Magazine article Management Review

The Debunking Duo

Magazine article Management Review

The Debunking Duo

Article excerpt

Is Peter Drucker the only true visionary in modern management theory? (Just about.) Who first made management gurus big business? (Tom Peters.) Is there a discipline worth calling management theory? (Yes.) For these and other observations, see "The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus" (Times Books, 1996) by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge, respectively business editor and management correspondent of "The Economist," have, in their wittily perceptive and well-grounded book, explored the history of management theory. They call their effort "a scalpel job," rather than a hatchet job, because they attempt to separate the hysteria and hype from valid teachings influencing managers today and tomorrow. The authors tackled buzzwords and assorted business topics with Management Review Senior Editor Barbara Ettorre.

Q: Do buzzwords always describe business fads? Do they always wind up with negative connotations?

Wooldridge: Definitely, they end up with a negative connotation. One of the more bizarre things about business is, these things go in packs. All at once, people get tired and positively revolt against it. When a buzzword gets into common circulation, people think they've got to have it. When people start using the word, it's a trend.

Micklethwait: There is a trace of respect for quality. The reason [buzzwords get negative connotations] is overselling. When you say the buzzword, you trigger a response. Those triggers can be used against you. Buzzwords don't mean anything anymore because people have given up.

Q. What buzzwords have become an enduring part of the business lexicon?

Wooldridge: TQM is something everybody accepts.

Micklethwait: Globalization. It's not a product a consultancy can go in and sell. Certainly, it's a buzzword when you say it, but the word roughly sums it up. Knowledge and learning - these are words that people register, even in straightforward, boring manufacturing. You've got to look after your worker. Those qualify.

Wooldridge: Value. It still hasn't got any negative connotation. We can see there is a common characteristic: motherhood and apple pie. You can't have a reaction against a word that is so anodyne. They reflect aspirations of what all companies want to be.

Q. What recent business buzzword has described a new, successful and viable business practice?

Wooldridge: I hate to say this, but there's a sense that reengineering does that. It's been oversold, misapplied, used in crude ways. But imagine American business without reengineering in the last decade. A computer on everybody's desk and a slimmer company make you more agile and responsible. It has a fundamental core of truth that is important. What does Europe need? Reengineering for a lot of their companies.

Micklethwait: Despite the fact that reengineering has been badly done, on balance it has helped companies. Our beef is that if it had been brought out differently, it could have helped companies more. One thing that has worked is lean production, the Toyota system. It changed the way factories were run around the world. It was the machine that changed the world, the idea.

Q. Is there any buzzword that particularly sets your teeth on edge?

Wooldridge: One I've just come across is stomach-turning: vision engineering. It's from people who realize that reengineering has run out of steam, and the next thing is shared values and shared vision. …

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