The Economist does a great job of pointing out that the emperor (in this case business gurus) have no clothes when it comes to threadbare — and erroneous — commentary about the state of business. Here’ as I am planning my 2017 predictions, let’s start with puncturing the hype of the yah-yah entrepreneurial boosterism that seems to animate a great deal of the idle chatter around the state and future of business and work.
Management theory is becoming a compendium of dead ideas — The Economist
The similarities between medieval Christianity and the world of management theory may not be obvious, but seek and ye shall find. Management theorists sanctify capitalism in much the same way that clergymen of yore sanctified feudalism. Business schools are the cathedrals of capitalism. Consultants are its travelling friars. Just as the clergy in the Middle Ages spoke in Latin to give their words an air of authority, management theorists speak in mumbo-jumbo. The medieval clergy’s sale of indulgences, by which believers could effectively buy forgiveness of their sins, is echoed by management theorists selling fads that will solve all your business problems. Lately, another similarity has emerged. The gurus have lost touch with the world they seek to rule. Management theory is ripe for a Reformation of its own.
Management theories are organised around four basic ideas, repeated ad nauseam in every business book you read or business conference you attend, that bear almost no relation to reality.
The authors go on to enumerate the four tenets of entrepreneurial triumphalism:
- Business is more competitive (supposedly) than ever — Despite this widely-held belief, the reality is that we’re in an age of consolidation, and decreasing competition as a result. Just look at what’s going on with airlines, media, and technology, where the large are gobbling up the less so, and the level of customer satisfaction is dropping as profits rise. Im a more competitive climate, prices drop and companies scramble to make customers happy. Is that what Comcast, United, and Apple seem to be doing? As the Economist authors put it, ‘In the 1990s Silicon Valley was a playground for startups. It is now the fief of a handful of behemoths’.
- We live in an age of unparalleled entrepreneurialism (supposedly) — Actually, the rate of business creation has been falling since the 1970s, and aside from the few tech unicorns, the great majority of start-ups lead to failure, and many of those that have embraced the entrepreneur lifestyle ‘encountered only failure and now eke out marginal existences with little provision for their old age’.
- The clockspeed of business is increasing (supposedly) — This turns out to be one of the truisms of entrepreneurialism that actually is true. New innovations are being rolled out and finding their way into the lives of billions at an astonishing speed, like smartphones. But the adoption of industrial era inventions — like automobiles, eyeglasses, and antibiotics — was also pretty fast. So the impact of mobile or the Web — while the fastest of all time — is only an arithmetic increase over those earlier advances, not an exponential one. And a great many of the business models that have led to astonishing valuations for startups — like Uber — may be based on attempts to end run regulations to exploit workers, as opposed to technological breakthroughs, like the transistor or better batteries.
- Neoliberal globalization is inevitable — The ‘flat world’/’end of history’ theories of Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama is just another set of assumptions, and not based on some sort of economic physics, derived from scientific principles. It more like an ideology or religion than science, and it seems that the neoliberal consensus — the center — have been blindsided by a shift in politics, and the rise of trade populism. It remains to be seen if the Bretton Woods model can persist in the post-recession postnormal era, but it is debatable.
So, at the outset of 2017, in advance of my predictions for work, media, and society — coming this week, folks — let’s start with debunking the gurus. The business management big mouths will start with false premises, and as a result, whether their predictions turn out to be prescient or poppycock, they aren’t seeing the world where we live, but an imaginary realm in their heads.
Originally published at www.stoweboyd.com.