Summer Reading on Management for Graduate Students?

6 June 2006 at 2:57 pm 11 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

Perform the Gedanken Experiment that a graduate student would actually approach you for summer reading suggestions (not sure this would ever happen, but it is nice imagining). Specifically, the student — say, either a budding management graduate student who wishes to familiarize himself quickly with the very best in management thinking or an econ graduate student who consider a business school a likely future place to work — would like to know what are the indispensable papers from the last two decades in management that anyone who wishes to write a dissertation in management should (ideally) know. Are there any? Is management so fragmented that we cannot up with any papers that everybody should have some knowledge of? Or can we do better?

Please, readers of O&M, suggest 2-3 papers from the last two decades that you would consider indispensable. If you like, explain why you consider them important. (HT to Crooked Timber).

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Management Theory, Recommended Reading.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JC  |  6 June 2006 at 9:22 pm

    But if you think nothing significant has been written in the last two decades, then what?

    And why papers – what’s wrong with books? Doesn’t anyone read books over the Summer anymore? they don’t blow around in the sand like papers do – or are we taking our laptops?

    These comments are not completely in jest, of course. Most of what has been published in the last two decades only has meaning to those familiar with what was going on before, with the basic questions that engage our attention. In this sense the recent material is highly derivative, yet another indication of the inwardness of our activity. Thus you have to know Porter’s work before the RBV makes any sense – and even then …, but Wernerfelt’s paper takes us back beyond your time-line.

    Some would argue that Knowledge Management is new, of course, but that’s a different story.

    I think you mis-speak when you say fragmented. This is merely a perception. Is art fragmented? or physics? It’s only in the mind of the beholder and what’s your standard here? With our huge ant-army being pressed to publish, of course there’s going to be diversity, and thank goodness for that. Put the Pfeffer-theory-police back where they belong.

    The real gift you can give this ‘gedanken-student’ is a sense of the discipline’s basic agendas, where they came from, and how they have been advanced. I do not agree ours have become fragmented in the sense of Howdy Kootz’s protest at the ‘management theory jungle’ in 1961.

    The org theory agenda is not complicated, it is organization and organizations that are complicated. The agenda is about the managerial work of combining what we theorists have separated analytically into (a) harnessing people to apriori goals set by others, Gesellschaft as presented by Weber, and (b) exploiting the division of labor and distributed learning as presented in the Wealth of Nations. All the rest – such as we find in our journals – is frippery and academic haggling, and most of it has nothing to do with the managerial challenges raised by (a) and (b). It is about our personal academic self-promtion agendas and the politics of our activity. It’s good for our student to learn something of this, but it is surely not the basis for a fulfilling life’s-work?

    With appropriate humility I would not presume to say what the economics agendas are about, but if you could tell this student (copying me) I would be very pleased.

    What would I suggest then?

    I cannot think of a better slim volume for a windy beach than March & Simon’s ‘Organizations’. ‘Administrative Behavior’ is too heavily coded and like ‘Functions of the Executive’ requires a lifetime of study to extract its essential juices. Penrose’s tTotGotF would be a wonderful complement, especially as it comes from a sharply different epistemological tradition. These two should pretty much sketch the agenda.

    But what’s lacking in this little ‘desert island library’ is something rich on why organizations are the way they are, something that will help our student avoid the elephant trap that claims most of us – i.e. thinking of organizations in the abstract, as if they should be some way or other, so demonstrating some universal laws such as the positivists seek.

    To counter this pernicious and very destructive tendency I would recommend:

    Maitland, F. (1900). The Corporation Sole. Law Quarterly Review, 16, 335-354.


    Horwitz, M. J. (1992). The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Those in Europe would need quite different references of course.

    We might also throw in something on cultural and economic history that would help the student appreciate why a particular group of individuals should be prepared to give up their independence as in (a), while still continuing to learn and contribute, and so vitalize the organizations they comprise, as in (b).

