Do companies and organisations such as universities often have an interest in keeping their staff stupid?
That is the question raised by Mats Alvesson, professor of business administration at the University of Lund, Sweden and André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School, City University London.
Their new book, The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, arises out of their research in “knowledge-intensive organisations” such as school chains, engineering and media companies, management consultancies, design studios and universities.
In every case, recalls Professor Spicer, the official view was that such organisations “employ a lot of smart people to do work which requires intelligence”. But as soon as they spoke to the workers themselves the researchers were told that, in reality, there was “a lot of stupidity going on”. The goal of their book was to “take stupidity a bit more seriously and ask why that is the case”.
Much of the problem comes down to the largely spurious notion of the “knowledge economy”.
The idea was pioneered in a 1962 article by the American academic and management consultant Peter Drucker (who also developed the country’s first executive MBA at Claremont Graduate College). Unfortunately, claims Professor Spicer, the reality has failed to match the hype.
He cites “studies suggesting that the jobs which require degree-educated employees have peaked in 2000 and may be going down” and notes that many people apparently employed for their high-level specialist skills end up doing sales and marketing or fairly routine generalist work.
As a result, “rising educational levels have created dissatisfaction and companies have responded to that”. One way they have done so, the book suggests, is by adopting cultures, leadership and branding strategies that effectively stupefy their employees, encouraging them to think that their jobs are much more important and challenging than they are, while discouraging them from asking searching questions.
Universities, in Professor Spicer’s view, are complicit in this.
“When economic arguments are the only ones which win the day,” he points out, “universities have been forced to justify themselves by making arguments around their role in boosting the knowledge economy. In Britain, the expansion of the university sector has created raised expectations plus debt. Can these be matched by the type of employment on offer?”
Furthermore, rather than acting as bastions of scepticism, The Stupidity Paradox claims that universities are often exceptionally keen to embrace management fads.
The book refers to the case of the anonymised “University of Midshire”, which issued an internal branding document in which it described itself as “a place of infinite possibility…What if you were to work somewhere every day so different, you might never want to leave?” One academic responded: “Should I laugh or cry?”
“We looked at 10 different universities where the spend on branding significantly increased,” reports Professor Spicer.
“It is not about attracting new students or making the current ones happy. It’s because of new leaders coming in and wanting to be seen doing something, so they chose something easy like a new strategy, a new building or a new brand.”
Mats Alvesson and André Spicer’s The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work has just been published by Profile Books.