Last September, IESE Professor Josep M. Rosanas delivered an innovative speech to kick off the annual EDAMBA meeting in Helsinki. The response was so positive that it seemed he had removed a skeleton from management theory's closet. He revealed to his colleagues the basic problems facing the business administration environment: problems of passive resistance.
In his paper "Controversial Management Theories: Implications for Teaching and Research," Rosanas discusses five points of conflict and controversy in the modern world of management. He maintains that the larger part of the people involved behave as if there were no controversy and fail to hear voices of dissent coming from the veterans of management notions.
Rosanas covers the five points by beginning with methodology and ideology, by proceeding to relevance and incentive and by finishing with the myth of specialization.
Methodology is Capital
The paper turns management theory on its head, encouraging objective viewpoints. It preaches that no one empirical solution will put the controversy to rest. After all, Rosanas writes, "Controversies are good"; and "we should be trained in Methodology (with a capital 'M') as something different from mere research methods, which nowadays have come to mean essentially regression and structural equations."
It is precisely these concepts muddled with equations that turn Rosanas off. The professor cites Friedrich von Hayek (Economics Nobel Prize winner, 1974) that social sciences should not try to imitate the methods of natural science. While the former deals with the phenomena of organized complexity, quantitative methods cannot adequately measure the variables they create. 'They [social sciences] should imitate the spirit of the natural sciences, which is perfectly valid in a social-science context.'
In his second point, Rosanas disputes that pure economics should be applied to organizational theory. Propagated self-interest used in utility maximization may be adequate for showing the optimality of a system based on quantitative values such as prices and wealth, but when applied to organizational problems like transaction-cost economics and agency theory, "it may often become perverse,"depending on the specific way it is done.
Rosanas endorses a more positive manner of thinking, removed from the self-fulfilling ideology related with some ways of understanding liberalism. With the advent of the globalized economy, he asserts that thinkers in the social sciences are more concerned with the negative problem of "preventing bad people from doing harm" and not "enabling good people to do good."
In this manner, many organizations are run according to the "lean and mean," thereby leveraging fear as the basis for commitment. The author urges replacing fear with trust as a basis for organization, falling back on the golden rule: "Is this the kind of organization where we want to work or the kind we would like our children to join?"
Relevance and Incentive
Instead of the word 'relevance', which, for the author, is charged with consequence and sacrifice, he prefers 'rigor,' the third point of his management controversy.
Precisely because the research is too based on quantitative models, the men and women who actually manage teams and organizations tend to perceive research and theoretical studies as too far out-of-reach. Rigor is thus narrowed as "gurus" on the topic continue to create false solutions to problems that might not even be well-defined; and "rigor" is opposed to "relevance". "Rigor consists only of having a reasonable assurance that what is being affirmed is true," he writes, and therefore nothing that has no rigor can ever be relevant. The academics, on the other hand, believe it to be a pedagogical problem, which is to a great extent false.
Rosanas proposes contact and dialogue between the theoretical and practical management worlds, because the "gap between the two beliefs (one on each side) is widening."
On his fourth talking point, Rosanas sets out to convince his reader that academics in management research and education are possessed by the system that awards for quantity and not for quality.
"When so many incentives are based on the number of articles (or even the number of pages) published, one should no be surprised to find so many 'fake reasoners,'" the author contends. Philosopher Susan Haack's definition of a "fake reasoner" is one more attempt to advancing himself than inquiring and searching for real answers.
"We should be asking ourselves: Do we train genuine researchers?" Rosanas then blurts out a common practice among academics: the inclusion of an extra paragraph merely to add a reference to the bibliography at the end of the discourse.
As a final point, Rosanas contradicts the common belief that specialization in a certain field is the correct path when studying business administration and management. Much as the French engineer Henri Fayol, 100 years ago, suggested that managers should possess culture générale, the professor applauds a manager who knows things not related to his job, things that go beyond the studies of administration.
He then rhetorically asks what the visionary would say about Ph.D. in finance that is completely ignorant about strategy and organization, or the opposite: What would he say of a Ph.D. level organizational behaviorist who could not solve elementary finance problems?
The author references the academic paper "The End of Business Schools?" written by J. Pfeffer and Ch. Fong that provides a large body of evidence suggesting that "the curriculum taught in business schools has only a small relationship to what is important to succeed in business."
A management academic, can be likened to a dog chasing his tail, insomuch that they are only imitating what they learned in their doctoral programs. These same programs favor the narrow specialization process from the beginning because they give ambitious students the real opportunity to publish an academic tract and wedge themselves into the chaotic job market.
However, once the business student sees and solves real problems from within the management system, the vicious circle is sealed. And then, perhaps controversial management theory could be referred to as management harmony.