The Fad Motif in Management Scholarship

By David Collins, Suffolk Business School

This has been a rather special week. I have, you see, been able to place a tick against an item on my rather lengthy and ever expanding ‘to do list’. I completed a draft chapter that I had been invited to author and within the agreed deadline (although only just!). It might be worth expanding upon this…

Some time ago I was invited by Oxford University Press to prepare a chapter on Management Gurus for an edited volume concerned with Management Practice. I was pleased and rather flattered to receive this offer (in truth, I would probably have asked my colleague Dr Huczynski, of the University of Glasgow, to write this chapter since he produced perhaps the first sustained academic commentary in this arena back in the early 1990s), and so I agreed to produce a chapter on Management’s Gurus. Look closely. The addition of the ‘apostrophe s’ is for me a crucial addition to the title. It is in fact my rather unsubtle way of placing a social distance between my analysis and the position of those who might be inclined to accept what their gurus tell them to think and do, without, in my opinion, sufficient critical reflection.

When I mention a research interest in the gurus of management I am regularly met by two questions:

  1. Who are the gurus?
  2. Do the gurus really produce empty fads?

The answer to these questions is far from straightforward. Well you wouldn’t really expect a clear answer from a Professor, would you?

It is rather difficult to produce a definitive listing of management’s gurus. Priorities change and ideas tend to fall out of fashion. There is probably ‘a famous five’ (including Peter Drucker and Tom Peters) but beyond this elite there is generally no agreement as to who we might place in that category of commentators which has been awarded (sometimes seriously and sometimes more ironically) the title of ‘guru’. In truth the debate about management’s gurus is not so much a discussion about whether or not this category exists; it is instead a sustained competition about who has the best gurus. Indeed it is worth observing that those academics who have attacked management’s gurus have called upon the services of their sociological gurus when launching this broadside!

As to what the gurus do? Well there is no doubt that these commentators produce and trade in fashionable ideas. That fact however should not be taken as confirmation that what the gurus say and do is simply empty and faddish. Nor does it suggest that those who would implement guru theory are engaged in a form of activity that is mindless and imitative. In truth it takes a lot of effort and imagination to implement TQM, ABC or BPR (you can look these up J). Some years ago I produced a paper that develops this line of analysis. You might find this entertaining:

Collins, D. (2001) “The fad motif in management scholarship“, Employee Relations 23(1), pp. 26-37

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