Management Wisdom: Recovering the Tension Between the Hard and the Soft
by David Hurst

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In The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (1996, revised 2011) John Micklethwait (former editor-in-chief of The Economist, now of Bloomberg News) and Adrian Wooldridge (Schumpeter columnist for The Economist) identified four defects in management theory:

  1. That it was constitutionally incapable of self-criticism
  2. Its terminology confuses rather than educates
  3. It rarely rises above common sense
  4. It is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions

They declared management theory “guilty” on all charges in various degrees, and went on to identify the root cause of the problem as an “…intellectual confusion at the heart of management theory; it has become not so much a coherent discipline as a battleground between two radically opposed philosophies. Management theorists usually belong to one of two rival schools. Each of which is inspired by a different philosophy of nature; and management practice has oscillated wildly between these two positions.” They went on to identify the two schools as scientific management on the one hand and humanistic management on the other, concluding that “This, in essence, is the debate between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ management.”

Management Is The Battleground: Judgment or Technique?

It’s time to identify this intellectual confusion as not just being in the discipline of management but in the human subjects in their organizational context. It’s time to recognize that our fundamentally divided nature is the essence of our humanity and that it is their integration, the practical weaving together of irreconcilable opposites, the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’, that is the very warp and woof of our existence.

In management these tensions are familiar; means and ends, quantity and quality, exploitation and exploration, calculation and judgment, individual and group, performance and learning, detachment and immersion, mechanical and organic and so on and on. All these strains come together in the debate over the extent to which management is a hard, technical-based practice or a softer, judgment-based practice.

The proponents of technical-based practice believe that the essentials can be conveyed by means of explicit rules, formal technical procedures and general abstract principles, which are then “applied”. They contend that it is the program or technique that produces the change. Judgment-based practitioners, on the other hand, emphasize the practical, situated judgment of the practitioner. They maintain that it is the person, the one who “cares”, who produces the results.  It would seem obvious that management is a mixture of both the technical and the practical and the “right” mix varies from situation to situation. Nevertheless, ever since the end of World War II, the Anglo-American emphasis has been on management as a hard, technical-based practice with universal application. In its aspiration to create a science of management it has championed what Peter Drucker called a “Cartesian world-view”. The Cartesian world-view is a single-minded one that denies our intrinsic double nature. In management, we know it as, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, a comment often wrongly attributed to Drucker. Managers are seen as detached observers and rational actors making rational choices. It has stressed means over ends, encouraged efficiency over creativity, and short-term performance over sustainability. And, like all approaches that treat the long run as a series of short terms, it has worked, but with declining effectiveness.

The Scale of the Crisis

Now, after seventy years of economic prosperity on a scale unparalleled in history, all the long-neglected ‘soft’ halves of the management dualities seem to be returning with a vengeance. The obsession with means at the expense of ends has resulted in a profound loss of purpose and meaning. The pursuit of efficiency and the inattention to creativity has abetted a secular decline in productivity and produced a lack of engagement on the part of employees. Most seriously, the preoccupation with short-term performance has led to a disregard for sustainability.  This time, there is a real fear that new digital technology will not bail us out as industrial technologies have in the past.

The problem is a serious one, akin to institutions that, pleading poverty, have allowed their social, political and physical infrastructures to run into the ground. Eventually, the long-deferred bills come due and significant issues and the efforts needed to address them can no longer be avoided.

In management, our challenge is to revitalize management’s long-neglected ethical and philosophical roots. Peter Drucker had hoped that a process perspective embracing purpose, growth and development would replace the Cartesian world-view. Unfortunately, he may have underestimated the resilience of a self-sealing framework that believes that science has made philosophy irrelevant and is intolerant of alternative perspectives. Despite the clichéd mantra of the need to think “out of the box”, the taken-for-granted assumptions out of which the large Cartesian box is constructed remain largely unexamined. There is philosophical ferment on the fringes of management but little sign of change in the core.

We need a larger, enhanced worldview that recognizes the importance of context, history, and narrative in the practice of management. The Cartesian world-view is not  “wrong”, but neither is it universally applicable.  As a result, it has been misused and over-applied.

Embracing Contradictions

As Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest, we don’t need theories that contradict each other but we do need theories that embrace contradictions. We need to do the hard work to recover a practical wisdom that will acknowledge our dialogical nature and recover the creative “both…and” tension between the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’. We need a more critical stance toward our theories, accepting as the Greek philosophers contended many centuries ago, there are many ways of knowing, but no certain knowledge of anything. There is no such thing as a detached, objective observer – no view from outside of space and time – not even in the natural sciences, let alone the human disciplines. Systems scientist West Churchman made this point well, “Instead of the silly and empty claim that an observation is objective if it resides in the brain of an unbiased observer, one should say that an observation is objective if it is the creation of many inquirers with many different points of view.” In management objectivity is not a position; it is an achievement. It is the view from everywhere.

Managers who act only as detached observers cannot produce objectivity in this sense. The creation of a view from everywhere demands that managers are immersed participants. And the difference between detached observers and immersed participants is empathy, one of the key ingredients of what we call judgment. This is the capacity, in Isaiah Berlin’s words, “…for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicoloured, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data (those identified by scientific knowledge as well as direct perception) as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically – that is in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you…. Above all this is an acute sense of what fits with what, what leads to what; how things seem to vary to different observers, what the effect of such experience upon them may be; what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and interpersonal forces…”

How do we develop such capacities in individuals? For those who view management as a technical-based practice, there is little need for judgment. The solution is a capacity for logical thought and calculation produced by ‘education’, where education is seen as the conveyance of technical skills, rules, and principles. It is a finite, instrumental activity with a beginning and an end. A judgment-based practice, on the other hand, views the development of the whole person as critical. Hence the German concept of Bildung, a process of growth and development in which a person learns the ways of the world and comes to terms with the need for both self-fulfillment and the social roles they must play. There is no direct English equivalent of Bildung, another reflection, perhaps, of how Cartesian and instrumental our world-view has become. Bildung is intrinsically valuable, a process of cultivation, a journey without beginning or end in which people are stretched to their limits to realize their potential. Bildung is the journey; education marks the stations along the way. Of course, we need them both, but we have to get the priorities right.

Perhaps future Drucker Forums can show us the way…


About the author:

David K. Hurst is a management author, educator, and consultant. His latest book is The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World (Columbia University Press 2012).

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