Is good management more of an art or a science ? Or, is this even a valid question ?

From the dictionary, science is defined as “… a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions”.

Author: Halfdan; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Halfdan; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Art is defined as “… the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination …”

Author: Mlaoxve; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mlaoxve; via Wikimedia Commons

Most people tend to hedge their bets on this question by declaring that management is both an art and a science, and that they are just the two sides of the same coin. In this respect, one of the better attempts that I have seen that tries to support this belief is from Jesse Brogan, of The Management Engineering Newsletter.

“As a management engineer (technical support for managers), I do have a very specific view. First, we must separate management (gaining performance through those who are managed) from supervision (maintenance of resources).
Supervision has no result, nothing measurable to gain, and accordingly cannot be managed. By definition, management does have something to gain through the efforts of those who are managed; it has a measurable difference between success and failure.
Science is a gathering and organization of knowledge/observation for the purpose of prediction. Where we are addressing a result, there is definitely a science of performance. Industrial engineering provides the principles and approaches that guide managers to application.
Management, in its application, deals with a gathering of individuals for a productive purpose; and people are only predictive in a statistical sense. In all else, they are individuals and working with them to bring people to a common and interactive purpose is a high art form.
Those who work in the productive environment know the ability to apply the basic principles of industrial engineering, and that they do work to effect. There is a science of management.
Any who work in supervision know the art of management, and use it regularly in dealing with people to bring them to common purpose and productive unity, neither of which can be attained in any final level of perfection. The art is both intimate and reactive.
I say management is an artistic application that has a scientific foundation, even if that foundation has been largely ignored by many who work in management.”

However, the question we need to ask is that if management were really a science, why do we struggle with teaching it well ? (see “Why management training rarely works ?” posted July 1, 2013), and the follow-on question being that if management were really a science, why do we not have more success with the results that are achieved by Business Schools ? (see “Business Leadership is not changing quickly enough” posted October 10, 2011).

The issue is that whist I do believe that good management, being mostly about people, relies mainly on considerable artistry supported by some scientific application, I have long believed that for it to be really successful, management needs to be practised mostly as a profession.

I do understand that “management” as such does not meet some of the criteria that currently define a profession, as a profession tends to arise when any trade or occupation transforms itself through “the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights”.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

However, I am talking about “management professionalism” as a vocation, as one of the problems that I see with many European managers is that they see themselves more as vocational specialists with some management responsibility add-on, rather than as professional managers who came from some vocational background.

I believe that management professionalism means that your first and only priority is to deliver the results for which you have been given responsibility, through the team of people that are in your care. At some early point in your management career you have to make the decision that you will let go of some of the need to become an ever more brilliant vocational specialist, and focus on becoming an ever more capable manager. This means that you will have to accept that your prime responsibility is to make your team more vocationally brilliant and capable, rather than yourself.

Being the best software engineer in a global company may get you noticed in the first place, but doesn’t add a lot if you believe that maintaining that position will add significant value to the company as you climb the management ladder. I am not suggesting that you do not stay current with your vocational skills, just that the emphasis needs to be changed to a new set of skills that fit the management responsibilities.

In my earlier years at SAP, when I was President/CEO of South Asia Pacific I reported to one of the SAP Global board members, who happened to be head of a large part of the SAP development organisation, and in 1997 we flew together to India for a regular subsidiary visit and review. When it came time to fill in the Indian government immigration forms, under “Profession” I wrote “Executive”, and my boss wrote “Software Engineer”. This bothered me, as if I saw myself as an executive, I felt that I should at least be reporting to an even more senior executive. Somehow “Software Engineer” didn’t quite get there for me.

Author: Viphotels; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Viphotels; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I questioned him about this, and he suggested that I was mixing up his job and his profession. He felt that his job was being an SAP Board member, but professionally he was a software engineer.

Author: El lobo; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: El lobo; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

He would not buy my argument that his role, seniority and responsibilities demanded that first and foremost he now had to be a professional manager rather than a software engineer, and we have carried this argument on into both our retirements from full time corporate life.

As so succinctly put by American businessman and president of ITT, Harold S. Geneen (1910-1997) “Management must manage”.


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