The Wisdom of Pop-Management Books

‘Pop management’ books – that is, non-scientific business books written by high-profile academics or (former) practitioners for managers or those who want to become one – are a very interesting literary genre. With catchy titles (‘Competing for the Future’, ‘Winning in Emerging Markets’, ‘Build to Last’, ‘In Search of Excellence’, ‘Good to Great’, ‘Guerilla Marketing’) and promising sub-titles (‘Successful Habits of Visionary Companies’, ‘Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies’, ‘A Manifesto for Business Revolution’, and ‘Easy and Inexpensive Ways for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business’), they target travelling managers in airport shops and try to lure them into believing that there are some magical tricks to be learned that will make a business more successful…And it would seem that this marketing strategy works: many of these books are best sellers (‘The One Minute Manager’, for instance has sold over 7 million copies since it was first published in 1982!), Harvard Business Press – which specialises in this genre – is a thriving business, and more and more pop-management books come on the market every year.

However, such business books have also been criticised for a lack of scientific rigour and for promising things they cannot hold. An excellent critique of this literature is Phil Rosenzweig’s book The Halo Effect…and eight other business delusions that deceive managers, which – rather ironically – is very much written in the pop-management style. Rosenzweig shows for instance that many very successful business books commit one of the most basic cardinal sins in scientific research, i.e. sampling on the dependent variable. Books like ‘Build to Last’, or ‘In Search of Excellence’, essentially pick a number of successful companies and try to explain their success by looking at the characteristics of these companies and their top managers…Ignoring all the while the thousands of other companies out there which have similarly characteristics, but are not successful.

One fairly recent pop-management book is by Michael O’Malley and is called ‘The Wisdom of Bees. What the hive can teach business about leadership, efficiency and growth’ (or TWOB for short). Having been a hobby beekeeper at one stage myself, I was intrigued by the claim that business had something to learn from a bee colony. But unfortunately, like most pop management books, TWOB lacks rigour and is full of half-baked intuitions and flawed analogies….Indeed the main attraction of the book, but also its main flaw, is the use of a biological analogy, comparing a beehive to a human business organisation.

To be sure, biological analogies are not a bad thing as such. Indeed, there was some debate a while ago about what the elimination – or rather the deliberate omission – of biological analogies from Alfred Marshall’s work signified for the development of economics as a discipline. Some economists see in the omission of biology – notably Darwin’s evolutionary theory – from economics the beginning of neoclassical economics (Niman 1991, Foas 1994).

However, at the same time, the use of biological analogies in the social sciences are a tricky thing that often leads to the temptation to ‘naturalise’ the socially constructed and to cast an air of innateness and inevitability over acquired human behaviours. This temptation is clearly apparent in TWOB.

The book starts off with the observation that honeybee colonies are remarkably well organised and function smoothly, despite the complexity of the tasks at hand (finding a location for the hive, creating honeycombs out of wax, foraging for pollen and nectar, producing the honey, feeding larvae etc.). Bees have been around for millions of years, inhabit every continent except Antarctica, and are hence among the most successful animals on the planet. The author concludes that ‘[t]he honeybee has mastered a great society and it would be phylogenic hubris to think we have nothing to learn from them.’ (pp.7/8).

The reasons for the success of bees are quickly identified: motivated and committed workers, a self-sacrificing dedication to the hive, clear leadership from the Queen, yet decentralised decision making, meritocracy, and careful planning, among others (25 in total).

The problem with this ‘analysis’ is that the author searches for answers to inherently human problems in an insect society.  As much as I love anything that has six legs and wings (as opposed to eight legs and no wings, I should add!), insects are nothing like humans – or indeed any other mammal. Insects are fascinating and awe-inspiring animals when you look at them from up close and take the time to observe their behaviours. Nevertheless, in neurological terms, they are relatively simple creatures without a very complex nervous system. In fact, many entomologists consider that insects’ nervous system is too simple for them to actual experience anything akin to what we call 'pain' in humans and other mammals (see here). Similarly, complex social behaviours of social insects do not necessarily imply that these behaviours are the result of ‘consciousness’, ‘intention’, or even ‘thinking’ and ‘planning’ as the book suggests. Complex behaviours may very well be hardwired into their DNA. Nor do insects have a complex psychology anywhere comparable to humans. Therefore, concepts such as motivation and discipline; and behaviours such as opportunism, intrigue, and deception – referred to throughout the book – simply make very little sense in this context.
So, when the author writes ‘cooperation does not occur automatically in human and bee societies’ (p.31). I think he is mistaken. Cooperation among honeybees does not have to be achieved through disciplinary mechanisms, such as incentives, rewards, and punishments to avoid the possibility of opportunism. Cooperation is hardwired into the bees DNA. This undermines the whole purpose of the analogy, because motivation and reigning in opportunism are two key functions of human work organisations. Surely, there is not much we can learn from an ‘organisation’ that does not have to deal with these issues.

More broadly, the whole book is based on the fundamental mistake of ‘humanising’ bees. The author is certainly right that they are amazing creatures. But they are simply not human. Clearly the author seems to forget that at times. Thus, he writes: ‘Bees exhibit a worldview that we correspondingly would describe as fair, open-minded, and objective’ (p.114). Do bees really have a worldview? Do they use concepts like fairness and open-mindedness?

More strikingly still, referring to the bees’ role in pollinating plants, O’Malley writes: ‘Honey bees were practicing social responsibility long before it became fashionable’ (p.156). This is stretching the analogy beyond the threshold of pain. It clearly does not make any sense whatsoever to attribute to bees concerns such as ‘social responsibility’. Surely none of the positive effects bees have on their environment are intended or even conscious!

