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Fads. Here We Go Again.

Recently, I’ve been preparing a presentation on management fads as part of a workshop on Leadership Trends and inevitably, the topic of fads cropped up. They get to you. Fads do, they get under your skin, they irritate and demand attention - won’t let you go.

Flares are 'in'As part of my preparation I’ve been re-reading a book by Robert Birnbaum – ‘Management fads in higher education.’ Don’t be put off by the title – what applies to universities also applies to organisations in all sectors.

In the final chapter Birnbaum tells the reader that he has two dogs and three cats. These animals share a common genetic structure however they don’t behave the same. The dogs come when called, the cats don’t – in fact they please themselves. The dogs have to be walked, the cats come and go as they please. So, askes Birnbaum, ‘Why can’t dogs be more like cats?’

And he is reminded of these differences every time he hears that hoary old question ‘Why can’t a university be more like a business?’ The assumption being that if universities were to adopt business practices, they would become more efficient and productive, and everything would be rosy. He goes on to develop his ideas before delivering the following;

“Consider this: only one of the twelve largest business firms in 1900 still existed in 2000. But each one of the twelve largest public and private universities in 1900… exists and still thrives one hundred years later.”

(Birnbaum, R. 2001. Management fads in higher education. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass).

Hmm, makes you think. We need to take stock before falling for what everyone thinks is obvious and desirable.