If you love to hate management consultants and newly-minted MBAs, you might enjoy this book. If, however, you are hoping for useful analysis from this philosophy student turned management consultant, you will likely be very disappointed. Stewart consistently overgeneralizes using just enough truth and selected examples to seduce, in a tone that suggests "you and I can see how empty these so-called experts are." His scornful critique of "management science" is interleaved with a "kiss and tell" insider's story of his years as a "good guy" within a corrupt, venal management consulting firm. The firm collapsed soon after forcing Stewart out, but fortunately for him not before he could extract by lawsuit some millions of their ill-gotten gains.
Now, full disclosure: I do have a management degree from one of those prestigious business schools Stewart excoriates, and I was one of those corporate executives that he takes shots at. I'm far from a rah-rah supporter of MBAs and unfettered capitalism, however, and I agree with the starting points of Stewart's criticisms: management is not a science; you can't run a business from a strategic model; management consultants often know less than the people they are advising; and MBAs sometimes overestimate the value of their degree. I do not agree with his conclusion, however, that "business schools as they are presently constituted are at best superfluous", or that there is no value in strategic analysis.
Stewart's chapters on the history of "management science" are both educational and misleading. While you will learn and laugh with Stewart about how unscientific and even fraudulant the pioneers of "scientific management" sometimes were, you will also be led to believe that modern business schools still uncritically teach those ideas. You will learn something about how business strategy became "a modern, professional discipline, bound up in lengthy textbooks, purveyed by consultants, and practiced within elite departments of large corporations," but Stewart would have you believe that business school graduates revere these textbooks as gospel revelations of timeless truth, and that naïve CEOs receive them as such, rather than as the contextually and temporally-bounded conceptual tools they are.
Good management, Stewart contends, is a personal art that can't be learned in school. In other words, reading Michael Porter at Harvard isn't sufficient to make a great executive, any more than reading Sun Tzu at West Point is sufficient to make a great officer. Well, duh! Stewart concedes that training in subjects like accounting, corporate finance, and marketing can be useful, but that such training is no substitute for a broad education and real-world experience. Wow! What an insight! Perhaps the business schools should consider prior education and work experience in their admission policies!
The intellectual content of an MBA, according to Stewart, could be communicated in a "three-week mini-MBA" within a liberal arts college, "to hone spreadsheet skills, review basic financial analysis techniques, and master some of the business jargon." Furthermore, he suggests, this would be preferable to the corrosive effect of business school on the moral fiber of students. Stewart references a Business Week story about a "recent" Aspen Institute study by telling us that upon entering business school students "cherished noble ambitions" to serve customers and "otherwise contribute to the progress of human kind," but by the time of graduation they "were convinced that the only thing that matters is increasing shareholder value." In fact, the referenced 2001 Aspen Institute survey asked students to choose three of nine "primary responsibilities" of a company. Upon entering business school, 75% of students included "serve customers", 68% included "increase shareholder value," and 50% included "invest in employee growth and well-being." On exiting business school, "shareholder value" had increased share to 75%, but "serve customers" had also increased to 72% and "employee well being" stayed the same. "Produce useful products and services" lost share while social responsibility and legal compliance gained share. The 2001 survey was a single point in a time-series study; subsequent re-runs of the same survey by the Aspen Institute showed an even greater shift towards the social responsibilities. The shifting perceptions of business school students is interesting and bears discussion, but does not justify Stewart's statements. Stewart's mis-representation of this research is representative of his cavalier attitude towards research in general -- it's so much easier just to wing it.
A business school education is just two school years out of a lifetime, and strategy models are just concepts that can sometimes help a manager think about things. I enjoyed learning these concepts, but they were just a small part of my two year business graduate degree at MIT. I never hired a management consultant, and never confused a model with the real world, but I did find some of those conceptual tools useful during my business career. Stewart vastly overstates the gulf between science and art: it is true that management is more art than science, but scientists still struggle to apply theories into a complex, evolving world, and even artists can find value in concrete methods and conceptual models. Puffery can be found in every academic institution and in every business setting, but that doesn't mean schools have no value or that all management consultants are con-men.
Stewart saves special scorn for evangelical "gurus" who write best-selling "business excellence" books based on platitudes and overgeneralizations. The joke is on the reader who doesn't realize that Stewart is mirroring their techniques to write this anti-business, anti-intellectual rant, targeted at the same frustrated middle managers! Stewart is laughing all the way to the bank.