June 04, 2006

Speaking of MBAs

Matthew Stewart has an amusing piece in this month's Atlantic on consultants, MBA programs, and pointlessly obtuse and thus impressive sounding jargon. It's available here to those with Atlantic subscriptions; otherwise, you may be consigned to the newsstand. Stewart's commentary — part confession, part satirical wince — pairs nicely with my own (also semi-confessional) notes on acronyms from May 26.

Stewart doesn't get at what seems to me to be a core truth of this whole scenario, though, which is that there is smart and then there is, on the other hand, smart. One kind of smart — a kind the corporate universe likes, as do best-seller lists — is capable of learning a few clever steps and then running any old pair of feet up and down them. Those with this kind of smart make great bullshit artists, which is essentially what "management" means in today's corporate world. (It works great in the academic world, too, of which I am also a distant veteran.) Refined jargon is a beautiful thing, in that it accomplishes two mutually enhancing goals: first, to make the speaker or writer seem highly informed, sophisticated, subtle of mind; and second to make everyone else feel like a dolt. A third and equally valuable function is to obviate the need for actual intellectual work. Jargon is a short-cut; its glory is that it's never entirely wrong. Its evil, if we can use such a term, is that neither is it ever entirely right. It elides distinctions, pushing thought onto unctiously cornerless pathways of apparent forward motion without honest concern for the destination. It is the sensation of movement it wants, and the sensation of movement — and sometimes little else — that it provides.

It was a bromide during the late '90s that the brilliant last ditch for struggling companies was to hire McKinsey & Company; stock prices would rebound instantly, it was said. It was tautology: executives in charge of keeping stock prices high brought in consultants; the fact they had done this kicked the price up; ergo it looked as if said executives had done their jobs, and well. It never seemed to matter what McKinsey (or whatever other consultant) actually advised said executives to do, or even whether, in the end, said executives took said advice.

Thus does the corporate world look, to me, from both inside and out-, like a vast series of protections and shortcuts for those who either can't or don't want to do actual work, intellectual or otherwise. It's inanity providing cover for inanity, or for sheer laziness. On the bright side, it does keep a goodly number of people employed. But if you're a believer in meritocracy, or if you're just the type who's disgusted by an entire economic system's capitulation to a reign of fragrant horse manure — and by the inevitable intellectual degeneration that seems to accompany it — then the whole business is pretty much double-plus ungood.