    That should keep someone busy for the Summer – or indeed their entire BSchool career. Of couse they wouldn’t have much time left over to discuss the trivia of the RBV or the latest thing in transformational leadership theory with their colleagues ….

  • 2. brayden  |  7 June 2006 at 10:53 am

    I would recommend Scott’s Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems, because I think it gives a good overview of the sociological side of the field and introduces the student to the historical roots of management theory. I would also suggest Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay. Alas, both of these are books, but like JC, I think a grad student should read a few books over the summer.

  • 3. Tim Swanson  |  7 June 2006 at 11:26 am

    As a grad student working on a degree in sport management and having the study of economics as a hobby, I have found Josh Kaufman’s Personal MBA reading list to be worthwhile. Not only are the books and periodicals relatively inexpensive, but they are fairly easy to read.

    Be sure to read the BusinessWeek article on the endeavor.

  • 4. Teppo  |  7 June 2006 at 4:29 pm

    I agree with Brayden that the Scott book is a good start. I would also recommend the Pfeffer OUP 1997 book – “New Directions for Organization Theory: Problems and Prospects.” Overviews like this, while one may not agree with what is said and emphasized, nonetheless provide a nice launching pad into areas one might be interested in pursuing.

  • 5. Thorbjørn Knudsen  |  8 June 2006 at 6:43 am

    First of all, I would be delighted with such a request from a graduate student with a real appetite for reading. Rather than accepting its premise, however, I would start from the presumption that management studies need disciplinary anchoring. Thus, I would inquire whether this diligent student had a good solid anchoring in one of the disciplines, say economics, sociology, or psychology. Probably not.

    In that case, the summer reading would be a bunch of established classics (books as well as articles). For the economics based student, I have in mind stuff like Samuelson, Savage, von Neumann & Morgenstern, Nash, and Schumpeter (if we accept recent editions they would even fall in the last two decades as would the Scott example raised by prior commentators). Having covered the basics during the summer, the Fall would be well spent with the real management classics such as Berle & Means, Thompson, March & Simon.

    Suppose that (some of) the classics from the student’s chosen discipline have been covered. It is now time to face the challenge. Academy of Management online lists about 24 Divisions and Interest Groups on their website ( Neither can I think of a single paper nor a single book that would be of interest to all of these interest groups. Why would, or should, folks in the “Research Methods” division care about Scott’s book? However, I can think of quite a few papers from the last two decades (in addition to those good books) that should be read by every student of organizations. A random sample of these would include, but certainly not be limited to, Cohen & Levinthal on absorptive capacity, March on exploration and exploitation, and Levinthal on search in rugged landscapes. Should the student pursue strategy from an economics perspective, we would obviously point to other papers.

    Overall, I suggest we can do even better by digging deep into the classics that lie in our disciplinary ground, while recognising those that have emerged as a higher-order layer within the semidiscipline that constitutes our location in the management jungle. Just imagine that students of knowledge management would produce wisdom layered upon a solid ground of systematic insight, mined from the cumulative advances in behavioural and brain sciences.

  • 6. JC  |  8 June 2006 at 8:24 am

    I guess I’m surprised by the fondness for Scott’s book.

    It’s strength is its scope and bibliography, ans a few of its cameo analyses are very insightful. But the basic argument is not easily comprehended or well supported.

    I have had the opportunity to debate Scott’s trichotomoy with him, and I find it insubstantial. I do not see where he goes beyond Toennies. The latest edition (5th) is so clearly a piecemeal update of a book whose basic concepts predate the impact of TCE and OE on organizational thinking.

    A strong test of any book like this is to use it to structure a semester’s teaching. The flawed logic of the book makes this an unpleasant experience.

    For the beach it is an interesting reference book, but don’t expect our student to understand why it was written or what s/he should read next.

  • 7. Peter Klein  |  8 June 2006 at 9:57 am

    Continuing the tradition of not answering Nicolai's question directly ;-), let me add some comments directed specifically at econ PhD students.

