Bookcase: Management theories and fads: Masters of Management

• By Adrian Wooldridge
• HarperCollins
• RRP $49.99

Masters of Management: How the business gurus and their ideas have changed the world – for better and for worse, is sequel. The original was called The Witch Doctors: Making sense of management gurus and Adrian Wooldridge wrote it with his colleague from The Economist magazine, John Micklethwaite back in 1996. Micklethwaite has written only the foreword for this update.
Masters of Management is less iconoclastic look at the musings of the world’s most influential, high profile or consistently published management writers. Even so, Wooldridge believes there has only ever been one management thinker worthy of the title guru. He, of course, was America’s Peter Drucker.
Wooldridge is The Economist’s management editor and ‘Schumpeter’ columnist. Whether as consequence of age-inflicted mellowing or simply desire to be more positive about the contribution management theory makes to the world, the book is cynical shadow of its prequel. It is, however, well constructed and insightful read.
With less focus on the absurdities of management theory, the book delivers generous assessment of some of the more useful ideas created by both academics and the new genre of management writer which the author calls “journo-gurus” – the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and New Yorker magazine’s Malcolm Gladwell for example.
Wooldridge summarises and analyses most of the industry’s more valuable management theories and fads. He puts them into the context of world that has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. His review of what is good and relevant in management theory is timely, if rather less entertaining than the focus on the dark side that he and his colleague delivered last time.
The internet has, he says, changed the way the world works. It is also changing the concept of the organisation. The world of management has been turned on its head. Management theorists and writers, therefore, must think differently and come up with some new ideas if they want to sell their books, seminars and consultation services.
Management theory was created, written and thought about in the United States, says Wooldridge. Now it is being thought about in the emerging world. And that transition will have profound impact on managers in the western world.
Wooldridge identifies the fads that have impacted, positively and otherwise, management theory. And, so long as management writers need to make living, they will find ideas, good and bad, to peddle.
Management is “fad driven industry”. The world, on the other hand, is confusing place and people turn to gurus for advice – sometimes any advice. Management is addicted to fads – perhaps more now than ever. Its exponents are driven by the desire to think of distinctive idea. In turn, practitioners crave something that might give them competitive or performance edge.
Some management gurus have done significant damage – others less so. Now they have some major issues to ponder and interpret – such as the nature of capitalism and the concept of the company. Are these organisational cornerstones of business still relevant? Are they headed for history’s archives?
And if, as Wooldridge suggests, management theory has so far spawned only one genuine thinker, where does the world now turn for some visionary thinking? Management surely needs to focus on what makes organisations, communities, countries and the world work better.

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