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Communication Project Magazine

Volume 2.1 Spring 1998

Review: The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Linder Chlarson
©1998 The Communication Project, Inc.

[1] The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus, by John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge (NY: Times Books, a division of Random House, 1996; 369 pp.) is a history of management theory and survey of its practitioners, past and present.

[2] The authors are staff editors of The Economist. They have taken a subject which could easily glaze the eyes of the Sphinx and turned it into a highly readable, enjoyable, frequently even funny study. Actually the title is something of a misnomer, in that the book often ventures beyond the confines of its stated subject into a wider look at business practices around the world -- but this is anything but a drawback, given the intelligence and expertise with which it is written.

[3] The edge this book holds over many others that cover something of the same territory can perhaps best be expressed in the authors' own words, from their final chapter, "Conclusion: An Immature Discipline": "The average management book reads as if it had been translated from German, with nouns used as verbs and sentences that meander this way and that ... An idea communicated poorly, or in ways only the elect can understand, is more often than not poorly thought out, or eager to hide what it is actually about" (p. 326). No one can accuse Micklethwait and Wooldridge of guilt in this regard!

[4] The Witch Doctors begins with a Prologue introduced by a quote from Victor Hugo: "You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come" (p. vii). This is followed by a sometimes-frightening, sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-both series of texts by various management theorists, and ends with a quote from a senior editor of The Economist, addressed to the authors: "You know what worries me about your book about management theory: that you'll talk to all the people and read all the books; that you will detail all its incredible effects -- the number of jobs lost, the billions of dollars spent, and so on. And you won't say the obvious thing: that it's 99 percent bullshit. And everybody knows that" (p. x).

[5] Although that quote sets the tone for the book, the authors are remarkably even-handed in distinguishing good from bad from ridiculous in management theory. At one point they define their intent for the book to be a "scalpel job," not a "hatchet job." While their wry, occasionally even facetious, style sometimes gets out of hand (a discussion of a Taiwanese entrepreneur named Stan Shih did not have to be headed "Shih Who Must Be Obeyed," for example -- I wonder how many American businessmen and gurus are ardent enough watchers of PBS to even recognize the allusion?), it is greatly preferable to boredom.

[6] The Witch Doctors is laid out (after the Prologue) in an Introduction, five Parts, and a Conclusion. The Introduction provides a discussion of the current state of the business world and an overview of the management theory field. One of the book's major strengths is introduced early on: its use of very specific and often amusing detail. In discussing the recent guru-driven rage for downsizing, for instance, it offers an insider joke that AT&T's name would one day stand for "Allen [Bob Allen, then the head man] and Two Temps" (p. 4). The Introduction also defines, among the book's purposes, providing self-criticism of management theory (which the discipline otherwise sorely lacks) and translating "managementese" into something approaching English.

[7] Part One is titled "How It Works." Chapter 1, "The Fad In Progress: Reengineering," presents specific examples of the phenomenon, good and bad. Chapter 2, "The Management Theory Industry," describes the various parts of the management industry: the great consulting outfits like Anderson Consulting and McKinsey; the business schools (about 700 in the U.S.); and the "guru business." One minor problem with the book which crops up frequently is already in evidence here -- the inclusion of material which, while worthwhile and interesting, doesn't pertain directly to the subject at hand. The second part of this chapter, for example, discusses why managers pay any attention to gurus -- which is mostly because they are terrified that their subordinates will learn how inadequate they feel in their jobs. Having been "groomed ... to become top dogs," they are instead more like "trembling Chihuahuas" (p. 57). Good stuff, but not really germane to the chapter's main thrust; it might better have been developed as a separate chapter.

[8] In Part Two, which is titled "Prophet and Evangelist," Chapters 3 and 4 describe the lives and works of Peter Drucker ("the guru's guru") and Tom Peters, in considerable detail, informatively and entertainingly. Peter Drucker is identified as "the inventor of privatization, the apostle of a new class of knowledge workers, the champion of management as a serious intellectual discipline" (p. 63). His books, The End of Economic Man (1939), The Future of Industrial Man (1942), and The Concept of the Corporation (1946), riled academics and had a profound influence on the management strategies of many American corporations, including Ford and General Electric.

