In his very definition, Blackburn pretty much gives it away; he says that “[the myth of management] claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports”. What does this even mean? How do you manage a warehouse or an airport if it’s impossible to manage people? If he had said “like machines” or even “like factories”, then it might have been comprehensible, but a warehouse which doesn’t have any people working in it is just a shed full of stuff and doesn’t require any management because no deliveries or shipments are being made. And an airport without people is just a warehouse for planes. Warehousing and transport are two very labour-intensive industries.
There are two possibilities here. One is merely that Blackburn is a snob – that writing as a professor of philosophy in the THES, he felt entitled to assume his audience would know that “people” meant “middle class people”, and would agree with the implicit assertion that “people” of this sort were capable of independent thought and could not be tied down, man, unlike the meat robots who packed their books for Amazon or swiped their tickets at Heathrow. But to assume this would be wildly uncharitable. The other, and I think more likely, explanation, is that Blackburn has no idea whatsoever about what managing a warehouse or an airport would entail, and no real interest in finding out.
He goes on to describe the two components of the basic skill of management:
The general skill of management has two basic components – administration and leadership.
The first is the ability to keep track of and prioritise detail. Some people are naturally better at this than others, but natural ability doesn’t actually make much of a difference in terms of one’s possession of the skill of management. The reason for this is that more or less any management task bigger than a single in-tray (and there are plenty of us, including me, who are flat out keeping control of one of those) is going to exhaust a normal human being’s memory and attention span. In order to cope with this, people through the ages have come up with a number of technologies to extend the human ability to administrate, such as alphabetical filing systems, double-entry accounts, activity reports and so on; the majority of the structures in Fred Brooks’ book fall into this category too. The majority of the skill of organisation is having the mastery of these tools and the self-discipline to use them consistently. The first is what they teach you in business schools; the second sounds more like an innate ability, but I would guess that it too can be taught.
The second is basically a species of emotional intelligence; some people are better applied psychologists than others. I must say I didn’t get much out of the “leadership” course I went on, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is nothing about motivating and managing people that can be taught; at the very least there’s an obvious body of applied economics which could be brought to bear to make sure that you don’t create incentives which are fundamentally inimical to yourself. So in summary, I think that there is a pretty identifiable set of skills, which can be grouped together into a category at least as coherent as most of the other things that we regard as subjects and which can be defensibly identified as the general skill of management ability.
Take a look!