I did it to myself.
I’ve cautioned myriad others about doing this, and yet managed to fall into the same trap. Which is inevitable and human, but also its own cautionary tale.
I have argued many times before that there are few new management ideas under the sun. I will defend that principle long and hard. For all that we speak of business models and operating models and hybrid workforces and strategic disruption, the world of business is the age-old challenge of bringing people together in the pursuit of a theoretically common enterprise. As such, it has all the messy dynamics that erupt when people try to come together to do just about anything.
I’m about to go into a strategic facilitation with an organization in the next couple of weeks. That will be its own messy dynamics of people and interactions, hopefully brought into structure and meaning by yours truly. I’ve been looking for articles to share in a pre-reading package as preparation for the session. The goal is to get people into the thinking process and headspace I need them to access, to be able to look at the future of the organization from a very different perspective than is their current norm.
This has involved a deep dive into the literature around strategy, execution, measurement and problem solving. I reviewed two hundred or so articles to get down to a short list of about twenty, from which I intended to choose three or four final articles to share. Some of these articles I already have in my archives; I did a broader search as well, to pick up others that I might not have encountered before.
As I was scanning through to build a short-list, I had the distinctive experience of coming across an article, looking at the date, and reacting with “Oh, that’s much too old.” The article in question was published in 2005.
To put this in context, I’ve been reading and researching in the broader space of management since the late 1980s. I’ve been more generally interested in and exploring strategy since about 1990, when I founded Interthink. That’s a period of thirty-two years, which from one perspective feels ridiculously long, and yet from another is a mere blip. I can vividly recall specific foundational articles that I came across even then, ones that were profound and meaningful. Ones that were by no means new at the time, either. Ones that are still relevant today, and that were formative to my thinking.
An article published in 2005 is just pushing 18 years old. It is admittedly now old enough to drink in a few provinces. It can vote everywhere. To look at it as old, however—or worse, outdated—is probably to do it an incredible disservice. A great deal of management scholarship published even decades ago is still pertinent and meaningful.
Much of the work of my doctorate, for example, was grounded in the scholarship of what came to be known as “the Carnegie School.” The work of a group of researchers at what is now Carnegie-Mellon University laid the foundational work for behavioural decision making and organizational behaviour.
The most active and fruitful period for the Carnegie School was from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Herbert Simon’s ground-breaking “Administrative Behavior” was published in 1947, March & Simon’s “Organizations” was published in 1959, and. Cyert & March published their pioneering “A Behavioral Theory of the Firm” in 1963. They are all as important today as when they were first released. Each one is profound and provides valuable insights into how organizations function (and often don’t).
Older research being relevant is not always true, of course. In fields like medicine, research can be outdated in months. New research is emerging quite literally daily, particularly in specific areas of investigation. The bias here is very much towards the newer the better. In fields like strategy, management and organizational behaviour, however, later does not always mean better. Some of the most important research can be years and even decades old.
That’s not to say that adjustments in perspective aren’t required. Even if the ideas aregermane , how they are presented can sometimes be challenging. Reading anything written before the 1950s is to encounter some pretty dated and convoluted language (although academic writing in general can fall prey to that problem). Not to mention some controversial and socially out-of-step prejudices. Meaningful insights are gained at the cost of wading into some stilted prose—and some pretty awkward social norms—that have not necessarily aged well.
More recent writing doesn’t have the same stylistic challenges, necessarily. The article I referenced, for example, was a really good one in framing a strategic problem and providing guidance and perspective around how to address it constructively. It was a good, solid article. Well written, good research behind it, and excellent use of examples to illustrate the authors’ points.
Where it ran into problems, however, was in the examples. Organizations referenced included Circuit City (still operating, having gone through bankruptcy and emerging with a new ownership structure), Enron (bankrupt since 2001), Lycos (used to be a moderately popular search engine, which astonishingly still exists), Dell Computers and a handful of others. The examples are meant to provide appropriate insights, which is possible only if you’re familiar with the specific strategic circumstances of the organizations at the time.
The strategic issues that were facing any of these organizations are relatively vague to many current readers. Enron is no longer a household name, and the best that many can muster is that there was some sort of corporate malfeasance involved in its decline that was considered to be a very bad thing. Circuit City has nowhere near the profile today that it did as a retailer at the turn of the millennium, and this decline in prominence is part of its current strategic problems but isn’t relevant to what the article discusses. Dell has gone through its own decline and resurgence and decline, all of which are going to be much more familiar topics than the influences that drove them to strategic prominence earlier in their history.
This tension is the inherent challenge of reading older research and older articles. The ideas might be great (and they very often are). But examples are central to driving a point home, and when they fail to land effectively, that becomes awkward and difficult. To make sense of the points being made, you need to understand why the examples being used are significant. Depending on how they are explained, making sense of the examples provided may not always be the easiest proposition.
