The B-Ark Jobs

Inside the treasure trove of humor that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a wonderful parody of Plato’s ship of fools allegory. Douglas Adams, in the second book of the series, creates a sketch in which the two main characters, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, are accidentally teleported to a spaceship of an alien planet Golgafrincham, only to find it loaded with many frozen human bodies. The half-witted captain of the ship informs them that the frozen bodies belong to a particular ‘useless’ lot of the planet’s population, comprising management consultants, personnel officers, accountants, salesmen; or as Adams calls them – The middlemen.

As the scene unfolds, it becomes clear that in a smart move to get rid of this useless section of the population, the other residents of the planet had tricked them into boarding the spaceship, the B-Ark, and programmed it to crash-land on earth. For more context to the scene, it’s best to read the book.

So, why do I mention this random sketch here? 

Mainly because it talks about a category of jobs that are, in Adams’ view, effectively, pointless. The kind that the world would be perfectly fine without. 

Whether or not you agree with Adams on calling some jobs as ‘useless’ (I agree, to some extent), it’s hard to deny that in the past few decades our notions of ‘usefulness’ of jobs have changed dramatically. There has been a definite swell in the social perception of certain categories of jobs. It’s hard to ignore when everywhere you see are management executives and consultants, in their suits, setting the agenda for others. The world is being controlled by these middlemen, and I am not sure if it’s a good thing.

As per my limited understanding of economics, these middlemen are placed rather awkwardly in a capitalist system. They don’t own any of the basic factors of production – land, labor, or capital. They are not the original creators and scientists who innovate and discover new technologies; and clearly, they are not the ones doing the actual work, making things.

And so, it’s a bit strange that this lot receives an inordinate share of the social recognition and extravagant salaries while most of the labor population keeps on wandering around the minimum wage levels. An obvious case of social injustice. Isn’t it? It really befuddles me that in this era of money, the link between marginal utility of a job and the monetary compensation stands broken.

Undeniably, the economic and social incentives of being a ‘professional’ in the field of management are extraordinary. Talent migration to these areas is but a natural outcome. Oddly enough, human capital is the only investment required in this sector. The usual roadblocks of credit, raw materials, land, labor, machines, and technology which otherwise are crucial to start a manufacturing firm, do not pose a problem in management industry. This might perhaps be the reason, that in the later half of 20th century, we have seen a ballooning of management sector. A whole new industry of management firms has been created out of nothing.

Interestingly, these firms have desperately tried to paint the field of management as a genuine science, and they have done an excellent job at that. This temptation to legitimize management as a scientific field, and hence an area that deserves specialist professionals, traces back to Fredrick Taylor, regarded as the father of scientific management.

Taylor started this field with something as simple as studying the unloading of steel bars from rail cars. A set of somewhat obvious observations for efficient unloading were converted into a book – Principles of Scientific Management still considered a foundation work. Notice the word – Scientific – as if common sense was all that is required to be a scientist. This fetish of managers with fancy scientific-sounding terms has resulted in the creation of concepts and theories (if you can call them that) like SWOT, 4P’s, 3C’s, 5C’s and other such jargon.

An area of study with such insignificant beginnings, essentially of optimizing operations, has grown leaps and bounds to its present gigantic form. But you will be mistaken in thinking that this growth has been organic. It’s anything but that. Few other industrial sectors have grown so much in such a little time. This has been made possible by devouring scores of already established areas of study.

Today the term management encompasses financial management (a part of economics), human resource management (behavioral and organizational psychology), sales and marketing management (sociology and consumer psychology), and the field of operations management (a lot of which is mathematical optimization). The list is ever-increasing with even the fields like information technology coming under this huge umbrella of management as IT management. Anything and everything that can be ‘managed’ is being given its own management course.

