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All you need (for anything) is a PhD in Philosophy

One thing that irks me is plain old ignorance. There’s an article getting a lot of traction from Australian journalists like Mark Colvin and Natasha Mitchell called The Management Myth. It was written in 2006 by Mathew Stewart who has a PhD in Philosophy from Oxford, no less.

My problem with Mathew Stewart’s article… and management book of the same name you can find in airport bookshops for your next long trip… is that it’s a populist piece of drivel full of half truths intended to capitalise on the ignorance of anyone who hasn’t actually been through an MBA program. It equates an MBA solely with management theory – omitting the MBA’s emphasis on finance, law, economics, and marketing. And when Mathew Stewart discusses management theory he refers to nothing deeper than an undergraduate’s textbook for Management 101 that sits on my office bookshelf. The small sections he refers to are introduced to undergaduate first year business students solely for historic reference to an industrial perspective long-since passed over.

He knows you all want to believe that the manager of today sees you as industrial cogs in the wheel of industry… and he feeds you that half-truth through the bias-goggled lense of wanting to sell you his books about things you already believe to be true. How good is that for an author’s business model?

Given that you’ve taken the time to read Mathew Stewart’s article – or even the book – I don’t have to point out that he is an academic with a PhD arguing that the only thing anybody needs to succeed at business (or anything) is to read classic literature and study philosophy. That would then include journalism (as philosophers can write and they at least know “what they don’t know”), psychology (because they can read airport books like the rest of us), engineering (if you overlook the math, physics and science disciplines), law (if you overlook the statutes and finer details of the law itself), medicine (if you overlook anatomy) and salesmanship (if you can find customers willing to pay for being made to feel inferior); because, after all, a PhD from a prestigious rich American University qualifies you for just about any career.

Here’s an interesting tidbit about universities and prestigious reputation. Get hold of a list of the highest rated to the lowest rated universities in the world and look at the size of their academic faculty for philosophy. Oxford has a smorgasborg of PhDs on their Philosophy faculty because it’s a pissing contest between universities equivalent to the Michelin Star for prestigious higher education facilities. The poorer you get as a school the less likely you can afford the status honour badge of 100 Philosophy PhDs on your payroll.

Another issue I have with the Mathew Stewart article is that he manifestly insists all the world is tainted by the business jargon of MBA training. Sorry but I believe the Philosophy discipline is entirely wrapt in its own pedantic jargon. And so is medicine, law and just about any profession. Web design, for example, is rife with technical terms and conceptual phrases simply because jargon is a way of capturing complex information between two in-the-profession individuals. So the rule of anything else applies here – only use jargon within the industry not with clients or the wider world. But ultimately, the jargon argument is an appeal to the populist audience. After all, we’ve all had crap managers. Trust me on this one… it’s not the degree, it’s what a person does with it and I’m sure there is a dickhead manager with a PhD in Philosophy out there somewhere messing up the worker’s lives.

But the list of grievances with this article goes on. Like my inability to accept that strategic management is a time wasting exercise. Do you think Apple operate on a wing and a prayer? Bullshit. Apple know everything about everything in their market because in a hypercompetitive globalised world they have to know everything. Try managing their supply chain without governance. Try delivering a product without co-ordination. Try making a profit if money seeps out in every direction because there aren’t any financial management strategies in place. Try having that strategic business conversation when the best you can say is “Oh Golly, they’ve got a big business that has some divisions and stuff… let me grab my crayons.”

No, you can’t know or control every variable in business and sometimes knowing too much works against success. But there’s another rub of Mathew Stewart’s article… he differentiates not one iota from a fish and chip shop to a twenty person law firm through to a multinational corporation like IKEA or Wal-Mart. In this seminal piece of wisdom all MBAs are the same and all businesses in all industries are identical.

Do you really think that big business don’t need to know every little bit of detail they can possibly absorb about their competitors, their competitors’ motivations and their competitors’ 5 year plans?

Mathew Stewart also doesn’t believe in modeling complex environments using conceptual tools like Porters Five Forces. I’d suggest, the modeling of complex environments is as much about gaining the full understanding of all parties to the conversation as it is about discovering things about the business environment. Stewart suggests you can operate any business on a wing and a prayer. Total pulp-printed codswallop.

Let me ask you this question. If you had a new product (say a niche mead alco-pop) that you were thinking about pushing into the market – would you just take a punt? Or would you want to know about the bargaining power of customers and suppliers, the threat of new entrants and of substitute products and the competitive rivalry within the industry. If you were Qantas… would you find those aspects of the international airlines strategic environment just a little bit important to understand? No… Mathew Stewart would wing it from the seat of his Descartes.

Then we come across Mathew Stewart’s ignorant statements about there being no need for managers to be exposed to ethical training. So you all agree that you want corporate managers who have never heard of rights, justice, kantianian or utilitarian analysis. Why? Because the track that statement takes you is that unethical management is a desired quality. It means you don’t support human rights, environmental rights or autonomy because you’re saying in that foul breath that managers should be able to figure that out from Descartes… I’m sorry, but life has proven that humans can’t figure that one out. As obvious as that sounds to a non-philosopher like myself with an undergaduate degree in Computing and a post graduate degree in Business Administration with a specialisation in Journalism and Media Studies.

But there’s more that I disagree with… like the way that the article points at the generalist perspective of the mythical MBA persona. This is an article by somebody who never did an MBA (a disgruntled and stifled academic who felt above his position and his industry peers in management consulting) and who studied management in ad-hoc research of management textbooks. To top that off he writes management / philosophy books that you can buy at the airport on your way out of town after you’ve gone to seminar X on how to be a successful salesman by reading bullshit you find in airport bookshops.

This is an article about the book that the academic wrote for a populist audience who wanted to read something that fit their existing biases about incompetent managers. Did you know that an MBA program is just the Master of Business course with some extra finance & economics units? Did you know that without a Bachelor of Business or a Bachelor of Finance or similar qualification you have to prove you have SEVEN years business experience to enter the MBA program? Obviously these were the types of fact that the professor was willing to skip over in his emulation of being a journalist.

I won’t go on but there are more points than I can fit into a single rebuttal. Let’s just agree that there is more to being a journalist than the average person believes, that the same applies to being an artist (it’s not just blowing up a rubbish bag and billing for $40,000) and that there is far more to managing Apple or BHP-Billiton or ArcelorMittal than reading Descartes and the classics.

So my main problem with the Management Myth article – and no doubt the book – is that its sole purpose is to meet existing expectations of people ignorant of what an MBA program entails… and it uses a prestigious PhD qualification in an entirely different subject to give it credibility. I am disappointed in the journalists for giving it traction without seeking a journalistic balanced argument. David Stewart poses a simple one sided rant that boils down to my school and my faculty are better than your school or faculty. The same article can be written about philosophy and any of your professions. Especially journalism.

Don’t let me stop you picking his book up on your way out of the airport. Maybe you will learn something, after all. Maybe you’ll read between the lines and realise what he’s really selling you… that book (marketing 101).

P.S. It’s not about a hurt ego… it’s about a disliking for the fundamentals of ignorance. It’s like watching two idiots on a bus talk about quantum mechanics and feeling like you want to pull their respective noses.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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