Management Ideas: Lost In Translation

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague yesterday.

We were discussing the evolution of management practices (as one does over a late Sunday brunch) and I made the observation that there were a number of useful, valuable and entirely relevant management practices that were being explored in the 1990s, that have pretty much since then fallen off the radar. And without question, they have. While I had a simplistic answer to why I thought this was the case, I’ve since given this a little more consideration. And I don’t think there is just one reason; I think there are three.

The 1990s were an interesting period in the evolution of management. There was a lot going on, there was an incredible amount of enthusiasm, and entrepreneurial spirit was at a zenith. The 1990s saw the launch of Fast Company magazine, which offered a very new and different take on the world of business (for a fascinating history of their founding, click here). We also saw the rise of the internet, the dot-commification of nearly everything, and with it the ominous ballooning of the dot-com bubble. Companies came to prominence that had never been heard of before (Google, Yahoo and Amazon, to name a few) and other companies grew exponentially (such as Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Cisco).

So what caused everything to go sideways? Why have business ideas, concepts and models that were being explored in the 1990s not found significant amount of traction today (or have needed to be fundamentally reinvented under new names)?

The first force we have to reckon with is the dot-com bubble itself. Like every other bubble in economic history, retrospective views look on the decision making during the era as ridiculously misguided. The era saw insane company valuations of companies that had never been profitable, and that never actually intended to be profitable. People genuinely argued that the fundamentals of the economy (supply and demand, costs and revenue, and the value of turning a profit) were no longer valid. And, for a few years in which people made millions selling style with absolutely no substance, that was pretty much a true assessment—or at least the particular brand of snake oil that people were buying in droves. The challenge in terms theories and concepts developed in the 1990s is that—after the bubble popped—we threw out the baby with the bathwater. Ideas that gained traction during the bubble, regardless of whether they helped support the bubble growing to its bursting point or not, lost all grip once the bubble burst.

The second force, and the one I cited over brunch, was September 11. I don’t even need to mention the year. Regardless of whether anyone was directly affected by the tragedies of that day, all of us—without exception—live in a different world today. We have accepted changes in security, monitoring and oversight that fifteen years ago would have been broadly considered unacceptable violations of civil liberties. The economy has changed, politics has changed and society has changed. Broadly speaking, I think that the disasters wrought on that day were so great that people see the world as being completely different. The result is that we dismiss many ideas and concepts that may have seemed relevant or interesting before as not being applicable in our new reality.

Finally, I think there is a strong tendency to be swayed by a perception that newer is better, and that if an idea or a theory is more than a few years old it cannot possibly be relevant or useful. The idea is a fairly common one, as revealed by the quote from UBC: “Currency of information is particularly important in the sciences as findings can change drastically in short periods of time.” In some areas of research, for example medicine, that’s true; most citations will be no more than a couple of years old. Anything older is seen as quite literally out of date. But my friend and I were talking about management, and that moves at a different pace. Despite this, the perception that relevance is a product of currency still stands. A recent paper I wrote, which had numerous citations that went back to the 1990s (and which prompted the original conversation) came back from reviewers with the question, “Can’t you cite anything more recent?”

My answer to that question is twofold: no, nor should I have to. Why no? Largely speaking, that’s when the work that I was referencing was conducted. More recent work might tangentially support what I was arguing, but that’s not what a citation is supposed to reference; a citation points to where an idea or concept came from, and if the core concept goes back aways, so be it. The ideas that I was specifically dealing with were developed in the 1990s, and in many cases have only been dealt with in a cursory fashion since then.

The reason that I shouldn’t have to, quite frankly, is that while those ideas were developed in the 1990s, they are still entirely relevant today. Management changes slowly. Business changes slowly. Politics works in largely the same manner today that it did when Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince’ in 1513 or so. The specific mechanisms may have changed, and imprisoning and executing your enemies is a little harder to accomplish, but the broad principles still hold. Some of the best business books that have been written date to the 1990s, the 1980s and in some cases earlier. The collective work of Cyert, March and Simon is some of the best work in exploring decision making and behaviour in organizations that exists, period. The earliest of their popular works, Administrative Behavior, was published in 1942 and the last book, A Behavioral Theory of the Firm, was first published in 1963. Read them now and they are still extraordinarily relevant, and organizations and organizational leaders are a long way from fully embracing and figuring out how to incorporate their theories.

New does not necessarily mean better. Sometimes, quite frankly, new is just a repackaging of old theories under new labels. Given that something often gets lost in translation, I’d much rather go back to the original wherever possible. I am unapologetic in doing so. And I don’t think I’m losing anything in the process; in fact, my view is it provides a much richer appreciation for the longevity of ideas, theories and concepts. That may not be a popular view, but it’s certainly mine.

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