Nevertheless, I don’t have a problem with this borrow-rename-adopt nature of the field of management. The thing that concerns me is the excessive nature of rewards associated with these jobs vis-a-vis their social utility. As I see it, all these jobs are squarely aimed at making profits for a few at the expense of many. Unlike scientific jobs, where almost always you will find an element of benefits to the society-at-large, management is (or has become) all about moving money from the bottom of the social pyramid to the top. It is as if the society is rewarding people to be more selfish and work for their own benefits.

Take marketing as an example – which is defined, rather humbly I must say, as the process of communicating the value of a product to consumers. But do you really require an army of specialists to do just that? I don’t think so. But you definitely need smart creative minds to fool people. To create lavish advertisement campaigns aimed at manipulating consumers, and to trick them into buying things they don’t really need. You need professionals to exaggerate the qualities of a product or sometimes sell products without even talking about them (at this point picture the Pepsi and Coke advertisement blitzkrieg). Marketing management as it stands today is all about selling perceptions, albeit false ones.

But wait, things get even worse. The recognition of marketing as a genuine area of business has made companies compete with each other on the basis of their marketing prowess. The result – we have many identical (well, almost identical) products of different companies locked in marketing battles to win over customers. The money which could have been spent on actual R&D projects to improve the product features is now allocated to expensive marketing campaigns. How this exercise benefits the consumers, as claimed by marketing firms, is beyond me. Similar arguments can be made about other branches of management, and invariably everywhere you will find this foam of individual greed floating over it.

Management, at its very core, is (or should be) all about removing inefficiencies in a system (though it has morphed into something much bigger and sinister). To this effect, it definitely serves an important purpose. The world economy, over the past century, has grown increasingly complex. Everything – products, supply chain, means of finance and so on – have grown both in scale and complexity. It is natural that in such a vast system some inefficiencies would creep in, and this is where the branch of management fits in the jigsaw puzzle that is the modern world-economy.

I also agree, that given the scale of the problem, we might want to assign specialists, instead of generalists, to fight these inefficiencies. So, Financial managers and bankers are tasked to efficiently allocate monetary resources to different sectors of the economy. Strategy consultants advise companies on better ways to deal with the market inefficiencies and obstacles. Likewise, other managers play their respective roles as well. But, and I shall say it again, it’s all about efficiency, not creation. How can a field of study, which ideally should be on the periphery acquire a central role in the economy? After all, efficiency comes after creation. You can’t really optimize a process unless it exists. Right?

The reward system, mainly salary and compensation, in the field of management has ensured that some of the brightest products of our education system consciously opt for these careers. I see this as a huge job-skills mismatch. Why are the best from the talent pool required for these management jobs? In my humble opinion, and I may be wrong here, the skill threshold for someone to be a good scientist is much higher than to be a good manager.

I still remember my school days, and it is probably true even today when there was a definite pecking order of subjects to opt for at the 10+2 level. It was almost always science as the first choice, followed by commerce and finally arts. The top percentile of the class was the one studying science. It perfectly represented the post-industrial revolution world where scientist and engineers were the most sought after careers. The monetary and social rewards were aligned accordingly. Even something like this was a real possibility back then.

I believe and sincerely hope, that the priorities in primary and school education are still the same. But the scene in higher education has changed dramatically. Possibly because graduation colleges are the single direct link between the education system and the market. Apropos required skills, higher education institutes should be the first to adapt to the market demands, and so they have changed accordingly. The most talented students in even the top technology institutes of India are opting for management careers. However, they are not the ones to blame, instead, the fault lies with the skewed reward structure.

At the end of the day, the distorted salary structure boils down to the supply and demand in the market.  At least in India, organizations with their meager research budgets have stopped generating enough quality jobs in science. The existing jobs are more of routine than innovation. This along with a high flux of science graduates has ensured that salaries for scientific jobs remain at relatively low levels. On the other hand, India with its large population is a vast market waiting to be captured by large multinationals and few rapidly growing start-ups. In a market, with an ever-increasing middle class, identified by its eternal thirst to buy more things, you don’t need innovators. All you need are the middlemen. And so they rule.