I’m putting together an undergraduate course on critical management studies. Critical management studies is a varied bag of ideas that cast a challenging light on the orthodoxies of traditional management. Critical management scholars draw inspiration from a wide group of people from Karl Marx, to Max Weber, to Michael Foucault, to the recent Postmodernists and so on. In other words, anyone who has a sharp stick to jab into the side of those who go with the management fad of the moment without thought or reflection.
The question for me is: how can this be useful? Yes, to those with an interest in academia it is a rich source of material to challenge our thinking, but in the practitioner communities those questions often seem unheard or lack relevance. And it is the practitioner communities that most of the students will be heading.
Raising ideas of Marx, Foucault or post modernism tends not to win friends outside of a few university corridors, particularly when seeking to build a career in management. So what is the point?
Critical management studies helps improve critical thinking, those skills of argument, logic, rhetoric, deep subject knowledge and understanding of self. The writers I have mentioned provide a useful insight into the modern world of work by drawing on universal aspects of being human: of acting responsibility, of sustainability, being ethical, respecting the rights of those without a voice, the use and abuse of power. It develops ability to challenging the status quo and to ask the question: Why? Not in a shrill way that antagonizes, but in a way that enables conversation that carries people and persuades them. This is what critical management studies have to offer.
However, the language of critical management scholars needs to change; it is less about cleaver linguistic tricks and obscure lines of argument; it is about being relevant to those who want to make a difference and to encourage a self-critical reflexive challenge to what we all do at work. I was at a conference a year or so ago when a highly respected critical management scholar said of his work: ‘I’m interested in what they are doing, what they think they are doing, and what the hell do they think they are doing’. To me it is less about ‘they’ and more about ‘we’ as we all seek to understand and improve our world of work. This is what critical management studies has to offer.