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Management Myth, The [Paperback]

Matthew Stewart
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 27 2010
Fresh from Oxford with a degree in philosophy and no particular interest in business, Matthew Stewart might not have seemed a likely candidate to become a management consultant. But soon he was telling experienced managers how to run their companies. Striking fear into the hearts of clients with his sharp analytical tools, Stewart lived in hotel rooms and got fat on his expense account-until he decided to turn the consultant's merciless, penetrating eye on the management industry itself. Alongside his devastating critique of management "philosophy", Stewart provides a bitingly funny account of his days in a consulting firm. Combining hands-on experience with the theoretical underpinnings of contemporary fads in efficiency improvement, empowerment and strategy, Stewart knows his stuff and lays bare how little consultants have done for the business of others-while making a killing for themselves.

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Review

"Here he [Matthew Stewart] brilliantly sets about unpicking the central tenets of management thinking..." Director "Elegant hatchet job on the management consultancy industry and the damage it's done." CNBC Business "Business Schools turning out MBA graduates are big business, and they are not going to love Stewart, whose thesis is that 'the modern idea of management is right enough to be dangerously wrong'." The Times "...serious and valuable polemic." The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Matthew Stewart is a former management consultant and the author of the acclaimed The Courtier and the Heretic.

Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Matthew Stewart adeptly exposes the underlying myth and mechanism behind ineffective yet immensely successful and attractive management consulting organizations practicing today. If you have witnessed the kind of damage this arrogant extension of pop culture can do to good people and organizations, this book will help you understand what happened.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Rant April 8 2010
By Jeffrey Swystun TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Beyond the fact that I awarded the book three stars, I want to state that I did enjoy it primarily because of my own experiences in management consulting. And I agree that business schools need reform as Professor Henry Mintzberg has been pointing out for some time. However, the book is a long drawn out confessional combined with a chronological charting of the strategy consulting business which has been covered many times before and more insightfully. Stewart's criticism of the consulting industry and its contribution to flawed management fails to recognize its actual value - objectivity. Without a doubt consulting is a business, a big and mostly profitable business. It only becomes a sham when the purveyors of advice act in their own best interest and not in the interest of their clients. Where the author and I are in violent agreement is in the understanding that the development of business strategy is more a creative process than a reductive one.
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4 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bitterness ruins interesting critique Nov. 15 2009
Format:Hardcover
My visceral reaction to this book was dislike. I feel there is a strong undercurrent of bitterness that takes away from some very interesting critique of modern management philosophy.

Also interesting was that Stewart focuses his vitriol on Drucker, Peters and Collins while leaving Ferrazzi and Godin alone.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  41 reviews
75 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An expose of the fallacies of management thinking Aug. 13 2009
By Stephen C. Long - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Matthew Stewart takes on three major tasks in this book. He writes an expose of the management consulting industry; an historical account of the development of modern management; and an expose of the fallacious methodology of modern management. All three of these tasks are interspersed with an interesting account of his own personal experience in management consulting.

Stewart came to the management consulting industry straight out of college. Interestingly, his academic work was in philosophy and not management. Needing money, he submitted a resume to a management consulting firm and much to his surprise was hired. As an "outsider", and particularly as a result of his philosophy education, Stewart brings unique insight to this field.

My own undergraduate work was a BBA and in the thirty-some years since then I have kept up with developments in management during the course of a law practice that often involved advising businesses. This book challenges everything I thought I had learned about management.

The book is structured around Stewart's own foray into the management consulting industry. He discloses the way the industry works, the outrageous fees that are charged, and the worthlessness of the advice. I have no experience that would qualify me to evaluate those claims.

The entire "science" of management, according to Stewart, is truly only pseudoscience. Beginning with Frederick Taylor and Elton Mayo and progressing through Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, Stewart reveals in great detail the methodological fallacies of management theory and its shaky foundation in pseudoscience.

Stewart maintains that "management" belongs more properly in the humanities and in particular to the study of philosophy. "Management theorists lack depth," he writes, "because they have been doing for only a century what philosophers and creative thinkers have been doing for millennia."

The danger of modern management, Stewart contends, is that it offers pretended technological solutions to what are basically moral and political problems. When this happens, "it conjures an illusion ... about the nature and value of management expertise" and makes it harder to check the abuses of corporate power. "Above all," he writes, "it contributes to a misunderstanding about the sources of our prosperity, leading us to neglect the social, moral and political infrastructure on which our well-being depends."

Considering the economic scandal and crisis into which modern managers have led this country, his thesis deserves careful consideration. I will be watching for rejoinders to Stewart's thesis by others in the management field.

The book was enjoyable and entertaining to read. I will be pondering its thesis for a long time to come.

