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John Dewey was not primarily interested in management. In fact, some might say that he was left decidedly nonplussed by the discipline. Yet his ideas have heavily influenced managerial theory and practice – and business education itself.
An American philosopher and educator, Dewey was active from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, initially at the University of Chicago and later at Columbia University. Devoting his time to discussing a seemingly unending variety of issues, he continually addressed the relationship between ideas and practice and how experience was crucial for learning.
The most representative of the pragmatists, Dewey understood that ideas became meaningful when put into action. As a starting point this could not be more managerial. Action is what counts: it has an impact, it transforms things for the better and it solves problems. But action is not, or should not be, blind movement. In contrast to routine, action is required when there are no easy solutions.
In the interplay between action and thinking lies room for improvement. Reasonable managers will be willing to take action or deal with puzzling data, but they will not be excellent managers unless they can conceptualise all the implications of a situation and link them to actions. The interrelation between thought and action is distilled into strategising, planning, executing, assessing and correcting – actions that characterise good management practice.
In business, there is little room for abstract thought. Similarly, for Dewey the mind itself became something very practical. Ideas can be turned into models that help us analyse reality and solve problems. However, these models are not universal, but a product of past learning. Dewey saw models as valid only to the extent that they linked experience and reflection (“current positioning” and “strategy” in business). He perceived them as frameworks to be respected as long as they had a use.
All this may still sound somewhat removed from management, and the fact that Dewey spent most of his life in Upper Manhattan without crossing 122nd Street (separating his office in Teachers College from Columbia Business School) only underlines his relative disinterest. Yet, two facts give us an idea of how deep his influence was.
First, over the past two decades, companies have changed their habits, focusing more on the use of organisational learning, emerging strategies and innovation to cope with change – all good examples of the prevalence of experience as a test for ideas, the vital importance of learning at all levels, and how individuals, groups and organisations are transformed while learning.
Second, while Dewey’s reflections on how education must be linked to the interests and motivation of students may sound trite today, nowhere have these ideas been more purely applied than in management education, which stands out for its development of teaching that acknowledges the interests and needs of participants. MBAs and executive education differ widely in the ways they address the kinds of knowledge that should be in their curricula, the role that skill development should play and how much past individual experience is required.
This is all familiar to us – as is the term “experiential learning”, but from time to time we should recall its origins. Despite now forming the backbone of management education, the root of much of what we know grew from a seed planted in Chicago when Dewey taught calculus in his spare time, experimenting with linking concepts, motivation and problem solving.
All in all, like Molière’s character Monsieur Jourdain, who suddenly realised that he spoke prose, we in management and management education speak Dewey’s prose as we tell our stories about ideas, learning and experience. Thanks to him, most management stories are practical and focused on managers and organisations. That most of us are unaware of his influence on management would have greatly irked Dewey, contradicting as it does the ethos of his work on learning to think and being conscious of the origin of our thoughts.
The writer is dean of Esade Business School in Spain and co-editor with Mette Morsing of Business Schools and Their Contribution to Society, published in October by Sage