the ideas of both men (and the interaction of their ideas) clear, and it’s pretty easy to tell where he’s speculating and where he’s on solid historical ground. In fact, I’m enjoying it so much that when I saw Tom Palmer recently and told him I was “on a Spinoza kick”, he looked bemusedly at me as any professional philosopher should when presented with that statement.

In any case, the essay and the book are worth a read. Hat tip to the ever-valuable Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets.


11 thoughts on “Don’t Hire An MBA, Hire A Philosopher

  1. Which part is true? The hiring a philosopher part, or the professional philosophers don’t think much of this book part?

  2. It is difficult to believe that Stewart’s piece got past the fact-checkers and taste-mavens at the Atlantic On-Line – perhaps Mr Bennet’s crew doesn’t believe they are necessary? Who knows what is happening to the respectable press?

    Stewart makes no reference to Mintzberg’s well-informed and widely remarked critique ‘Managers not MBA’s’ (2004) and has chosen to depend on his own sketchy academizing. I hope his philosophical work, which I have yet to read, is of better quality than his insight into Scientific Management (SM) and his historical fact-getting. At his close, he calls for studies of Taylor – apparently unaware of Kanigel’s fine 1997 biography (sponsored by the Sloan Foundation) or of the vast literature on Taylor and on SM.

    We can wonder how Stewart, as a trained scholar, can rubbish SM without recognizing there is something significant, historically and academically, that badly needs explaining, i.e. SM’s evident and continuing success? And how come Taylor, a distinctly amateur philosopher of systems and knowledge, survives in influence for a century while many of the well known philosophers of his time have passed completely from public view? I would cite the present state of pragmatism, for instance. Such a study might require some high-quality philosophizing.

    But aside from his intemperate tone Stewart seems morally content (as in moral hazard) to have found himself able to suck plenty of blood from his firm’s business-victims without so much as a business-relevant label to his name – yet still feels justified in insulting those who have at least tried to qualify themselves.

    Whether business education can achieve its espoused objective of being useful to management practitioners is an important question on which Stewart seems unwilling to focus his philosophically-sharpened mind – even given his leisure. Yet his years of relevant experience should make him extremely well-placed to help those of us trying to grapple with this vexing matter.

    The idea that Taylor had a hand in starting HBS is ludicrous. Quite to the contrary. He told them, in his unmistakebly brusque fashion, there was absolutely no value whatsoever in an MBA program. Edwin Gay, who started the school, actually blackmailed Taylor into participating by threatening to teach courses on SM without reference to him. (In due course Taylor enjoyed his visits and chats with the students, and took Carl Barth with him.) Since Taylor had more or less retired by 1908, in part on the income from the high-speed steel machining patents he secured while working for Wharton after 1898 (Joseph that is, not the school he founded), and devoted himself to consulting and publicizing SM, he took Gay’s bait.

    Mayo came to HBS long after Taylor’s death at the behest of Wallace Donham, the remarkable fellow who transformed the tiny underfunded school Gay had built under Lowell’s patronage into the HBS we know and love today.

    Too bad that Stewart, pointing to himself as a properly trained scholar, plays so casually with the history of management education in the US, and seems entirely ignorant of its Cameralist (German) antecedents.

    For the record, according to Engwall & Zamagni (1998), the earliest US BSchools were Louisiana (1851) and Wisconsin (1852). In Europe the first purpose-built BSchool was that at Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake while the earliest management course I have found was in the 1300s – at Oxford, from where I also graduated.

  3. It is difficult to believe that Stewart’s piece got past the fact-checkers and taste-mavens at the Atlantic On-Line – perhaps Mr Bennet’s crew doesn’t believe they are necessary? Who knows what is happening to the respectable press?

    Stewart makes no reference to Mintzberg’s well-informed and widely remarked critique ‘Managers not MBA’s’ (2004) and has chosen to depend on his own sketchy academizing. I hope his philosophical work, which I have yet to read, is of better quality than his insight into Scientific Management (SM) and his historical fact-getting. At his close, he calls for studies of Taylor – apparently unaware of Kanigel’s fine 1997 biography (sponsored by the Sloan Foundation) or of the vast literature on Taylor and on SM.

    We can wonder how Stewart, as a trained scholar, can rubbish SM without recognizing there is something significant, historically and academically, that badly needs explaining, i.e. SM’s evident and continuing success? And how come Taylor, a distinctly amateur philosopher of systems and knowledge, survives in influence for a century while many of the well known philosophers of his time have passed completely from public view? I would cite the present state of pragmatism, for instance. Such a study might require some high-quality philosophizing.

    But aside from his intemperate tone Stewart seems morally content (as in moral hazard) to have found himself able to suck plenty of blood from his firm’s business-victims without so much as a business-relevant label to his name – yet still feels justified in insulting those who have at least tried to qualify themselves.

    Whether business education can achieve its espoused objective of being useful to management practitioners is an important question on which Stewart seems unwilling to focus his philosophically-sharpened mind – even given his leisure. Yet his years of relevant experience should make him extremely well-placed to help those of us trying to grapple with this vexing matter.

    The idea that Taylor had a hand in starting HBS is ludicrous. Quite to the contrary. He told them, in his unmistakebly brusque fashion, there was absolutely no value whatsoever in an MBA program. Edwin Gay, who started the school, actually blackmailed Taylor into participating by threatening to teach courses on SM without reference to him. (In due course Taylor enjoyed his visits and chats with the students, and took Carl Barth with him.) Since Taylor had more or less retired by 1908, in part on the income from the high-speed steel machining patents he secured while working for Wharton after 1898 (Joseph that is, not the school he founded), and devoted himself to consulting and publicizing SM, he took Gay’s bait.

    Mayo came to HBS long after Taylor’s death at the behest of Wallace Donham, the remarkable fellow who transformed the tiny underfunded school Gay had built under Lowell’s patronage into the HBS we know and love today.

    Too bad that Stewart, pointing to himself as a properly trained scholar, plays so casually with the history of management education in the US, and seems entirely ignorant of its Cameralist (German) antecedents.

    For the record, according to Engwall & Zamagni (1998), the earliest US BSchools were Louisiana (1851) and Wisconsin (1852). In Europe the first purpose-built BSchool was that at Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake while the earliest management course I have found was in the 1300s – at Oxford, from where I also graduated.

  4. I never connected Taylor and the MBA. Industrial engineering has more of a link in my mind.

    I’ve read the Taylor biography by Kanigel. I don’t believe that he wrote anything about a connection between Taylor and any school of business administration.

  5. On Taylor’s involvement with HBS see:

    Nelson, D. (1992). A Mental Revolution: Scientific Management since Taylor. Columbus OH: Ohio State University Press.

    page 88.

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