What if management were an art?

Photo Michel Berry / Founder and CEO, Ecole de Paris du Management / November 26th, 2013

The myth of scientific management has all but disappeared, yet the industrial world continues to overvalue methods that have been standardized from outside the business environment, at the expense of creative solutions developed within companies themselves. Isn't it time to change the approach? Michel Berry, founder of the Paris School of Management, has long cultivated an attention to the singularity of situations. But how does one share the intelligence hidden in things singular? How should one train, transmit knowledge and exchange views? Envisioning management as an art overcomes these contradictions.

ParisTech Review – At the heart of Paris School of Management is the notion that there is inherent uniqueness in practices, which is an element that the project of a scientific management stumbles on. Let us start with the moment in time when management sciences came into crisis. Can it be pinpointed?

Michel Berry – At the very least it traces back to the moment this crisis was formulated for the very first time, in the early 1980s. But to really comprehend what played out back then, we must go back two decades before that.

Management science developed in the 1960s around a dream: to become, to the decision maker, what ballistics is to a gunner: a foolproof method, allowing to infallibly be right on the mark.

Up until then, management was taught in business schools by managers, practitioners who extrapolated from their experience. The era of the 1960s was a disruption: you can define it as a process of stepping back, with the creation of a body of methods and theories.

At this point, American universities saw the emergence of veritable management departments, which conducted research. The discipline structured itself. Sub-disciplines appeared, like an array of new frontiers scouted by magazines as well as by evaluation, recognition and co-optation processes. We thus moved in a few years’ time from a field that was envisioned and taught as a practice to a discipline that was organized along the lines of hard science. Research literature is an excellent indicator of this trend: we can observe how researchers focused on formal criteria, attempted to model their thinking by using mathematical formulas, and tested their hypotheses through battalions of statistical tables…

tableauxLet us note in passing that it was at this time that management indicators were developed, which were to later on flood companies. True, the scientific organization of work had laid the groundwork for this trend since the inter-war years, but it was not until the 1960s that the idea of scientific management went to its full extent. If we had to cite but one name here, that would be that of Herbert Simon, President of the Department of Industrial Management at Carnegie Tech, who received the Nobel Prize in 1978. He has done much to develop the field and give it a rigorous framework.

Was this scientific management quick to go beyond the boundaries of universities?

Yes it was, and it was the core of the great transformation that the industrial world was undergoing at the time. The spirit of this transformation was the idea of optimization and rationalization. These were years of strong economic growth, and people cultivated the idea of strictly controlling this growth. In European countries, this whole idea of planning was then the heart of the action, and in the United States people set out to streamline businesses, decision making, and performance measurement: everything became an object of economic calculation. The leader, by definition, was henceforth he who controlled such calculation.

At first, the results were extraordinary. Europeans watched with envy and a hint of concern those American achievements, which some observers attributed to a scale effect; others, nevertheless, such as Jean- Jacques Servan Schreiber, a famous French journalist and politician, associated such success with a management gap. Hundreds of students were thus sent to American universities and European business schools as well as engineering schools began to develop a keen interest in management science.

It worked for a while, for reasons we can now understand: in an economy of scarcity, where the big challenge is how to meet demand, rigor and optimization are valuable qualities. More subtly, managers for some time got to argue that their decisions were of a scientific nature, which helped them to be obeyed and which contributed to the smooth running of their organizations. An entire mythology then developed around the idea that such methods were to prevail not only owing to their intellectual quality, but also because they were the victors’ methods – the methods of those who had won World War II, and who were triumphing in economic terms as well.

However, as early as the 1970s, and partly as a result of the oil price shocks and of exchange rate fluctuations, the U.S. economy slowed down. Large conglomerates like GM were no longer perceived as magnificent, well-oiled machinery, but instead like behemoths that were a bit amorphous and whose products were no longer the stuff of dreams. For opposite them formidable competitors had appeared whose methods were vastly different: the Japanese.

So it was the Japanese that brought about the downfall of scientific management?

