The end of the guru: Is it all over for business bestsellers, consultants and business schools?

Not so long ago, airport bookshops would be filled with management titles which would sell in their millions. Hero-CEOs sharing their wisdom, consultants from blue chip firms, and even the occasional academic-guru filling our heads with clever graphics and exhorting executives to manage change or fail. Today, those same shops have just a small section on business books, a single shelf perhaps.

This is not to say that management ideas, or even books, have become less important. The self-management section of bookshops and bestseller lists remains very healthy. Rather, it reflects a number of different, connected changes in the field of management ideas. The rise of social media platforms is part of it, but also management ideas and the promises and institutions that come with them have become more familiar and less seductive. So, we now have claims that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s – that there is a ‘democratization of the management knowledge market’; we should ‘shut down the business school’; and that global consulting firms are not suited to the twenty first century!

What is going on? According to recent research, including a new collection of over twenty five studies assessing the current state of play, a number of themes emerge. Firstly, technology platforms such as LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia are no longer new, but mainstream. They have become a channel for management ideas and their adherents, but also sceptics and critics, all of whose views become instantly available.

Indeed, through crowdsourcing and user groups, managers can become the authors of new ideas, even if they do not get the royalties gurus used to. Managers always had a role in developing ideas, but this was often hidden behind gurus, consulting firms, academics and print publishers lifting ideas from the office and factory floor. They were the gatekeepers for what was ‘new’ and ‘best’ practice, not managers or other employees. Thus, Barros and Rüling make the observation that “carefully packaged managerial material” is giving way to a “virtual polyphony (and cacophony)” with much greater diversity.

Likewise, a recent study by Madsen & Slåtten, published in an open (to all) access journal, points not only to the greater level of user participation in new management ideas, but a much-reduced time lag from production to promotion and, more importantly, greater interactivity than was possible with business books, magazines, journals, videos and even training programmes and conference presentations.

This heightened interaction may help with the implementation of management ideas into daily practice as the levels of personal engagement with them extend beyond the length of a business class flight. However, it remains uncertain how social media might change the lifespan of ideas in general. Sounding them out can also reveal weaknesses that used to be hidden in hype.

As is often remarked about the internet, quality control can be undermined with such increased levels of activity and participation. How do we know if the ideas are good ones or if criticisms are valid? This is important, but the level of quality control before social media should not be exaggerated. The few assessments made of ideas were largely restricted to those who had an interest in selling them – as is the case with consultants – or came too late and with too many qualifications to be of any use – as is the case with academics.

Indeed, the recent call for more evidence-based management continues to be very much a work in progress. At the moment, as with politics, much has to be left to trust in one’s sources. But changes are happening here too. Large consulting firms, for example, are either using (‘partnering with’) or mimicking traditional sources of legitimate authority over ideas such as universities. ‘Thought leadership’ based on CEO surveys is replacing academic research, and consulting firms, on the back of large profit margins, have launched their own global institutes (McKinsey & Co.) and even ‘university presses’ (Deloitte).

But consulting firms are not having it all their own way. While still in demand, their growth has brought with it greater familiarity, competition and, at least some client sophistication. One recent study of business story sources cited in the New York Times saw consultants come behind business leaders, financiers and government officials – but ahead of employees and business school academics.

The future of the business school in its current form is also being questioned. This is not a new phenomenon – business schools have always been challenged between the competing voices of the university and the corporation. But they, too, are victims of their own success. The lustre has dimmed as millions of people have now graduated from business and management schools. This, combined with the clamour for accreditation and huge fee income, has made them all pretty much the same (whatever their websites say).

Such standardisation might simply lead to business and management education becoming cheaper, but still necessary. However, the failure, until very recently, of business schools to engage with core issues such as the financial crisis and climate change points to a more fundamental flaw.

This arises from their very narrow conception of how we might organise the world (i.e. along business and management lines) which is shared with other business institutions such as consulting firms and their customers.

It also coincides with a fetish for change which is paradoxical in that what they promote is typically not new or radical and neglects that which endures.

This can sometimes be of value. In the context of management ideas for example, a number of recent studies have started to look at how notions such as Lean are re-adopted, re-born or simply just persist. The same applies to many other ideas, ‘bureaucracy’ included.

But these classic concerns are unlikely to find their way into MBA units, ‘thought leadership’ websites or even the few remaining popular business books on the shelves in airport lounges. At least, not without a new label.

Andrew Sturdy is Professor of Management at the University of Bristol, UK.

Image Credit: brewbooks via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)