Yes, There Are Classics in Business Education

Jason Fertig

A good carpenter never blames his tools. But he also doesn’t voluntarily purchase ones that will hamper his ability.

In my last essay, I attributed much of the blame for business students’ lack of intellectual curiosity on faculty not taking the bull by the horns and increasing rigor.  There is a caveat to my stance here – the textbooks available to business professors, especially in the more qualitative disciplines like management, are generally of inferior quality. Professors are faced with redundant and distracting texts with mediocre content.  It’s no wonder that the best teachers get frustrated when their students are not serious about class material.  Professors are trying to hammer a nail in the wall with a screwdriver.

My concern goes beyond PC drivel masquerading as higher learning.  Consider this excerpt of a section on “managing morale during a layoff” from a popular Human Resource Management text:

Windy City Fieldhouse is a company that organizes team- building events, some of which are specifically designed to boost morale following a layoff.  For example, to build camaraderie and trust among layoff survivors who may be experiencing guilt, the company might use a competitive game called Puzzling Planks. The exercise is a team competition involving a pile of boards that fit together to make three- dimensional figures. The point of the exercise is to get people to again feel their contributions are important and that they are a part of a team and an organization. Other team- building exercises organized by Windy City Fieldhouse might involve more physical exercises, such as obstacle courses.

In addition to such organized events, there are simple suggestions that can help you create a more fun, upbeat, and energetic climate among layoff survivors.  For example, host a simple end-of-the-week breakfast—bagels, cream cheese, juice, and coffee should do it. Arrange for a pot-luck luncheon or picnic. Hold a monthly raffle in which a drawing is held for a product, gift certificate, or an afternoon off! Add some games, such as guessing the number of pennies in a jar. The point is to infuse some energy and fun into a workplace that may be suffering from a layoff and to send a message to survivors that management cares about and recognizes them.

I question whether the people involved with publishing these two paragraphs have ever been involved with a layoff. Allow me to explain further.

Company A lays off 10% of its employees. The majority of the layoff survivors worry about whether they will be next on the chopping block. Many of them start updating their resumes and tightening their budgets at home.  The fear of being unable to provide for a family causes employee stress levels to rise. Some take sick days to cope. Others withdraw from their work because they do not want to go above and beyond for a “company that doesn’t care.” So what should Company A do to reassure their employees? Pay a company (with a $2500 minimum for their services) to run obstacle courses, bumper cars, and games like guessing pennies in a jar?  That should do it!

Where did the authors get these shoddy notions?  In the actual text, the paragraphs contain a citation to a source that was used to support this assertion – Meetings and Conventions Magazine. Was Harvard Business Review unavailable?  The cited article from Meetings and Conventions contained a short description of Windy City Fieldhouse’s business and nothing about layoffs.  Hence, the textbook authors found a source to cite for morale boosting and inductively concluded that the activities will work anytime morale is low.

This is what happens when smart, tenured people who have never feared for their jobs try to advise others who work in the real-life trenches.  Just wash, rinse, and repeat this example for 600 pages of a $200 book and you have management textbooks in 2011.

Beyond the Mickey Mouse content in many of these texts, even the best students struggle to read these textbooks because of the distracting, webpage-like design of the chapters.  Take a look and see what I mean. All the definitions in the margins, “how do we know” examples in blue boxes, and graphical depictions of theories are designed to engage the reader, but in practice they only distract from the content at hand.  In my experiences, good students have told me that when the read one of these texts, they never know whether they “have to read the blue boxes” that litter their chapters.  How much more confused are the weaker students?

While on the subject of what students “have to read” in these texts, there is so much redundancy between books in a given genre (like management) that I question the need for books on certain subjects. In my discipline, textbooks for Principles of Management, Organizational Behavior, Human Resource Management, Organizational Theory, and Management Strategy have considerable overlap in topic coverage.  I’ll conservatively estimate the amount of overlap at 40%.

The rigor of soft business disciplines can be improved if more professors assigned real books.  Granted, a great books education with well-chronicled works of philosophy and literature can provide a deeper education for business students than any popular press leadership book, but such a change will not occur in the near future.  Even if not quite War and Peace, management classics do exist such as The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Assigning these books instead of overpriced paperweights actually force students to read and think, instead of skim and memorize.

I haven’t assigned a true textbook in over five years, and I firmly believe that my teaching has improved since I took the plunge. When used properly, students even enjoy reading books that do not ask them to memorize out-of-context terminology like “productivity” or “organization.”  They even pass the books on to their coworkers, friends, and parents.

If all this seems too radical of a change, may I suggest Managing for Dummies?  You can pick it up on Amazon for under $20 and it has more wisdom than $1000 worth of leadership books found in college bookstores.

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