Where are the business intellectuals?

John Naughton named Britain’s top 300 intellectuals in yesterday’s Observer. He came up with the list based on contributions to “serious English-language print or online publications”.

Looking through the names, the first thing that struck me was how few people from my world made it onto the list. Those studying or writing about business and organisations were poorly represented. Those actually involved in management were almost completely absent.

Among the journalists, only Will Hutton, Robert Peston, Gillian Tett and Martin Wolf regularly write about business. Elsewhere on the list, Adair Turner and Mervyn King appeared, as did Susan Greenfield, who, while not strictly a business academic, has applied a lot of her research to the corporate world. The only executive to appear was David Elstein and I suspect that the word ‘media’ was more important than the word ‘executive’ in getting him onto the list.

Why should the list of intellectuals contain so few people from the world of business and management?

Defining an intellectual is quite difficult but, going by the themes emerging from this series of articles, an intellectual is an opinion former, someone who uses their expertise to widen and deepen public discourse and debate, is critical of received ideas and is able to provoke a different point of view.

So are there any intellectuals in the world of business?

The obvious answer is that business people and managers are too busy creating stuff and running things to shape public discourse. While this may be true up to a point, many business people write or are interviewed in management publications. Once they have established themselves, some go into academia or write books. The study of organisations is thriving. Most major universities have a business, management or organisational behaviour department. These often contain people whose theories and research challenge received ideas and deepen the public debate.

The trouble is, that debate isn’t very public. All too often, the public face of business and management is represented by those ‘how to build the perfect business’ books on sale at airports or, worse, TV programmes like the Apprentice. Some business academics don’t help either. Desperate to sell consultancy they produce simplistic ‘magic bullet’ articles claiming to have found new models which, when applied to your business, will have miraculous results.

John Naughton quotes a couple of definitions:

The French polymath Pierre Bourdieu saw PIs [public intellectuals] as thinkers who are independent of those in power, critical of received ideas, demolishers of “simplistic either-ors” and respecters of “the complexity of problems”. The Palestinian literary critic Edward Said saw the public intellectual as “the scoffer whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations”.

Against these criteria, business academics sometimes fall short. Corporations and governments regularly employ them and these organisations often look for simplistic solutions. In business and management, perhaps more so than in other academic disciplines, speaking the truth to power can be a career limiting move.

Nevertheless, there are some who do have radical and controversial views on organisations and business, yet these intellectuals are not as public as those in other fields. Studying religious texts, pontificating about political theory and critiquing novels and plays is more likely to make you a public intellectual than commenting on the nature of organisations and business practices.

This is odd, given that most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Organisations shape our society every bit as much as the arts and entertainment do. Perhaps, though, people don’t want to read about work during their leisure time, so business and management are relegated to the financial pages somewhere near the back of the newspaper.

Which is a pity, especially given the catastrophic impact that management practices have had on the world in recent years and the importance they still have in digging us out of the resulting mess. The lack of publicly visible management intellectuals goes some way to explaining the lack of informed debate on these issues. Other commentators, including some on John Naughton’s list, will happily make glib statements about how bank bonuses caused the recession or how easy it is to make 4 percent efficiency savings or how public sector pay is soaring, while clearly having very little knowledge on which to base these opinions. The people who understand the ball-breaking effort required to reduce budgets and improve productivity, or to implement pay schemes which really do increase performance, are absent from the discussion.

Of the intellectuals interviewed, philosopher Alain de Botton was the only one who stressed the importance of those who run things rather than those who just write about them:

My feeling is that the term “public intellectual” should be stretched to include those whose ideas help to determine what goes on in the broad swath of national life, not just poetry or the essay, but in education, housing, health, transport, architecture and so on.

Most of the really influential public intellectuals are now employed by the state and we’ve never heard of them. They don’t generally have a public profile, but they have a public impact.

The most influential of our public intellectuals are those whose hands are on the biggest levers.

A controversial view, no doubt, but in one sense he is right. The decisions which will have the greatest impact on our lives over the next few years will be taken by those people we have never heard of who run public sector organisations. They will need to be intellectuals both in terms of their expertise, their willingness to challenge received ideas and their courage to speak the truth to power.

But there is still too little informed public discussion about business, management and organisations. The people who have the deep expertise and the most challenging ideas in these fields are still in the shadows. I’m not saying we don’t need authors, critics, philosophers and poets and it’s great to see that we have so many good ones in Britain. But if intellectuals are there to deepen our knowledge, inform our public debate and, above all, challenge orthodoxy and dogma, then we need intellectuals from business and management too. Whether we like it or not, organisations shape our environment. If we don’t understand how they work, we don’t fully understand our world. Playwrights, critics and poets can’t really help us with that.

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5 Responses to Where are the business intellectuals?

  1. Pingback: Where are the business intellectuals? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. patrickhadfield says:

    Interesting, as usual. I think there is something anti-intellectual in many organisations as well as society generally. Thinking about business issues with rigorous analysis is seen as “academic” – and that is seen as a bad thing! As someone with three degrees, and an analytic bent, corporate organisations are not necessarily the best places to be!

    Btw more worrying than the lack of business people in the list was the paucity of politicians. And one of those was Mixhael Gove!

  3. Interesting, thought provoking article. I know a few thought leaders who could be classed as intellectuals but I don’t know any that have gone public with some of their more radical thoughts. I know an economist, who will have to remain nameless, that firmly believes that the UK should move to a managed economy as the free market is not working. We should be definitely be having this debate, and I wonder how many other senior business figures feel the same way but are afraid of upsetting shareholders, or being perceived as being out of step with their peers.?

    So personally I would like to see a debate open up around reducing the amount of resources consumed whilst still keeping the current free market system in place. Maybe a move to higher quality, locally sourced, bespoke goods is the answer but I’m certain there’s a hundred others out there. We just need to allow the conversations to happen.

  4. Kevin Ball says:

    While the list is obvious fluff, I’m not sure that I fully agree.

    In the first place, there are ten Economists on the list, four social scientists and four policy advisors all of whom have strong views of and about business. The eleven philosophers have also got some valid things to say about work and what it means.

    You’ve also concluded with the view that ‘Whether we like it or not, organisations shape our environment’. I appreciate that it’s a chicken and egg argument but I would contend that (business) organisations are a product of our (sociological) environment, not the creator of them. In that light, poets, novelists and playwrights are more proven observers of and reflectors on human behaviour than any number of Occupational Phycologists, Management Consultants or business academics.

  5. Jez says:

    Does Edward Said’s definition mean that you are a public intellectual?!

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