It isn’t always true that examples are problematic. The problem is that good examples are rare. They also, however, point to a solution of the problem; how to write good that can stand the test of time, and what to look for in good examples of management scholarship. When examples are used properly, they don’t presume that you know the organization or its circumstances. They lay out the circumstances and challenges. They define the issues at hand, why they are issues, and how the organization has come to arrive at that point. From there, they provide an exploration of why the points and perspective of the paper provide meaningful insight.
Where this goes sideways is where context is provided. Where shortcuts are taken, and it is presumed that the author knows what people are talking about. This can be true at the time that an article is published, when case studies are current and what is being explored is already a widely-understood topic of conversation. But these are not the papers and articles that stand the test of time. These are the papers that will date themselves too quickly, for the sad but essential reason that readers no longer relate to the examples being provided, and can therefore no longer assess and evaluate their value.
This was the essential problem with the paper that I was reviewing. It was written by noted scholars whose work on the whole I respect. It made some really useful points, ones that would have been helpful to explore. The insights would have been really beneficial in shaping the thinking and helping participants to get into the headspace that I was looking for. The examples, however, would have completely undermined what I was trying to do. They would have lost context, and as a consequence called into question whether the substance of the paper was itself relevant.
Management doesn’t change quickly. The concepts of how we relate and organize are surprisingly enduring. They evolve, certainly, but they do so slowly. Even where we employ new approaches and techniques, it is often building on a foundation and context of what has come before. That means that older writing is always going to be useful, and long as current readers can still relate to it. That’s the challenge that we need to confront as readers. It’s also the challenge that authors need to embrace when they write. It’s lovely to be current and topical, but the ideas and topics still need to stand the test of time.
Michael Hilbert says
In (what I think is) the same context, you have referenced the foundations of project management to the Polaris Project and the Dupont Plant expansion. You have also noted that Project Management has borrowed most of what it does from other disciplines. Over time, these foundations have morphed in what we know as project management today, with all the variants and methodologies available to us. Polaris was in the 1950’s, yet I wonder how many PM’s today are even aware of this foundational event or the history of the craft that they strive to be part of. Will (has?) managerial practices and experiences go (gone) in the same direction? Will managers of the future see anything older than themselves to be ancient history and forgo the lessons learned and practical advice from those who came before?
Mark Mullaly says
Great feedback and awesome questions. Most project managers really don’t recognize the origins (Polaris/Dupont in the macro, other disciplines in shaping of individual techniques or perspectives). Nor, frankly, does the industry. There is no real discussion of those disciplines and schools that provided the foundation material, and unless there is already personal understanding of the source domains, no real recognition that it came from somewhere else. It would be useful and valuable, perhaps, to think about making those links more explicit. Perhaps a future series of posts…
But yes, those risks of losing the lessons and practical insights are very real. I’ve seen them happen already in individual organizations as well as the broader perspectives of evolving practices. Very often, the same lessons get learned over again, because we fail to remember history and dismiss what has come before us, no matter how valuable and relevant those perspectives still are.
Appreciate the insights and thoughts as always!
Rollie Cole says
The industry can also matter. Even if not outdated, something too far afield from the audience has problems. Using business school cases in schools of government, or vice versa can cause real problems as many of the students of government will consider business evil (or shortsighted) and many students of business will consider government stupid (or unfocussed). Even when the principles are directly applicable, the “other guy” context can cause problems.
Mark Mullaly says
Your point is very well taken, Rollie. Distance isn’t measured just in time, but how much we think this is relevant to our world. And your specific analogy of business and government is spot on, because so many times they think they have nothing to learn from each other (and while there are learnings, making those learnings relevant and practical will always require some level of adaptation and adjustment). We can learn from anyone, anywhere, in any context, as long as we are prepared to do the work of making the relevant connections. It’s that unwillingness that so often gets in the way.
Great to hear from you!
Jerry Mulenburg says
Mark, as usual a very thought provoking discussion. I have found the same results in much of my reading and usually come away with a few “nuggets” with the majority of what is written is not very useful for the reasons you mention. I was glad to see your ground-breaking authors who were also a part of my own doctoral studies. If you have done this type of review for project management books/authors as well, it would be nice to see your list of those.
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks for the feedback, Jerry. I think there are always nuggets, if we’re prepared to look. Your question is an interesting one… I often wrestle with what to even recommend in the field of project management; there are lots of books, many of which are derivative or superficial. Good references—books, papers and authors—are fewer and further between than I would actually like. I will give it some thought, and perhaps explore that in a future post!