KaizenAt any rate they did, concerning a certain vision of scientific management. That is the finding, in 1982, of a book that left a mark in its epoch, In Search of Excellence. The authors, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman Jr., explained the success of the Japanese by the intelligence of their industrial methods, which made up a very different cocktail: “three grams of science, one quart of feeling!” What counts is the man. The Japanese approach, through various forms including the famous Toyotism or quality procedures implemented through the kaizen method, was primarily pragmatic. It didn’t plan, nor did it pretend to control everything from beginning to end, but it relied on the contributions of employees, who were enrolled in a logic and mindset of continuous improvement.

In the Japanese experience there were very profound lessons to be learned. However the trick was taken: its legacy boiled down to, chiefly, recipes catalogs of sorts… And while the math was challenged, the idea that there are universal methods remained.

As early as the 1970s, however, a number of researchers and practitioners began having second thoughts. For instance it is at this point that the Scientific Management Center of the École des Mines, a major French engineering school, began to evolve. It was founded in 1960 with the aim to find the right models, but in the 1970s it embarked on quite a different approach, which consisted in understanding the deep underlying mechanisms of organizations. The Management Research Center of Ecole Polytechnique, established in 1972 by Bertrand Collomb and that I started running in 1975, took a similar path, with both centers strongly interacting together. They laid the foundations for clinical research, that is to say, one that is conducted closer to practical realities in the field, unlike the work of business schools, that are all too often cut off from practice, as surprising as it may seem.

… and the early 1990s saw the creation of the Ecole de Paris du Management, which explicitly defined itself as a response to the crisis of scientific management.

Our intuition was that while problems are universal, answers are singular. Answers differ from one place to another, from one sector to another, but also, as was shown in 1989 by Philippe d’Iribarne in his remarkable book The Logic of honor, from one country to another.

In the field, the right answers are singular, and not always reproducible. They require extraordinary and often overlooked inventiveness. It is precisely this singular intelligence that I wanted to promote by creating the Ecole de Paris du Management, which is not a higher education institution, but rather a forum for discussion and reflection on practices, envisioned through the perspective of what is unique and singular in them.

Yet there is a risk of ending up trapped in said singularity: experience, in fact, only refers to itself.

It’s indeed a risk, yes, but it one that we are willing to take, and I shall go further: it is somehow embedded into the method. One of our recent sessions revolved around the leader of the Patrouille de France – the acrobatic demonstration team of the French Airforce. It would be hard to top such extreme singularity. However it is precisely by exploring it that we can develop new ideas that will allow for a better comprehension of other situations, here and there. The foreword of the nineteenth volume of the Annals of the Ecole de Paris, which cover all the research carried out in 2012, is entitled “In the manner of the Patrouille de France” to advance the idea that the latter may very well become a paradigm for tomorrow’s efficient businesses.

The central idea is to reason through case studies, not by analyzing them from the outside – at the risk of resorting to the known to supersede the unknown – but rather by having them told by the actual doers. The way practice informs decisions, it seems to me, is in general disregarded. Talking to the doers, letting them tell their story actually provides the opportunity to break the deadlock.

First of all they are the ones who speak, and they are not theoreticians: even when they use elements of theoretical language, they are first and foremost bearers of a particular experience, a firsthand account that won’t easily lend itself to be reduced to some kind of agreed language. And precisely the form used, that of the narrative, plays a central role here. First, for it allows one to communicate such experience vividly, but especially, for it allows the personalized account of a situation: the story is what allows us to say what we have experienced.

Somehow, this is exactly the opposite of a PowerPoint presentation. For it is my firm belief that what consultants are all too often compelled to produce is in fact… an antimodel. They arrive in a company and undertake to copy and paste their model, generally oblivious of the history of this company or even worse, acting as if it had never occurred. Yet it precisely has taken place: this particular story took place in a particular setting. And it is this very story that wants to be heard in order to understand an organization that was built over time, as problems came and went that demanded solutions, sometimes improvised, and sometimes patiently devised.

Of course, it is good to bring some fresh air in a company, to give an idea of what is being done elsewhere, of solutions that are being developed outside. But it seems to me that the industrial world today is overvaluing external solutions, specifically those coming from consultants, and more often than not fails to recognize the often creative solutions developed within companies by their own workforce. The Ecole de Paris seeks precisely to highlight the latter. This is a way to shine a spotlight on them.