[9] Tom Peters is vividly described as a performance artist -- one of his books, The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations (1994), features him on the dust jacket in his boxer shorts. But the authors also give him full, if gingerly, credit: "Insofar as the current management theory boom has a starting date, it is with the publication of In Search of Excellence (1982); and insofar as it has a presiding genius who keeps the arguments rolling and the pretenders coming, it is Tom Peters" (p. 81).

[10] Part Three is titled "The Great Debates." Chapter 5, "Rethinking the Company," treats such aspects of its subject as cutting space and staff to the bone, focusing on core businesses, and workplace democracy. Chapter 6, "Knowledge, Learning, and Innovation," deals with the difficulty of measuring knowledge -- as opposed to stock on hand, or income flow -- and the importance of employee knowledge, and therefore of training. Chapter 7, "Strategy: From Planning to Vision," is mostly about the drawbacks and "near-uselessness" of strategic planning. Chapter 8, "Storm in the Boardroom," mostly concerns leadership, though it's again something of a grab-bag. Well-known bosses who have promoted management theory (Bill Gates, Mark McCormack, Lee Iacocca) are the subject of brief studies. Various leadership styles, the domination of company boards by white men, shareholder/company relations, ethical problems, and the distinction between shareholders and stakeholders are all touched on. Chapter 9, "The Future of Work," is a very effective treatment of the changing nature of the workplace itself; the rise of part-time and temporary labor forces (the recent UPS dustup happened after the book was published, but obviously came as no surprise to its authors), the threat posed to jobs by developing technology; the "SoHo" (single operator home office) movement, with its attendant benefits and drawbacks; the proliferation of subcontractors and small, frequently fragile, companies; the extent to which job requirements have become more flexible and managers and other workers are frequently overworked; and an absorbing discussion of "The New Moral Contract" -- what a company owes its workers. "Lifetime employability" is pretty much out, so the basic answer now is "pay" (p. 208).

[11] Part Four is titled "The World in Their Hands." It is perhaps the section most remote from the basic subject of the book. In fact, the title itself is indicative of this; the 'Their' would seem, in context, to refer to gurus, but the section makes it clear that in many parts of the world gurus are not as rife and have not been as influential as in Europe and the U.S. Despite this, the material is consistently interesting. Chapter 10, "What Does Globalization Mean?" examines what globalization is and the effects that it has had on international business. Three main ideas about globalization are explored and proven to be myth. The first is that "global" products are standardized; they have to be sold differently to different markets, and even adjusted to suit local tastes. As so often throughout the book, telling examples are given; because of the pronunciation problem, the mascot of a major fast-food chain is known in Japan as Donald McDonald (p. 220)! The other two exploded ideas are that big global companies will triumph (frequently, small companies have gained more from globalization), and that geography doesn't matter. As the authors put it, "Far from contemptuously ignoring ... geographic irritations, multinationals now bow down before them" (p. 224). One example given is how Barbie's breasts had to be reduced and her hair turned brown before she began to sell well in Japan (p. 223). The chapter also discusses transnational corporations, which are more particular about the marketed product than global ones, and the pros and cons of both.

[12] Chapter 11, "The Art of Japanese Management," is a detailed and balanced discussion of Japanese business practices. It focuses particularly on efficiency; the use of robots for heavy work, while people do the fine-tuning; not keeping more than a one-hour's worth of material on hand, with constant replenishing; any worker's ability to stop the production line if a problem is spotted; etc.

[13] Chapter 12, "A New Model in Asia?" is about Asian, other than Japanese, business practices. Much of Chinese business depends on family-based, secretive, very powerful business organizations, known as "bamboo networks," which spread across a variety of companies and industries. These have not, however, had much success outside of Asia, and may be most useful in combination with Western models.

