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Mumbo-jumbo is losing its magic

Every success story experiences a backlash. And now it is the turn of the management gurus to be lambasted in the way that members of the Royal Family have long been familiar with.

Since even management diehards - those unable to resist spending a stop- over in an international airport browsing through the latest thinking - tend to admit that much of what they read is either common sense or nonsense, one would wonder why this has not happened before. That is, if the chief beneficiaries of this were not business book publishers who must be laughing all the way to the bank on the strength of business's insatiable demand for guidance.

Nevertheless, hot on the heels of Eileen Shapiro's often funny attack, Fad Surfing in the Boardroom (Capstone, pounds 15.99), comes The Witch Doctors (William Heinemann, pounds 20). However, as the subtitle (What the management gurus are saying, why it matters and how to make sense of it) demonstrates, this latest effort is rather more even-handed.

Indeed, after a strong start, which includes a description of how one management consultancy is said to have distorted the best-seller lists by buying up copies of a book written by members of its staff, authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge come to the less than startling conclusion that some of what these people preach is genuinely helpful and some is rubbish.

This balanced approach is obviously acknowledged, since the authors say how "it would have been much easier (and often far more pleasurable) to have trashed the [guru] industry", but that they have eschewed a hatchet job in favour of a "scalpel job". What this means is that the reader is treated to an admittedly helpful summary of the schools of management thinking with more lengthy descriptions of Peter Drucker and Tom Peters.

But although the authors object to the gurus' lack of facility with English and their encouragement of organisations to adopt contradictory approaches, they shrink from sticking the "scalpel" in too far.

Indeed, reasonable folk that they are, Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that a lot of the criticism can be put down to management theory's comparative youth. They also blame managers who want instant solutions. That is true enough but it can also be argued that managers only seek these quick fixes because the gurus promise them as much.

Only their third explanation for the shaky reputation of management theory, that rather like astrology it attracts charlatans, is likely to find favour with their Economist colleague who is quoted saying: "You know what worries me about your book: 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 per cent bullshit. And everybody knows that."