Management: Art or Science?

by Dr. Aaron Buchko
Bradley University

In order to effectively apply the scientific disciplines of management, you must first understand the art.

Is management an art or a science? Obviously, the correct answer is “both”—management contains elements of science and art. But how would you answer if the question is rephrased as: “To be successful at the practice of management, should a manager take more of an artistic approach or a scientific perspective?”

Management as a Science
Over the past few decades, the bias has been to view management as a science. In 1959, two reports from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation criticized business schools for lacking in academic rigor. This set off a wave of curriculum changes, as well as an increase in academic research in management that drew heavily from the social sciences—notably economics, psychology and sociology. The scientific model came to dominate business education, and as a result, the approach taken by executives to address managerial issues in organizations became dominated by theories and scientific models. Research findings became the basis for managerial practices—Six Sigma, leadership models, motivation theories, organizational behavior studies, and the accompanying measures and metrics became the standards that drove managerial behavior.

As a result, the number of theories and models has increased exponentially. Today, organizations measure as much as possible and evaluate reams of data with advanced computer-based analytics. We currently have more information available to managers than at any other time in human history. But to be honest, the results haven’t been great. While there have been plenty of successes, we still have firms that are failing, employees who do not perform up to standard, and managers who cannot produce accountable results for their organizations.

Has science failed? Not at all—we know more about the practice of management than ever before. But knowledge about management is not sufficient, because management is not a scientific discipline; it is a profession. And what is a profession? A profession is “a combination of disciplines, the practice of which is an art.” Therein lies the key—management is based on and grounded in practice. The only reason organizations need management is because there are practical matters that must be addressed. And fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), a lot of those practical matters have to be addressed by people, which gives rise to the necessity for management—since by definition, management is “getting things done through people.”

The Art of Management
So the reason for management is practical—it is centered on organizational practice. This is critical, as it’s the practical that separates management as a profession from a scientific discipline.

Science can tell us that most people are not motivated by money. Science can tell us that most workers prefer supportive leadership styles. Science can tell us that most successful firms have a clear vision and values. But managers do not manage most people, most workers or most firms; they manage a specific organization with specific resources in specific industries with specific employees using specific processes, which is precisely where the wheels fall off the scientific wagon. As a manager, you want to know what to do in this situation with this employee at this moment in time to produce the desired result. While science can provide general clues, it cannot tell you how to handle the specific: the individual. For that, you need more—you need to understand the art.

Most people have a bit of a negative bias when it comes to art. They presume it has something to do with creativity and emotion, but lacks the rigor or discipline of science. This is unfortunate, because this is not consistent with the proper understanding of the concept. The word “art” comes from the Latin word ars, meaning craftsmanship. Art is defined (in part) as the exercise of human skill; it is the ability to apply knowledge (which may be based on science) and combine it with an understanding of the situation to produce a desired result. Whether it’s the use of color and light to produce a painting, sounds to produce a symphony, or kinesiology to produce a dance, there are scientific foundations to art. But knowledge of color, light and perspective will not create a Sistine Chapel; knowledge of patterns of sound waves will not produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; and knowledge of kinesiology will not yield Swan Lake.

Similarly, in management, knowledge of customer buying habits, financial systems and measures, theories of motivation, and the Consumer Price Index are all useful tools from well-established disciplines, such as marketing, finance, accounting, organizational psychology and economics. These disciplines are the knowledge foundations of managerial practice. But knowledge of the disciplines will not produce a Google search engine or an iPad, nor will they necessarily generate increased profitability or get an employee to spend a little more time with a customer to close a sale. For that, organizations must rely on the art of management—the skill to combine these disciplines within a particular set of conditions in a manner that produces desired organizational outcomes. Art does not replace scientific knowledge; rather, it applies that general knowledge to a particular area of human activity to generate some specific practical result—a painting, a song, a poem. Likewise, the manager takes the general knowledge of business and applies that to a specific situation within the organization to generate a practical result.

Application and Context
If management is going to be successful at producing positive results for organizations, it is time that we reframe our thought process and begin to study the art of management. We have to adopt the methods used in the study of art. In studying art, it is first necessary to have an understanding of the basic concepts—light, color and perspective, for instance, in painting. But to understand the art, it’s also necessary to study the results of great artists—Rembrandt, perhaps, or Monet or Van Gogh. What was it about these individuals that caused them to perform as they did? This also requires that we understand the context: the Netherlands in the 1600s for Rembrandt, or France in the 1840s for Monet. Only by combining these elements can we begin to develop an understanding and appreciation for the art.

It’s the same in management. First, we must understand the basic concepts—we still need to know our disciplines of accounting, finance, marketing, economics, organizational sociology and psychology. Second, we must make the effort to learn from great managers by studying their decisions and actions (say, books by or about Jack Welch or Steve Jobs). Third, we must also analyze the context of their management to appreciate the decisions made. What was relevant in their experience that made the outcome possible? (Would Welch have been successful running Apple, or Jobs running GE?) Then, we have to take this knowledge of the art and apply it to our own circumstances in our firms in our industries and markets. Only by making the effort to broaden our understanding by embracing the art of management can we hope to improve our performance as managers and produce superior results for our organizations. iBi

Dr. Aaron Buchko is professor of management in the Foster College of Business at Bradley University.

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