Reasoning by case studies is now widespread in schools.

Yes it is, and moreover it’s a longstanding tradition. But it had long been a marginal practice and remains so in academic research. It was Harvard University that invented the case method in the early twentieth century. The Management Department was originally attached to the law school, and you know that in a common law system, reasoning primarily derives from jurisprudence, hence the case studies. Harvard has therefore developed and refined this culture of cases studies, which even today makes it the university that is closest to businesses. What is not known is that for researchers to engage in this process is akin to professional suicide – for when you are doing case studies you usually have no time to write as many publications as your competitors. So you have two possibilities, then: either you are tenured at Harvard (and your tenure is confirmed within six years), or you aren’t worth much anymore on the academic market. Because other American universities are doing research and not cases studies.

Harvard is therefore relatively isolated. While it’s true that case studies are used in business schools, they are taught in a much less ambitious way: the cases are still envisioned as some examples of a more general lesson. Which, let us be clear about it – is quite legitimate. However we can also, and it is equally interesting, scrutinize what is unique and singular in these cases.

This is not without consequences, because it leads to shift the focus. For example, by emphasizing the uniqueness of situations one is compelled to give greater credit to the intelligence of the manager, to take into account the part played by the doer, the business practitioner. This is quite another way of envisioning companies, far from the visions that reduce men to mere dots on a matrix. Managers are not interchangeable, they cannot be moved around like pawns in a game of checkers.

Then there is the question of what we theoreticians can bring to a practitioner. As such what he or she is experiencing in coming to tell us his story is very important, and can put us on the right track: the actual process of giving it shape is a crucial moment, and we can help him – especially during the dialogue that follows the presentation, but also before it, during preparatory work – to think, to reflect. We can help managers formulate their experience. With the extreme precaution, of course, not to do so in their place, sieving it out through what we already know.

Furthermore, a theoretical contribution can be a welcomed asset to help them shape their experience. Theories can help – provided they are used in a non-normative manner.

The literary dimension seems to be one of the highlights of your method.

Yes, and for several reasons. The story, as I said earlier, is fundamental. The narrative is a way to give food for thought, and it allows for stimulation of the temporal aspect and of everything that refers to it – the duration, events, twists, acceleration times, waiting times, suspense. One of the greatest books ever written about finance is a novel by Emile Zola: Money. Storytelling allows to understand a great many things, including for the one who is doing the telling.

The report that follows each session is finely wrought, literarily speaking, and some of these texts have become bestsellers, read by tens of thousands of readers. We have several rapporteurs who are true authors. Not only do they write well, they also become committed to the text as a writer would: even though it is obviously imperative that they remain faithful to the original context, their reports are something other than simple transcriptions.

A_Reading_in_the_Salon_of_Mme_Geoffrin,_1755_SmallHowever, spoken storytelling and written report are only half the battle. There are also exchanges, and here we are in line with a centuries-old tradition, that of the philosophical salons of the eighteenth century and the art of conversation. It would be wrong to take this lightly: no need to go back to Plato to understand that a well conducted conversation is a way to generate ideas, to advance the understanding of a situation. Leaders are often isolated, and they appreciate the exchange of experiences. A dialogue between doers, but also between doers and researchers will enrich each other. I am sure you have understood that what is emerging behind this approach is a certain level of attention to the human element. We could talk, as such, of a humanist project.

In contrast to scientific management, shouldn’t we speak of a culture of management then?

Indeed we should, and this is probably how we can navigate the trap of singularity: the development of a managerial culture is central to our project, which focuses on gathering around what is singular.

Going further still: management, considered under such light, can be defined as an art. A decision may be observed, and sometimes admired, as a work of art. And a work of art is at once a deeply personal gesture, which puts forth a style, and a gesture that is rooted in tradition, and in references – a culture.

Works are important. Even more so given that for many reasons, the way management is taught today tends to standardize. In the early 1990s, I got to observe the development of a general and radical critique of business schools in the United States: they were accused of having locked themselves in academic models, of ignoring the reality companies were facing. This criticism led them, at first, to seek alternative routes, focusing on experiences such as ours at the Ecole de Paris. But in 1996 the U.S. economy was back on track and the criticism of business schools receded, although they had not changed much yet. The appetite for alternative schemes subsided.

