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How business education is blinding us with science

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This year sees the centenary of the publication of the most influential management book of all time, Frederick Winslow Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management.

Taylor's view was that the problems of management could be solved through science. A century on, that view is still dominant, especially in business schools where management is studied and taught.

But have we gone too far? Has Taylor's seductive vision of "one best way" of managing led business schools down an intellectual blind alley? Are there not limits to what science can tell us about management?

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Taylor and his colleagues did not believe so. They argued that work should be designed in a scientific manner and workers and managers should be trained according to scientific principles. Judgment, guesswork and intuition should be eliminated, for these opened the door to doubt and error. The best way to manage lay in the application of rigorous, scientifically grounded principles of management.

As time passed, scientific management gave way to operations research, which in turn became management science. In 1959, the Ford Foundation's influential report on management education called for yet more scientific grounding in every discipline of management. Today, virtually every branch of management has become "scientized" to some degree.

This has led to assumptions that are unfortunate, to say the least. Take for example the obsession with metrics. According to Robert Kaplan and David Norton, "You can't manage what you can't measure". Not so. There are all sorts of things that can and must be managed and yet do not lend themselves to quantification. Culture, customer and employee relationships, customer loyalty, creativity, vision, personal commitment, leadership, ethical behaviour: none of these can be accurately measured. (Even if you could develop a system for quantifying them, it would almost certainly not tell you anything you did not already know.) And yet, no business survives long without them.

But that is not reflected in business curricula. The core of most MBA programs includes finance, economics, accounting, operations and supply chain management, and all are already heavily grounded in mathematics or the physical sciences. Other core courses such as marketing and innovation are taught in a heavily scientized way, with an emphasis on systems and modelling. "Soft" subjects such as human resources, culture and ethics are viewed as "optional courses", or not taught at all.

The lowly position occupied by culture in programs is shocking. Culture – national, regional and organizational – pervades every aspect of management. It is, as Geert Hofstede said, "the software of the mind". It conditions how we see the world and other people, how we think, act and make decisions. Yet business schools make little effort to explain this to students, or help them to understand the consequences.

And ethics: how do we get away without teaching ethics? You can outsource everything in a business: production, research and development, distribution, marketing, financial control, even human resource management. But you cannot outsource ethics. You cannot pay someone else to be ethical for you. If we are not teaching students about ethics, then what are we teaching them?

The fascination with science, the belief that scientific methods in management can solve any problem, has become an almost addictive mindset in management education. In the face of uncertainty and change, we concentrate our study and teaching on those things of which we can be certain. The rest is either scientized to give it the semblance of certainty – like modelling market demand – or ignored as too messy and too difficult to deal with.

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But markets are messy. Consumers are unpredictable and irrational, employees too. Management today is full of uncertainty and paradox. There is more than one best way to manage. Peter Drucker called management the last of the liberal arts. We need to bring art as well as science back into management thinking and teaching.

Morgen Witzel is a fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter Business School, U.K.

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