The myth of progress

Jan 04 2010 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

I wrote last month about the puzzle in which a 50-year-old insight was being presented as a 'new' breakthrough in management thinking in the Harvard Business Review

It reminded me of an observation made by Richard Kwiatkowski at Cranfield University, that some of the 'new' ideas such as emotional intelligence and employee engagement were well understood, and supported with a research base, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Similarly, economists have been dusting off the textbooks of Frank Knight from the early 20th Century. He made a crucial distinction between risk and uncertainty and warned against pretending you can 'model' uncertainty – a warning that would have helped prevent the credit crisis.

What's going on here? Why do we forget great learning? In the December post, I mentioned the fatal lure of technology and wider cultural influences that encourage a cynical approach to management.

Another contributory factor is a misunderstanding of what constitutes science. The cultural assumptions that the physical sciences constitute the only 'true' science, and that social sciences ought to be treated like physical sciences.

This sounds a bit abstract – but it explains why we have the fascistic term 'human resources' – instead of dealing with real people, let's pretend that they behave like billiard balls. This has caused executives to overlook research based on real people, and favour approaches based on restructurings and measurement of cost.

A great book exposing this error is Making Social Science Matter, by Bent Flyvbjerg.

Mary Midgley reviewed a book making a similar point in the Guardian newspaper: The Master and his Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which discusses how the left brain has overly dominated.

What a shame and an irony that the same Guardian/Observer last year sacked Simon Caulkin, the only columnist to have consistently exposed how these damaging beliefs have stymied progress in management.

Read more from Phil Whiteley at