I am presenting my work at the World Business Conference in Auckland. One of the things that struck me listening to fellow presenters is the repetitive nature of the presentations. Not that they are bad presentations, but it seems that research is repeating itself. When a presenter throws up the next slide with profound truths many people think “duh, common sense”, others have an ‘aha-erlebnis‘—a moment of sudden insight, and the rest of the audience does not notice as they gently fall asleep due to Powerpoint overload.
Is business theory busy reinventing the wheel or is something else going on?
Some business theories are based on rigorous research while others are intuitive and akin to pop-psychology. What all business theories have in common is that they aim to influence behaviour. Management is about changing or controlling the conduct of employees; marketing seeks to modify the behaviour of customers and strategy is about the conduct of stakeholders and the competition.
Most business theories are unintentionally based on the idea that people are rational. But contemporary economics and marketing have found that our rationality is limited. Our brains stop us from following the normative theories in business. Being in business is a constant struggle between the rational part of our brains and its natural tendencies. Plato described humans as a chariot pulled in different directions by two horses: reason and the emotions. Going to business conferences and hearing the same stories over and over again might be a way to give the horse of reason more power.
Maybe it is not about reinventing the wheel, but perhaps management theory is about keeping the wheel turning. We need to be constantly reminded of the obvious through variations on the theme.
The harder question is to ask whether we need to keep this wheel turning and maybe we should give some more credence to the non-rational dimension in management.