I believe the book would have been more useful if, as a conclusion, Stewart had provided more insight into the best way to learn to practice good management. However, he does make suggestions regarding business education.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't let your MBA students read this book ... Nov. 12 2009
By Dr. James J. Stewart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
... because if they read it, they may quit your program.

As a university professor guiding MBA and Doctor of Management courses, I encourage only my more capable and thoughtful students to read "The Management Myth." Why?

It is because in this book, Matthew Stewart correctly points out and supports that management is not a science and is too often pursued as a fad. Using many examples, he convinces that a good person educated in almost any subject can be a successful manager in business. Plainly said, Bill Gates, a college dropout, is not an aberration.

What is needed to be a manager, Stewart says astutely, is critical thinking and a propensity to ethical behavior -- not some knowledge of whatever methods are in current vogue at business schools.

If you want to know more of how to achieve success in business and other organizations, and you can accept innovative thinking, read "The Management Myth."
81 of 99 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More of the Con Sept. 6 2009
By D. Touey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Save yourself 25 bucks and find Stewart's original article debunking management theory. It was published in 2006--Atlantic, I think--and is online. He gives it away in the opening of the book in the 80-20 rule applied to books like this. No doubt we need critics like Stewart, but the extended tale of his litigation with his firm and not-so-valiant quest to get every penny he could, then his gloat over every penny he got, suggests that he's just another opportunist. For years Stewart by his own admission ripped off his clients by providing them with a "service" they didn't need. He seems to take pride in his own lack of principle--that he knew he was simply a parasite while other, perhaps younger, colleagues actually believed they were doing some good. (If you actually get to the later chapters, you'll see that he quits the consulting life not because of any anguish over being a con man but because he realizes the lifestyle has given him a paunch!) I've looked at Stewart's history of philosophy, so I know he has read Plato, but I don't think he took anything Socrates said to heart. He lived the life of the sophist, gutting the treasuries of as many companies as he could, cashed out, became a philosopher and critic of the profession that made him wealthy. I'm sure there's some more technical term for this within moral philosophy, but amongst hoi polloi it's called "having your cake and eating it too."
56 of 69 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Minus Two Stars for Insincerity Oct. 13 2009
By Bryan Long - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Forget the MBA? Oct. 21 2009
By Jay C. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Management Myth: Why the "Experts" Keep Getting it Wrong
Matthew Stewart has found his strategic niche. He can bill himself either as a former management consultant who writes about philosophy or as a philosopher who writes about management. Like a true consultant he adapts to meet his client's (reader's) needs. The audience for his current production, The Management Myth, is likely to be somewhat different from that for his last volume, an appealing interpretation of the reaction of Leibniz to Spinoza (The Courtier and the Heretic, 2006).

In The Management Myth Stewart argues that management is not a science, and might be better thought of as an extension of the humanities. He seeks to debunk several icons in the history of management thought (most notably Frederick Taylor and Elton Mayo), popular contemporary management gurus (Tom Peters, Michael Porter, and others), business education (the Harvard MBA program and the like), and the management consulting business. Mostly he succeeds, in a very entertaining and often amusing way.

The chapters alternate between those that carry the substance of Stewart's argument and autobiographical pieces that recount episodes from his consulting career (which covered about ten years). This works quite well, I believe, helping to maintain human interest throughout. Stewart is cynical about his consulting employment from the outset, as you might expect from someone with no background in business who gets the job primarily because he impressed the recruiter with his educated guess about the number of pubs in Britain. Anyone who has been a management consultant or employed consultants will likely find much that is recognizable in Stewart's experiences.

Stewart is not the first to be critical of most of the targets he selects, as a perusal of his "Selected References" and ""Bibliographical Appendix" will confirm. His strength resides in his packaging at least as much as in his originality.

Overall he is convincing in his conclusion that much of what passes for the supposedly systematic discipline of "management" consists of "nonfalsifiable tautologies, generic reminders, and pompous maxims." He takes aim at Tom Peters' mega-seller Excellence, for instance, and charges that the evidence is all anecdotal and that several of the touted companies soon ran into difficulties. Yet that did not limit the influence of the book, and in the 1990s one could find several other leading consultants advocating its "lessons," a few of which were ostensibly best epitomized by Enron.

The generally hyperbolic tone of his criticisms, however, seems not fully justified (although it enlivens the reading). Stewart himself concedes that "Most managers, consultants, and MBAs ... are good people and do good work." In spite of his mostly negative evaluations of their output, he finds at least some value in the work of several of the theorists and gurus he covers. He allows that Mayo, for example, was correct that management is all about people, even though no "science of human relations" was required to achieve the insight; instead, such wisdom "comes to us either by virtue of being alive or with the aid of an ethical education." Even platitudes can often help motivate people to do the right things, Stewart recognizes.

"A good manager is nothing more or less than a good and well-educated person," Stewart declares -- that is, the very outcome that was the aim of classical philosophy, just as he studied it at Oxford.
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