Since the early 2000s, the whole world has been trying to copycat the most prestigious U.S. business schools. A certain degree of standardization derives from it, further enhanced by an obsession with rankings which tends to snuff out any originality. One element of this standardization is the growing importance of criteria related to academic research in these rankings. This promotes fairly homogeneous profiles, that are away from the field, and which are summarized in the figure of the global english-speaking researcher that publishes in “A”-ranking journals. That is all very well, but they all look alike, and where is actual practice to be found in all this? Management education, which had freed itself in the 1990s from the shackles of “scientific management”, has today regressed into a kind of scholasticism – a quasi-theological discourse, which formats both language and minds, more and more disconnected from reality.

It is in this context, I believe, that it would be appropriate to consider management as an art. This puts the singularity of practices and styles back at the center of the agenda. This puts reality itself back at the center of the agenda. It allows for training and transmission, but also for criticism. For criticism plays a major role in art, even if the artists find it to be unjust: it compels them to surpass themselves, and it contributes to the staging of their art, and the introduction of a plot, that captivates the audience and in return stimulates further creation. Alas this feature is sorely lacking in management. While we often hear criticism of the management of companies, it is not as in critical art a critique carried out by connoisseurs that advances the craft, but often a conflict between opposing black and white visions that is not very helpful. That is why, at the Ecole de Paris, we attach such importance to the debate: it is our function as art critics, the art in question here being management.

Transmission, it seems to me, is also a key and totally underestimated issue. And yet education only covers part of what is at stake here. We can teach models – it’s not even very difficult. But how to convey what makes the gist of a decision, the actual quality of a manager? This is something that one often learns in the field, over time. Acknowledging management as an art allows to go a little further by considering other, more elaborate forms of learning.

Today, we are caught between the abstract and standardized aspect of training models – which all in all does not teach much to the future manager – and the reality of learning in the field, which is informal and haphazard. There is room for a third way.

What might it look like then?

Let us once more go back to our artwork metaphor, which can provide some ideas. In the training of an artist, there is the acquisition of bases: music theory for musicians, the framing of a shot for filmmakers… these fundamentals can be taught. Well, in much the same way, a future manager can be taught elements in accounting, finance, production management, marketing…

However these bases, which we learn in school, are but a prelude. And this is where the example of artists allows to advance the topic. Because their training actually never ends, and once they are out of school it persists in another form: artists continuously seek to improve their culture. A filmmaker spends time in cinematheques, a painter in museums, all the while being curious, voracious even, to meet artwork very different from their own. Similarly, managers will greatly benefit from expanding their culture: to have an idea of theories, of course, but also to be acquainted with the works of others, to never hesitate to take an interest organizations vastly different from their own.

This culture, considered as a method of learning, strikes me as being paramount. This is one of the challenges of the Ecole de Paris, but it also in this manner that we may address the different moments in the course of a life during which a manager gets to face different experiences – different works, if we stick to the metaphor. These times are for example internships, and the importance of having a good tutor is essential because it is thanks to him that you will get to understand the meaning and value of what you observe; it will also be the learning, defining moments that occur over the course of a career, when it is well managed.

But for a manager, the opportunities to expand culture through experience are not numerous enough, or more precisely they are not varied enough. Hence the importance of mediation, which will let him access other experiences; hence also, the necessary constitution of a legacy. Physicians have had a famous maxim since ancient times: “Ars longa, vita brevis” – art is long, life is short. This is exactly how we should envision what we now call the “career” of a manager: a long and diversified learning process, which over time allows for the acquisition of culture, the know-how, and the personal touch that characterize true mastery.


  • Michel Berry, Research and the Practice of Management, a French View (Organization Science, 1995)
  • Michel Berry, Une technologie invisible? Le rôle des instruments de gestion dans l'évolution des systèmes humains (Centre de recherche en gestion de l’Ecole Polytechnique, 1983)

More on paristech review

By the author

  • What if management were an art?on November 26th, 2013
  • drsergekuznetsov

    postindustrial economy as a mixture of industrial and manufacture arts of
    production makes management drive somewhat to an art stage.