    For many students, the first year or two of the typical PhD program in economics (or bus econ or ag econ) can be quite jarring, and often disillusioning. The emphasis is almost wholly on technique, with economic content or intuition almost completely ignored. (Indeed, the students with the highest first-year grades are typically those who majored in math or physics and have never had an economics course before!) Many students wonder what they've gotten themselves into.

    For this reason, I often recommend that students use the summer to rest, refresh, and rediscover their "passion." What about economics or political economy or organizations got you excited in the first place? See if you can rekindle that flame.

    For some this means heavy doses of Mises, Hayek, or Rothbard. For others it means Barnard, Chandler, and Williamson. Still others may want to read (or re-read) Information Rules or The Innovator's Dilemma. Also valuable are "light and fun" readings such as Freakonomics, Russ Roberts's The Invisible Heart, The Armchair Economist or The Undercover Economist, or the Marshall Jevons murder mysteries.

    In short, get away from math and statistics for a while and remember why you're doing this.

  • 8. JC  |  8 June 2006 at 12:54 pm

    Alas poor Marshall.

    I have a well-thumbed and pocket-size copy of:

    Marshall, A. (1964). Elements of the Economics of Industry. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd.

    that is very suitable for the beach.

    I guess it all depends on what kind of economics you want your student to find interesting.

  • 9. Bo Nielsen  |  11 June 2006 at 5:27 am

    I will also answer by posing a question instead in order to continue the good spirit of this blogg…

    Similar to Thorbørn (I think), I would ask why not focus on the foundational readings – why limit ourselves to the past 20 years? In my opinion, one of the main problems with academia today is exactly that we (myself definitely included) are pressed for time and thus read the “quick PHD readings” rather than investigating the underlying philosophical and theoretical readings. We tend to forget what exactly a PhD is – doctor of philosophy – implying that we need to understand the philosophy of the topic under investigation. Unfortunately, it would seem that due to time pressures and the pressure to publish quickly and in only a handful of journals, little time is left to ponder the “big philosophical” questions. Hence, we are spoon-fed with top 10 lists in the field as if there was a manual for a topic.

    In my opinion, the very idea behind Nicolai’s request is flawed (yet an interesting exercise non the less). If the idea is indeed to compile a list of most influential or “best” readings then I don’t see the point. If the idea is, however, to generate a heated discussion of different streams of literatures among a group of self-proclaimed experts then fine. My opinion is simply that part of the real value of a graduate program lies in the discovery process – thus we should “guide” our students but only in a limited and generic way (for instance: go to the library – or on knowledge: start with Socrates etc.). If we fall into the trap of pushing our views onto our graduate students (which is arguably more prevalent in the US than in Europe – yet if we look at Uppsala and their fascination with the IP model we may find evidence in Europe as well) then we do the field a dis-service – we simply promote incremental and “boring” research in order to legitimize ourselves. I call for more classic readings on history of economcis and philosophy.

    Summer readings for graduate students:

    David Lodge: trading places (for humor)

    The Y-king, or Book of Changes (divination); (Ancient Chinese book of philosophy given to noble men and others)
    Cf. translations of Chinese Classics by Dr. Legge, in Sacred Books of the East, Vols. III, XVI, XXVII, XXVIII

    And then the classics on econ:
    Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759 and
    An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , 1776

  • 10. Bo Nielsen  |  11 June 2006 at 5:33 am

    By the way (and also in the spirit of this blogg:), I just thought of evidence to support my point: Look at the number of articles that make incorrect or incomplete citations – people tend to only read the latest argument in a stream of work and often cite these people as if they invented the theory or argument. Yet if we go back and read the original work we will often discover that many later arguments are based on misunderstandings and/or mis-representations of the original idea. Darwins concept of evolution (and in particular survival of the fittest and mutations) is one case in point, Polanyi on tacit knowledge is another…

  • […] I was recently asked by a graduate student for the best introductory book/article to organization theory (and no, Nicolai, this was not just a thought experiment, but actually happened).  […]

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