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Has the business management guru game reached its sell-by date?

Disrupting the disruptors

The Economist has a good read on the rise and fall of the business management guru:

Schumpeter: Twilight of the gurus

[…] the guru business is reaching the end of a long cycle of creativity. For the past two decades or so it has been driven by two seismic economic changes — the rise of the emerging world and the digital revolution. The first change led to the ascent of a remarkable group of Indian management theorists, most notably C.K. Prahalad (who died in 2010). They focused on subjects such as the buying power of developing-country consumers, the virtues of frugal products, and the difficulties of doing business in places with poor infrastructure and weak institutions. The list of business schools with Indian-born deans includes those of Harvard, Cornell and Chicago universities. The digital revolution produced a new class of digital gurus, such as Mr Tapscott. And Mr Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation (which holds that the most successful innovators create new markets, rendering many established businesses irrelevant) rightly turned him into the world’s leading management guru.

But the cycle has played itself out. Prahalad published his seminal article on “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” in 2002, and the book of the same title in 2004. Mr Christensen published his first article on disruptive technology in 1995 and his book on “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in 1997. The new edition of Mr Tapscott’s book reminds us that people have also been grappling with the digital revolution since the 1990s.

Ironically, the digital revolution is making it harder for new gurus to emerge. Many of today’s biggest business changes are being driven by “quants”, who excel at finding meaning in big data or at producing algorithms that can automate lots of work, but who are much less good at putting numbers into words or at thinking about what big data and automation mean for industries beyond their own. The management-theory business is producing plenty of mini-gurus who specialise in particular industries or techniques, such as Philip Evans in big data or Jim Whitehurst in collaborative (“open-source”) management. But few of the new pundits can range across as many industries as Tom Peters does, let alone across the centuries and multiple intellectual disciplines in the manner of the late Peter Drucker.

Personally, I think one thing at work — and not touched in the Economist piece — is the shifting role of professional management, or maybe better said, the shift away from professional managers. In a world where creativity is more important that tradition, and where technology is bleeding into everything, business leaders are more likely to have design or tech backgrounds than MBAs.

We can also point a finger at Clay Christensen whose missteps — his stating that the iPhone wasn’t a disruptive innovation — and his subsequent takedown by Jill Lepore that detailed the arbitrary basis of his chosen case studies, on which his ‘disruption’ thesis relies.

Perhaps it fitting that the Economist posted this under the Schumpeter byline, since he was the original source of ‘creative destruction’ in business innovation cycles. It’s time for a mantra better than disruption, and the droning gurus that have passed their use-by date.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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