This is the age of the guru. There are religious gurus, spiritual mentors, motivational gurus, champions of self-help, financial gurus. The list lengthens by the day as another guru takes center stage and proclaims remarkable insights. Gurus are a phenomenon of our times, peddlers of hope in an age of fear, doubt, and anxiety.
And business is no exception. Management gurus (call them thought-leaders if you prefer) are the lavishly paid troubadours of the business world. They travel the globe with their corporate medicine shows. Their influence extends from the boardroom to the shopfloor and well beyond. Increasingly, the management gurus have the ear of the people who matter.
Their views and insights are sought by the CEOs of the biggest corporations in the world, and many more. Some act as consultants and advisers to national governments. Harvard luminary Michael Porter, for example, has carried out economic studies for India, New Zealand, and Canada, among others. Leadership guru Warren Bennis has advised four US presidents and more than 40 other world leaders.
For the few who attain superstar status the financial rewards are equally intoxicating. The star performers earn tens of thousands of dollars for a single day's work. Tom Peters, whose fame peaked in the late 1980s, can still charge $90 000 for a single day. A number of others regularly invoice in excess of $75000 for a day's work. Business guru-dom is a lucrative market that dovetails neatly with the mainstream speaking circuit. As Peters told us: `In the US there are 10000 or 11000 trade associations and all have annual meetings with three or four speakers. Looking at the economics it isn't that strange. The US has set the market. Every year produces another hero - Schwarzkopf, Ford, Kissinger, Thatcher, Powell. That sets the top of the market, and we glide in between them. Every time there's a war it puts the price up.`
The intellectual war among the business gurus is ongoing. To stay at the top requires boundless reserves of mental and physical stamina. The gurus travel the world unceasingly. Seminar follows seminar. If it's Tuesday it is probably a 45-minute speech to the Baltimore Brewing Federation; Wednesday could be Minneapolis or Madrid; Thursday, Toronto or Tokyo.
And the guru circuit is becoming more crowded. The leading players are so well rewarded that their example encourages emulators. Every year a battery of books and articles proclaim the rise of new management gurus. Recent years, for example, have seen the rise of the new economy thinkers. These digital gurus now vie with established old economy thinkers to map out the business landscape of the future.
All of this makes it increasingly difficult for practicing managers to identify and stay abreast of the latest and best business thinking. Idea after idea is launched with ever louder fanfare. And the trumpeting gets more strident. A fountain of new books gushes from publishers and new and established authors.
Why ideas matter
To some people, of course, the merry-go-round of new (and not so new) ideas and thinkers is no more than a side show to the serious business of business. Yet the simple fact is that modern management is a curious mix of the practical and the theoretical. Ask a manager which dominates and he or she will naturally say the former: management is about getting tasks done. Yet the reality is more complicated. None of us can afford to entirely ignore new ideas.
A growing number of managers have now been to one of the many business schools around the world. For these people, schooled in management theory, the power of ideas is understood. But those who did
their management training in the school of hard knocks may ask: `Why bother?` They might argue, with some justification, that management is fundamentally a hands-on activity and has little relation to the grandiose or ethereal theories of management gurus.
It is easy to dismiss much of what is written and disseminated through conferences and seminars as irrelevant to what real managers do on a day-to-day basis. It is easy to assume that they continue to do what they have always done. But the fact is that new ideas and concepts shape how we think about the role of managers in a changing business environment.
Think about how the job of the manager has changed in the past few decades. What is needed in today's business world, it is almost universally agreed, is a lighter touch on the reins, a more intelligent use of human resources, and a more empowering style of management. Today the manager is seen as a leader and facilitator rather than controller and policeman. At the same time, the sort of environment and organization in which managers operate is changing to fit new conceptions of what a business should look like. The fundamental understanding or psychological contract between the manager and the organization is being transformed by redefinitions of the employee/employer relationship.
Where do such notions come from? From the management thinkers, of course. From the thousands of business books, articles, case studies, and models that are produced each year. These have a constant drip, drip, drip effect on the consciousness of managers everywhere. A steady flow of new ideas is redefining what managers should be doing, how they should be doing it, and, critically, how their job performance is evaluated. Today's theory is often tomorrow's task.
Just as the best theory is (or should be) derived from the real world, so the real world is changed by the promulgation of the theory. The great business school and consulting concepts are theory created out of practice, which is then presented back into the workplace as best practice. New ideas about business change both the terms of reference by which real managers operate and the yardsticks by which their performance is measured. The unavoidable conclusion is that ideas influence what real managers do.
Shortening idea life cycles
In today's fast-forward business world, too, the speed with which new ideas gain currency is accelerating. In recent years the flow of ideas has become a torrent. The advent of electronic communication has turbo-charged the process. Ideas travel further and faster than ever before. Just as product life cycles have shortened, so too has the life cycle of business ideas.
The trend is confirmed by four academics from the University of Louisiana.1 They studied the life cycles of 16 managerial fashions from the 1950s to the end of the 1990s. Their results, published in the Fall 2000 edition of the American Academy of Management Journal, make interesting reading. They suggest that management fads follow the same bell-shaped life cycle curve as products. The fashions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were relatively simple to understand and to put into practice. Their life cycle, from inception to fashion status, averaged 15 years. But by the end of the 1990s, the life cycle of a management theory had dropped to just three years.
Such rapid promulgation makes it harder to assess the validity - or usefulness - of any new idea or theory. It also makes it much harder to identify who today's best business minds are.
1 Carson, P.P., Lanier, P.A., Carson, K.D., and Guidrey, B.N. (2000) `Clearing a path through the management fashion jungle,` American Academy of Management Journal, 43:6, Fall.
In a business world where information overload is already a major cause of stress, the choice is either a desperate attempt to read and assimilate everything - or ignore it altogether. Most managers are caught in the middle, reading what they can when they can and trying to sort the nuggets from the rest. Business Minds aims to help them in that task.