Rationalism in Management

"The core of managerial expertise was now defined as a distinct set of skills and techniques, focused upon a mastery of quantitative methodologies. Decisions based on sleep numbers were viewed as scientific, since numbers were thought to imply objectivity and accuracy...

"Before that, 'expertise' meant the career long accumulation of knowledge of a specific field, as one progressed from rung to rung within the same institution or business... Auto executives were 'car guys' -- men who had spent much of their professional life in the automotive industry. They were increasingly replaced by McNamara-like 'bean counters,' adept at calculating costs and profit margins.

"[This trend] morphed into the gospel of managerialism. The role of judgment grounded in experience and a deep knowledge of context was downplayed. The premise of managerialism is that the differences among organizations -- including private corporations, government agencies, and universities -- are less important than the similarities. Thus the performance of all organizations can be optimized using the same toolkit of managerial techniques and skills." -- Jerry Z. Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics, pp. 34-35.

Critics of Oakeshott often mistake his critique of rationalism as a disguised defense of the status quo in politics. But Oakeshott himself extended the critique well beyond politics, and others have gone further than him: Michael Polanyi extended it to science, Ludwig Wittgenstein to philosophy, Jane Jacobs to urban planning, James C. Scott to forestry and agriculture, Nassim Taleb to finance and to religion, myself to software engineering, and here, Muller to management. "Rationalism" is not mainly a political phenomenon, nor is it exclusively right-wing or left-wing: rather, it is an obsession with replacing experience and judgment with formal techniques, based on a mistaken understanding of what is (falsely) supposed to itself be a single technique called "the scientific method."


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