Is management a science?

23 December 2014 -


Does all the theory detract from the very important business of just getting down to work? We hear two opposing views

Farah Dib

Do you ever look at the stacks of management books jammed into the bookcases of every boss you see interviewed on the news and think, they can’t possibly have read all of those?

The questions don’t end there. What about that amazing concept you hear business leaders talk about ad infinitum, that they got where they are today via – you guessed it – the “University of Life?”

Here are some contrasting thoughts on what leaders should value most – the theory, or the practical.


Karen Meager, co-managing director, Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy

There is clearly science in management. Of course, taking a purely scientific approach leaves out the most important factor – the human being. Models and theories provide a framework of logic and procedures that managers can use to support them in their day-to-day work, and these models and frameworks can be learned and shared by others. This is the science of management. But an over-reliance on or a bad application of these models can lead to unhelpful and, in some cases, damaging management practices.

The most successful managers are those who use scientific models, theories and concepts, and then apply them using their own style, experience and personality.

Knowledge is not the key to successful management: it’s all about the application of knowledge. But that is not to say that knowledge is not the basis of it. Nevertheless, the quality and delivery of the application lies in the development of the whole human being carrying out that management role.

In training situations, we come across managers with a lot of knowledge about the science of management, but with little personal development work behind them. These managers have issues with their own ego and self-esteem, can’t navigate power struggles successfully, and find the complexities of managing people overwhelming.

Their lack of emotional regulation means that they don’t handle difficult conversations well, have issues holding boundaries and holding other people, their staff or other stakeholders to account. This leads to a serious lack of results for the business, lack of personal satisfaction for the manager – who doesn’t know what they are doing wrong – and chaos in their teams.

Managers who take the science and integrate it with their own development as a human being can understand what is happening in a business at a deeper level. They can bring together the concepts and theories, and connect with their own experience using their highly developed personal awareness. They know how to assess what’s their responsibility and have confidence in respectfully holding other people to account.

Most importantly, they command respect through their behaviour – not just their job title. This is why development of the whole human being is so important as part of any management development training based on science.


Professor Amit Shariff, head of Brunel Business School

Much of my own research regularly uses scientific approaches to model management decision-making behaviour – so why do I think that management is not a science? While both management and science separately teach the importance of applying and extending our knowledge, I believe that management needs to be more than just observations and experiments. It needs to be based upon practice, reflection and action, too.

Where science is reliant upon building and then testing explanations – hypotheses – about the world around us, the field of management is typically concerned with the act of controlling, planning and dealing with resources. Bringing them both together can seem odd and out of place: mixing the abstract with the real. A vast array of tools, techniques and concepts – from scheduling, planning, optimisation, simulation and even studies of behaviour – have provided many benefits to the practice of management for more than 50 years. But as many researchers, practitioners and even our own experiences would attest, real-life management cannot, and should not, be done through these prisms alone.

It is now well understood that the development of scientific approaches to management (largely centred around measuring resource use and allocation), are part of a manager’s toolkit. There is even a mantra that dictates “to measure is to manage”. This is exemplified by Dr Edward Deming’s well-known PDCA Cycle – Plan, Do, Study, Act. While this may well be an appropriate control mechanism, it does not necessarily lead to reflective and hence risk-managed thinking. Indeed an absence of risk management is probably a contributor to macroeconomic bubbles and busts that the world has seen over the past 350 years.

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for applying a scientific or even systems-based approach to managerial problems. But management itself is too eclectic to be a science in itself. The very nature of management means that without applying and reflecting upon the practice of management, we will be more inclined to measure than to take action. And the world, more than ever, needs managers to concentrate just as much on the “study” and “act” as the “plan” and “do”.

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