What do students learn at business school?
The most influential figure in the history of managerial science is Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer from Philadelphia who, as a contemporary of the late Marx and Engels, lived to see the dramatic reorganization of society around the industrial economy. Not an uncontroversial figure (he had an exceptionally poor opinion of the working class and a singular focus on efficiency as a virtue), Taylor was among the first intellectuals to emphasize the importance of analyzing and systematizing human labor. While he can rightfully be credited with accelerating the atomization of the American worker, the “Taylorization” of the industrial economy is also largely responsible for the rise of American manufacturing — and with it, the American middle class — throughout much of the 20th century.
While business school curriculum has grown to encompass both a more cerebral conceptualization of management theory (due mostly to the influence of Peter Drucker in the 1960s and 70s) and an economic approach to modeling human behavior, it is still largely defined by one of the core, motivating principles of Taylorism. At the heart of Taylor’s theory of scientific management is the idea that there are bad and good ways to do things. His entire method consisted of measuring the efficiency of individual workers, identifying the routines and patterns of the most efficient ones, and replicating these routines throughout the entire workforce.
Such atomization and oversight of individual workers has obvious downsides that few, if any, business school professors espouse (particularly in the age of digital surveillance). But it’s this broadly construed definition of Taylorism — applied at the organizational and conceptual level — that is the “dangerous” ideology being taught behind the angular, modern facades of most business schools. Put succinctly, the goal of business school is to recognize that some approaches to solving organizational problems are better than others, identify which solutions apply in which circumstances, and teach generalizable principles that can be learned from studying these problems in a variety of contexts.
Of course, this is not a radical idea. But, as anyone who has spent any time working at a business of moderate complexity knows, disorder, chaos, and inefficiency are the natural order of human organizations. Homo sapiens are stubborn creatures with rules of thumb, cognitive biases, and a natural state of ignorance that prevents conglomerations of them from executing well on their stated objectives.
And despite the proclamation by some critics that the “bankrupt ideology” of business schools has swept America, even 100 years after Taylor published his magnum opus, the most basic principles of scientific management have yet to have significant impact on large sectors of the economy. In 2012, surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande penned an essay (“What Big Medicine can Learn from the Cheesecake Factory” in The New Yorker) about how to improve the American healthcare system in which, without invoking its name, he advocated for precisely the type of Taylorism that is the cornerstone of every business school curriculum. Recounting a conversation that inspired his essay in a recent episode of Freakonomics, Gawande remarked:
I was talking to one of the managers [at a Cheesecake Factory] about how he would make healthcare work. And his answer was, “Here’s what I would do, but of course you guys do this. I would look to see what the best people are doing. I would find a way to turn that into a recipe, make sure everybody else is doing it, and then see how far we improve and try learning again from that.” He said, “You do that, right?” And we don’t. We don’t do that.
It is not an exaggeration to say that thousands of lives could be saved by improving efficiency, consistency, and quality of service in healthcare. And while the professors of Martin Parker’s ideal schools of the future might be preoccupied with the implications of continental philosophy on the super-structure of human society, academics and students in the really-existing schools of management throughout the world have had a century of experience learning how to solve the precise problem of improving service delivery in complex organizations. Indeed, some of the most ambitious academic initiatives in improving human health are being inspired by management research and headed by business school professors.
It’s certainly important to ask what our organizations are doing — and many of my professors and colleagues ask that question every day. But given any specified organizational goal, business school is where you go to learn how to accomplish it. How will you finance your venture? Who do you hire to fill key roles? How will your company’s culture affect its performance? How do you prevent the idiosyncratic flaws of individual decision makers from hindering performance? How can technology be used to improve informational and communicative capacities of your organization?
We will never answer these questions by debating the fundamental premises that organize society. We can and should ask hard questions about the effects of shareholder capitalism on society. But as many examples from the non-profit sector and medicine demonstrate, even organizations with the best of intentions often fail at putting those intentions into practice.
The fact of the matter is that business schools are concerned with improving our society. They do this by helping organizations function more efficiently and solving complex operational challenges. As long as there are human beings working together to accomplish great things, there will be a useful and proportionate place for management education. So rather than bulldozing business schools, we should take a page out of their books and learn how to replicate their best features while improving their worst.