Gurus and the art of gibberish

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The Independent Online
As a former editor of Punch magazine, William Davis is no stranger to the "light touch" when it comes to writing. And since he has also served as a financial journalist and run a business, there can be few people better equipped to demolish a few business myths.

Accordingly, his new book - Great Myths of Business (just published by Kogan Page at pounds 18.99) - is likely to prove a welcome antidote to all those worthy but exceedingly dull tomes that float across the Atlantic with the aim of stirring executives into radical change programmes once they return from their summer breaks. Chances are they will chuckle into their suntan lotion or fall off their beach chairs as they read Mr Davis's attack on such ideas as "banks know best" or that "numbers don't lie". But what they are likely to enjoy is the sustained assault on management gurus and the consultants who in effect act as bag carriers.

Gurus, he says, "have a passion for convoluted theories and fancy jargon accompanied by incomprehensible diagrams. It often turns out to be pretentious waffle, but it impresses the people who pay the bills." Consultants, meanwhile, have become almost as essential to many business people as "a psychiatrist to a Hollywood star".

This is not to say that he views the two groups as completely worthless. He has a lot of time for Peter Drucker, who sees his contribution to clients as "basically to be very stupid and very dense" in contrast with most experts who delight in clever-clever bamboozling.

But it is clear that a lot of what he calls "the consultancy game" fails to impress him. Acknowledging that it is unfair to blame gurus or consultants for the fact that nothing is certain in the world, he nevertheless argues that the coming in and out of fashion of such ideas as downsizing and re-engineering only points up the fact that "one should not take everything the gurus say at face value".

And then there are the "expert MBAs" of whom he warns business to beware. In pointing out that "consultancies feel that MBAs help to convey an aura of professionalism and many corporations like them", Mr Davis, to say the least, his doubts.

As such, he has more than a little sympathy with the business people who argue that students should be taught "practical skills that employers want" rather than have their heads crammed with "interesting but unusable facts".

But then he also accepts that business executives also have a lot to answer for. Gurus and consultants can attack complacency and the established order, but "the ultimate responsibility for improvement lies squarely on the shoulders of the audience".

A simple truth, but one which - unlike a few myths - merits close examination.