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Two Types of Management Knowledge

There is a significant difference between knowing about something, and knowing how to do it. In professions like medicine, accounting and law, strict and comprehensive educational curricula are employed to prepare people to practice effectively. The skills that doctors, accountants and lawyers employ are often bound in principles that are taught in a formal, structured way. Students learn about their profession through education (conceptual and procedural knowledge), and they learn how to do it through practice (internships, residencies, etc.).

Management, however, has no effective link between education and practice; Peter Drucker asserted as much in his classic book, The Practice of Management.1 In fact, even with the well-developed and ubiquitous management education system, there seems to be little real connection between education and practice. Let’s explore why.

According to a recent empirical study,2 “applied management knowledge” (AMK) is shockingly low among practicing and aspiring managers. That is, when respondents are placed in contextual situations requiring them to know not only to do something, but also to know why to do it, and then execute some action, they score surprisingly low levels of AMK.

The study measures applied management knowledge with a set of in-basket exercises that operate similar to case studies often employed in college business classrooms. The in-basket exercises in this study covered eight fairly common managerial situations, such as dealing with a problem employee, making meetings effective, delegating authority and holding others accountable. The assessment asked not only what should be done, but also what the core issue(s) were. Then respondents were asked to execute the necessary action (e.g., write a memo).

Conclusions drawn from the study should be instructive for anyone interested in management effectiveness:

  • First, experience alone has a weak relationship with AMK as measured by the in-basket proxy. The very best students did as well or better than many of the experienced managers. The reason: a lot depends on the type of experience and the amount of deliberate practice (focused reflection and useful feedback), versus just repeating the same mistakes, many learned from prior bosses.

    In fact, other professions tend to be better about creating valuable experience by requiring people to practice in the presence of skilled practitioners, and talk through what they would do and why. The study’s authors analogize from a Tolstoy quote to assert: “All effective managers resemble one another, but poor ones are ineffective in their own unique ways” (p. 596). Experience seems necessary, but it is the nature of the experience that impacts applied management knowledge, and therefore managerial effectiveness.

  • Second, management behaviors can derive from highly ingrained beliefs and values that are quite separate from the conceptual knowledge that is learned in classrooms or books. Thus, managers through MBA programs or other training interventions will learn concepts and procedures that they will not necessarily apply in real management situations. This phenomenon is well known in the education literature.

    A Harvard study3 many years ago noted how 21 out of 23 graduating students from this premier university were unable to correctly explain the seasons or the lunar cycle. While they had studied both concepts multiple times in school, they had not changed or overcome well-established beliefs formed as young children. Learning that can be applied involves more than cognitive knowledge, and management development always runs up against this phenomenon. This latest study just confirms it again.

    On the other hand, it is evident that some management principles are simply misunderstood, not just misapplied. The in-basket item that had the poorest performance overall from both managers and students: delegating responsibility and holding others accountable (scoring a mean of 0.77 out of 4.00 possible), revealing a misunderstanding of the managerial function.

    The low scores, say the authors, are attributed to respondents either 1) thinking they should “act tough” in autocratic ways, or 2) being “too nice,” leading to perceived unfairness by letting poor performance slide. Say the authors, “Response patterns show that both groups [managers and students] demonstrate a strong tendency to accept upward delegations, and engage in actions that promote the dependency of subordinates” (p. 595).

    A 2010 survey of alumni of LeaderPoint’s management development sessions would seem to confirm that managers do not know how to delegate. When asked what was most eye-opening in terms of their management approach after the LeaderPoint experience, nearly half cited the ability to more effectively delegate work. And 89% reported an improved understanding of the relationship needed for success with their subordinates, leading 82% to state that results improved in their department/business unit.

    The managers who responded to the LeaderPoint survey (N=211) found the greatest applied learning to be delegation, including not taking the work back from subordinates (so that others can develop their ability to problem solve). This is consistent with the conclusion of the AMK authors: “We wonder if many practicing and aspiring managers are taking actions that they think are appropriate, but that are based on some inaccurate stereotypical conceptions of what makes for a good manager” (p. 595).
So is management effectiveness subject to the whims of experience and the stereotypes ingrained through values and beliefs inconsistent with what is conceptually understood? The AMK authors note that new pedagogy is called for in management education. Abstract learning focused only on conceptual or procedural knowledge does not translate into applied skill – knowing what to do, as well as how and why to do it.

Often, mismanagement occurs from incorrect values or misplaced beliefs specific to the managerial role. A series of contextual experiences – where these non-cognitive traits reveal themselves under the eye of trained facilitators – is one of the effective “counterintuitive pedagogies” the AMK authors suggest is needed.

It is unfortunate that management is not typically considered to be a unique profession like law or accounting, because there is a set of practices proven to make people more effective in management.

But merely knowing about management practices through education, unfortunately, isn’t enough. Studies like this one on “applied management knowledge” are showing that effectiveness requires knowing how to apply management concepts in actual practice, and current management education falls far short of what is needed.

1Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management (1954), p. 8-9

2Timothy Baldwin, Jason Price, Richard Joines, Shameem Farouk. The elusiveness of applied management knowledge: A critical challenge for management educators (2011), Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol 10(4), 583-605.

3See “A Private Universe” and “Minds of Our Own” for reporting on this study and implications: http://www.nvcc.edu/home/cbentley/geoblog/2008/09/minds-of-our-own.html

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