Bees are not human, do not behave like humans, and do not have the same needs as humans! They work weekends, take no holidays, have no hobbies, they don’t ask to be paid; they cannot feel any pain, and essentially work until they drop dead! They have no house to go home to and their ‘work’ – foraging for pollen, producing honey and wax etc. –, is not actually work, but simply their life. Indeed, bees do not produce honey to sell it, but to feed on it. Therefore, for a bee, the beehive is not a business.

Now, one might say that my criticism is a bit unfair. Isn’t it legitimate to pick certain practices of a bee colony and derive lessons for companies without buying into all aspects of the analogy? Well, the problem with this ‘pick and choose’ approach is that the successful functioning of the beehive can only be understood holistically. Different behaviours of honeybees taken individually cannot account for the success of beehives; only the complex interplay of the different behaviours can. The reason why the beehive works so well is that the different behaviours complement each other so well. So, drawing lessons by looking at one practice only while ignoring complementary ones may not work.

Consider for instance the claim that part of the beehive’s success is to show little tolerance to underperforming individuals and replace less productive old bees with younger more vigorous ones (lesson 3 ‘Let merit be your guide’, p.26). This is certainly the case. Yet, one reason why this works is that the colony does not have to pay for the old bees ‘retirement plans’ (e.g. food and shelter), as they simply die or are killed. That’s why getting rid of them reduces the hives ‘costs’ tremendously.
Similarly, the author praises the bees’ pragmatism when it comes to rid the hive of male bees (drones) who are not needed anymore and are now simply a burden on the hive. O’Malley sees in this behaviour, called the ‘massacre of the drones’, a laudable example of ‘swift action’ and meritocracy (who doesn’t contribute to the hive has to go) (pp.26/7). Sure, this behaviour contributes to the beehive’s success. But only because of its radicalism, which consists in the fact that the drones are killed and do hence not drain the hive’s resources any further (as a laid-off worker might do when obtaining a social package). Needless to say that applying such a radical solution consistently to a human organisation raises all sorts of ethical and social questions. Conversely, if the lesson to be drawn is not consistent with the actual practice, the question arises what is the point with the analogy?

In the absence of a systematic and holistic use of the analogy of the beehive, the lessons seem arbitrary at best and random at worst! Sometimes they are plainly contradictory: Thus, lesson 12 ‘preserve a positive attitude’ suggests that managers should supress any ‘[…] contagious negativity and cynicism’ (p.88) among the workforce. This implies essentially to impose one positive ‘corporate culture’ or one ‘discourse’ that is accepted by everyone. Lesson 13 ‘keep your balance’, on the other hand, suggests that managers should embrace diversity within the workforce, not impose conformity, and workers should be allowed to ‘use their brains independently’ (unless, I suppose, if they chose to use it for ‘negativity’ and ‘cynicism’).

Other lessons seem terribly far-fetched: Lesson 2 (‘keep energy levels up’) mentions very reasonable measures to reduce the risk of ‘burn out’ among the workforce; one of which is sabbaticals….How exactly the toiling life of a bee leads to the conclusion that their success has something to do with sabbaticals remains a mystery.

Finally, some lessons are open to all sorts of interpretations: O’Malley writes that the choice of a new site for the hive is ‘[…] a momentous life-or-death decision process that is entirely made by worker bees in the field, operating outside the control of a central authority’. This passage could very well be interpreted as suggesting that companies should be run by workers. I’m sure that is not what the author had in mind. But it illustrates the ‘whateverism’ inherent in the analysis. Every single type of behaviour of bees can be interpreted in various ways, especially because the analogy is not used systematically and holistically.

Indeed, based on the description of the functioning of the beehive in this book, I can think of at least two additional lessons that could be drawn for human society:

26. Only one female in the society should be allowed to reproduce, but all others are in charge of raising her offspring (That actually sounds remarkably like Plato’s republic).

27. Workers should have the power to get rid of a CEO if they consider his/her performance to be unsatisfactory and they should be allowed to reject an incoming CEO if they don’t like him/her (Bees oftentimes kill new queens that they don’t like).

To be sure, these additional lessons are absurd. However, the behaviours they refer to are as much part of the explanation why beehives work well as any other lesson that can be found in the book. My point is that there is no obvious criteria that tells us why certain aspects of the analogy should be applied to human organisations while others should not.

Readers may find this is a pedantic rant about a book that doesn’t take itself as seriously as I do. I think, however, the question of analogies and metaphors in the social sciences is an important issue, because they have more pernicious effects then people commonly realise. The problem with metaphors and analogies is this: The originators are often quite nuanced and acknowledge the imperfect fit with reality. Most of their readers, however, will take them much too literally.  Often, the metaphor is all that remains of the argument. The context in which it was used and the nuance and complexity of the underlying argument is lost. Rather than a tool to make complex phenomena easier to understand by relating them to the readers’ every day experience – which is the purpose of metaphors and analogies –, they become gross over-simplifications of complex social phenomena and therefore and obstacles to a proper understanding of the phenomena at hand.

Two important examples spring to mind: The first one is Adam Smith’s metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ to illustrate how markets work. The second one is the analogy of a government’s finances to a private household (see on the latter example). Both images have become so common and widely-used that they are literally taken for granted by most people, in spite of the fact that both capture – at best – only part of the phenomenon that they are supposed to describe. These images are powerful rhetorical devices, but have also contributed to widespread fundamental misunderstandings about the functioning of markets or public finances with important consequences for economic policies. Therefore, careless metaphors and analogies should not be taken lightly and the idea that human society functions like an insect society needs to be nipped in the bud!