Management theory – just mumbo jumbo?

I am writing here after a really long time. During one of my train journeys between Chennai and Bangalore last weekend, I happened to re-read this article that I had saved for later reading on my mobile device – this appeared on The Economist six months back (read it here). The Economist argues that management as a discipline is similar to the Medieval Catholic church that was transformed by Martin Luther about 500 years ago (business schools = cathedrals; consultants = clergy; the clergy speaking in Latin to give their words an air of authority = management theorists speaking in mumbo-jumbo that only their peers can understand; and having lost touch with the real world).

The Economist avers that all management theory is about four basic ideas – consolidation across industries rather than competitiveness, fewer entrepreneurial success than celebrated in popular discourse; maturing organisational bureaucracies that slow down firms rather than speed; and the seemingly inevitable globalisation being reversed by trends (including ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Brexit’). A redemption is therefore called for. Let me re-examine the four trends in the context of Indian business context.

1. Consolidation rather than competition

There is surely a trend of consolidation in Indian industry. The telecom service business is a case in point – the entry of Reliance Jio has led to severe performance pressures and possible consolidation of the service providers (read here); SBI merging its associate banks and other possible PSB mergers (read here); or even the retail industry (read here). Is competition really going down? I think a variety of management theorists would say no. From high velocity environments and hyper-competitive environments in the mid 1990s through mid 2000s, the discourse has evolved to disruptive innovation in the late 2000s, to Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data in the mid 2010s. The fads have changed, but the discourse has always been dominated by some fad or other. We management theorists have and will always seek to sustain our legitimacy by maintaining how difficult it is do business ‘today’ and in the near future. Has there been a time when a management scholar has said that “we live in stable times”?

2. Entrepreneurial failures

Yes, we live in interesting times. There are more and more firms founded, especially in clusters like Bengaluru (erstwhile Bangalore) and Gurugram (erstwhile Gurgaon). But as The Economist argues, there are more and more entrepreneurial failures that the media reports. And these failures come in myriad forms – simple shutdowns like the ones described in these articles (25 failed startups in 2016), or sellouts to larger competitors (see this list of acquisitions by Quikr).

3. Organisational bureaucracies

With so much churn in the ecosystem, we management theorists propound that business is getting faster. Yes, network effects allow for some businesses to scale faster than traditional pipeline businesses. However, given the ubiquity of such businesses  and easy imitation of business models, a lot of startup failures are attributed to these businesses not scaling sufficiently fast enough! Think Uber in China, Snap Deal in India, and other such startups. Scaling is easier said than done.

4. Rise of nationalistic tendencies

This is possibly true of most economies in the world today – rise of nationalism, and the ‘de-flattening’ of the world. Right wing protectionism is on a steady rise, and in some countries, it has reached jingoistic heights.

Time for redemption. What can management theorists do?

It is high time we redeem ourselves and the discipline. Given these trends, here is a callout for management theorists to make their discourse relevant to the business environment of today. We (as management theorists) need to get off the ivory towers and start communicating to the managers of today and tomorrow. While research output as measured by top-tier journal publications is important for an academic career, it is equally important for translating that research into insights relevant for the business managers. The Indian management researcher has very little options to publish high quality research in Indian journals. The quality of Indian management journals targeted at academics leaves much to be desired. Neither are there a variety of high quality Indian practitioner-oriented journals. And the circulation numbers of these journals amongst Indian CEOs? And where are the cases on Indian companies? The number and quality of cases published by Indian academics on Indian firms are too low to be even written about.

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(c) 2017. R Srinivasan.