8 stupidest management fads of all time

Increasingly I think most of management is driven by fads. Even if the “fad” has some good underlying principles, or is perhaps simply a bit better than previous options. It is still implemented by management as a fad. As if we only implement this successfully, we will have the silver bullet that solves all our problems. Within higher education I have previously argued that open source learning management systems are one of the more recent fads.

Aside: and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. e.g. moving to an open source LMS needs senior management buy in. Which means the implementation of the open source LMS must be seen as a success. So, even if the implementation fails miserably (e.g. first term of go live the new LMS doesn’t play well with the chosen database and falls over if more than 5 people login resulting in a need to pay more for an external consultant to fix the problem) the implementation team will receive an organisational award, because it has to be seen as a success.

Which brings me to this article on “The 8 Stupidest management fads of all time”. I thought it would be fun to reflect on whether I’ve seen them in higher education.

1. Six Sigma

Yep, an adjunct business academic at a commercial partner of the institution I worked for thought that six sigma would be a good idea for application to teaching. Actually, just did a quick search of my email archives.

It was 2007, there were problems with assignment and exam marking and review of grades. The application of six sigma would improve these problems. What was really scary was that the folk in charge at the time could of, with the right campaign, been convinced of the need to do this. Especially given that there was a recognisable fad of business faculties teaching six stigma.

Six sigma was attractive to management because it gives the impression of them being disciplined and rational. They are getting someone (with a black belt) to look at the processes and re-design them based on statistics and formula. Obviously a good thing, it will make the processes more efficient. Of course, this type of techno-rational thinking thinks that people are just cogs in the wheels of the great machinery of the university and will follow such re-designs to the letter. It also assumes that the systems of the institution are ordered systems. That an external person can come in, analyse the system and prescribe effective changes.

At the time, I did a quick literature search and found the following quote (Goh 2002)

In fact, administratively, conformance is required in Six Sigma not just with respect to process output but in terms of employee participation as well. Regimentation via a hierarchy of ‘Master Black Belts’, ‘Black Belts’, and so on would go against the very culture in a community of academics and researchers, even students. The bottom line approach taken in Six Sigma cannot be the driving factor in the pursuit of academic excellence. Cynicism, well before anything else, would be the first reaction if the leadership of a university is to tell everyone ‘Take Six Sigma— or this organization is not for you’, a proclamation made famous by Jack Welch as CEO of General Electric. It is little wonder that to date, nothing is heard about any university proclaiming itself a Six Sigma institution.

Funnily enough, at least 5 years earlier I had been involved in projects that were making effective interventions into these problems. But these interventions were done in a contextual way, responding to real problems experienced by those involved and trying to help them based on the deep understanding of the system provided by being a part of the system. Not being an external analyst with no historical connection or understanding of the context.

2. Business process re-engineering

Sadly, and for my sins. I was briefly part of a team of young academics who thought BPR was the bees knees. The other two were IS/Business academics, just graduated and full of conviction for what they had learned. I was a programmer, big on techno-rational. If we only designed the system/processes properly, everything would be alright. We even got a grant, but we never did anything with it. Thank god.

3. Matrix Management

Yep, saw this one. One of the Deans of a new re-structured faculty about 5 or 6 years ago thought matrix management was all the go. It was as successful as the description. Complexity, got in the way of real work. Especially bad because none of the other faculties adopted this management structure. So if you were meant to work with the faculties, you had to figure out which management structure each had and who you should talk to.

4. Management by consensus

It was never known as this, but self-managed teams/groups was essentially this. Implemented around 1996, apparently to break the power of a single administrative staff member and empower other administrative staff. As outlined, important decisions were avoided (but then that wasn’t really new for universities) and I’m sure there were people who knew the advice offered to keep the minutes.

5. Core competency

I haven’t seen this one. But then that’s because universities are meant to traditionally perform at least three tasks: teaching, research, and community service. i.e. rather than do one thing well, we do three badly. Of course, the unofficial core competency is research, but bugger all academics actually do research.

6. Management by objectives

Yep, strategic plans, management plans etc. All management by objectives. Get a group of smart people to identify the objectives, ignore the realities and then be surprised when the world is different. It’s great for those folk who game the system. Those who prove their worth by ticking the objective boxes while concurrently ignoring the real needs of the organisation.

7. The search for excellence

Haven’t really seen this one. Have heard of it.

8. Management by god

Thank god I haven’t seen this one. Can’t imagine it even being considered within a secular organisation within Australia.


T Goh (2002), A Strategic assessment of six sigma, Quality and Reliability Engineering International, 18(5): 403-410

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s