[14] Part Five is titled "New Frontiers." Chapter 13, "Managing Leviathan: The Public Sector," describes how governments and their representatives -- Clinton-Gore, Margaret Thatcher, and Newt Gingrich are cited -- have "...shown a blind affection for management theory that is rarely seen in the private sector" (p. 282). Reasons are given, and the conclusion the authors reach is that despite not having "lived up to the exaggerated claims of its acolytes," management theory has "brought more good than harm to the public sector" (p.304).

[15] Chapter 14, "A Walk on the Wild Side," is one of the most entertaining parts of the book. It is a survey, although the authors stop just short of putting it this way, of the lunatic fringe of management theory. Singled out for individual attention is Stephen Covey, described as having "made a fortune by mixing together America's three great obsessions: management theory, religion, and self-help" (p. 305). Another target is Anthony Robbins -- "a school janitor turned 'peak performance coach'" with a castle in San Diego and an island in Fiji (p. 310). The chapter also describes in considerable detail, and with a great deal of verve, the work of such futurologists as John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler; technologists like Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates, and assorted philosophers, poets, sports figures, and others who "...import ideas wholesale from other disciplines" (p. 316). New Age touchy-feelyness is brilliantly illustrated by a company which alphabetizes its in-house phone list by first names to promote corporate chumminess. Even here, however, Micklethwait and Wooldridge strive to retain their even-handed approach: "Is [the chapter] a rogues' gallery? Not entirely. Yes, in many cases the marketing is more interesting than the product. Yes, the thinkers' appeal rests to an unusual extent on the fear or greed of their audience. But, there is occasionally something of value in what they are saying... " (p. 304).

[16] The final section of The Witch Doctors, "Conclusion: An Immature Discipline," summarizes the current crop of leading companies and management theorists. Although the authors acknowledge that many of the management people with whom they have talked discredit the entire field, they nevertheless feel there is good and bad in it, and do a reasoned and well-balanced job of summarizing its strong points, its weaknesses, and the problems it occasions.

[17] The end of this section, and of the book, sub-titled "Up, Up, and Away," is worth a substantial quote:

Whatever the discipline's problems, there is no doubt that it will go from strength to strength ... Even if managers do learn how to thrive on chaos or control their destiny, they will still be confronted by that most intractable of all problems: the cussedness of human nature. Managers are constantly embracing techniques that promise to control the uncertainty at the heart of their jobs -- and constantly having to embrace new techniques when their charges refuse to do as they are bid. In looking at the fate of managers and their pitiful predilection for magic cures, we are reminded of David Hume's insight: "In proportion as any man's course of life is governed by accident, we always find that he increases in superstition" (p. 328).

[18] Any book -- let alone one on as arcane a subject as management theory -- that begins with Victor Hugo, ends with David Hume, and holds its own in between is well worth careful reading. At the very least it will comfort any 'trembling Chihuahuas' out there (you know who you are!)... and reassure you that you're not alone.

About the Author

Linder Chlarson is Manager of Production and Quality Control at The Communication Project, Inc., where he fills a variety of editorial roles, including coordinating the content for the distance learning network of a leading insurance company. His previous business experience includes extensive editing, writing, auditing, and computer work with a number of major travel, financial, and other companies. In addition to his editorial roles and writing activities, Mr. Chlarson is also a composer, lyricist, and librettist, and has written operas, musicals, revues, individual songs and song cycles. He has been the recipient of many awards and grants from Meet the Composer, the Margaret Jory Fund, the Hornet Foundation, and others, and is a member of the American Music Center and of the Dramatists Guild. Mr. Chlarson has recently completed the music for The Binding of Isaac, a one-act opera, with a libretto by Marvin Gottlieb, President of The Communication Project, Inc. The opera was successfully premiered by The Crystal Opera Consortium of CT in April 1998.

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