It seems to me that handing the reins to a department – or even a company – to someone because they have an MBA is quite a bit like handing the car keys to a teenager because they passed a drivers education course.  You pretty much know the kid is going to wreck the car sooner or later, and hope the wreck is minor.

The problem with drivers ed is it has no requirement that the kid know the first thing about physics or mechanical principles.  Mass. Momentum, inertia, energy, friction, centrifugal force… concepts largely unknown to a typical 16 year old.  What takes place when oxygen, fuel and a spark come together in a cylinder?  No idea.  What they know is that, if they push this pedal one thing happens and when they push another pedal, something else happens.  When you turn the wheel the car goes in that direction.  Why any of this happens is not only a total mystery to them, but is not perceived to be particularly important …right up until something goes wrong and they find themselves unable to control a half ton or more of Detroit’s finest work skidding over wet pavement.

The notion that operating a powerful, complicated machine by simply mastering the controls is very much like thinking one can manage a complicated network of people, machines and products simply by mastering a set of mathematical ratios and numerical relationships.  Wrecking the business is just as inevitable as wrecking the family car; and it is usually a relatively minor affair, but too often one with devastating consequences.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing – stemming from the same thing that gives rise to the myth that young people are inherently good at technology.  What they really mean, more often than not, is that they are good at pushing the buttons and grasping the commands and touch screens that make the technology work.  In fact, the typical young person’s knowledge of what is going on inside the black box is usually near nil.  Binomial math and circuit logic are concepts as mysterious to most of them as the forces at play when a Chevrolet hits an icy patch are.  If you want to know how to use a new gadget right out of the box, a teenager is apt to be pretty good at figuring it out.  That gadget breaks, however, and a teenager is more likely to be the last person you want to call.

Management, and driving cars, is pretty easy so long as things are going the way they are supposed to – the way it was described in the classroom.  When things go haywire, however, and problems are coming at you quickly and from unexpected directions, you better understand the forces at play and have a pretty good sense of what’s going on under the hood.

MBA’s and driver’s ed diplomas are good things – even necessary I suppose – but only in the hands of people with a solid understanding of, and deep respect for, the power and inner workings of machines those certificates qualify them to run.

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