The Non-Scientific Method

Management is much more than a science

Call To Science — Nov 2017

Have we allowed our application of the scientific method to go too far.

Underlying the practice and study of business is the belief that management is a science and that business decisions must be driven by rigorous analysis of data. The explosion of big data has reinforced this idea.

If we look back, Aristotle believed in free will and the power of human agency to make choices that can radically change situations.

“Most of the things about which we make decisions, and into which we therefore inquire, present us with alternative possibilities….All our actions have a contingent character; hardly any of them are determined by necessity,” he wrote. He believed that this realm of possibilities was driven not by scientific analysis but by human invention and persuasion.

We think this is particularly true when it comes to decisions about business strategy and innovation. The railroad, the motor car, and the telephone all introduced enormous behavioural and social shifts that an analysis of prior data could not have predicted.

The fact that scientific analysis of data has made the world a better place does not mean that it should drive every business decision. When we face a context in which things cannot be other than they are, we can and should use the scientific method to understand that immutable world faster and more thoroughly than any of our competitors. In this context the development of more-sophisticated data analytics and the enthusiasm for big data are unalloyed assets.

But when we use science in contexts in which things can be other than they are, we inadvertently convince ourselves that change isn’t possible. And that will leave the field open to others who invent something better—and we will watch in disbelief, assuming it’s an anomaly that will go away. Only when it is too late will we realize that the insurgent has demonstrated to our former customers that things indeed can be different. That is the price of applying analytics to the entire business world rather than just to the appropriate part of it.

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