13 April 2012

Witch Doctors / Masters of Management

I recenty finished Adrian Wooldridge's Masters of Management. It was quite good. Nothing really ground-breaking for someone who follows the sorts of blogs/papers/magazines I do, but a very good distillation of the recent history and current state of management thought. Even though none of the themes were terribly new to me, they were excellently organized and elucidated with plenty of novel examples. I especially liked the early chapter which discussed "corporate social responsibility" as just another business fad.*
Although to engage in a bit of armchair editing, I believe no account of CSR is complete without reference to Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers' wonderfully icono-clastic epistle to Sr. Doris Gormley, OSF.

I would appreciate other survey-type books like this that take on the tedious task of extracting the few good points from the often bloated corpora of contemporary authors. I suppose I could read several hundred pages of Tom Friedman or Tom Peters columns and books, along with assorted critiques of the same, but time is short and the information gain of doing so is low.*
I might need to hand in my Official Academia Membership Card for saying this, but quite frankly most authors are not worth reading in the original. And almost no primary sources are worth consulting unless you have first read exegetic commentary on them. There. I said it.
Far better that someone with more patience for jibber-jabber extract the central theses for me.

Other than that, I don't have much of a review of Masters to offer. I will highlight a brief passage and a few quotations that stood out though.

This sentence must be explained:
"At the same time, the burden on the welfare state is growing, as medical innovations push up healthcare costs and baby boomers start drawing their pension (by 2050, one in three people across the rich world will be drawing a pension)."  — p. 228
In what other context would increasing innovation be seen as a bad, cost-escalating thing? If your theory of Life, The Universe, and Everything The Political Economy of Health Care does not explain the italicized passage, you need to revise and resubmit.

I know I'm hardly the first person to raise this objection, but the fact that a thoughtful fellow like Wooldridge can just drop this stinker into his text without explanation (or even a nod toward the unusual nature of his claim) is a sign that this objection is under-addressed. I don't need him to resolve this problem in this book. It's not the place for that. But I feel like he's pulling a fast one (and reinforcing this misconception) by pretending it's only natural for increasing innovation to lead to increasing costs.

No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under the leadership of perfectly normal human beings.
— Peter Drucker
See also: Federalist #51.

I only invest in companies that any fool can run, because some day a fool will run it.
— Warren Buffet
This rather argues against investing in Berkshire Hathaway, doesn't it?

Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness ... aiming this at something else they find happiness by the way.
— J.S. Mill
I don't tend to put much stock in Mill, but this seems like solid advice.

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