The 50 top business gurus – Accenture.com
The 50 Top Business Gurus
Outlook Journal, January 2003
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If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And when it comes to measuring, one highly popular yardstick is the published ranking. Take the Fortune 500. Sure, it’s simply a measure of revenues. But because it offers one gauge of corporate performance, investors and fund managers can do something with it. Other lists, measuring other aspects of performance, can also be useful. (And besides, rankings can be fun.)
These days, rankings seem to be everywhere—the biggest, the best, the richest. Yet despite the billions of dollars spent each year on management advice and on implementing new management ideas, there is no authoritative ranking of the business intellectuals—the “gurus”—whose stock in trade is new ideas and advice.
There is no shortage of guru lists out there, to be sure, but Accenture has never seen one that offers an objective, quantitative ranking. Business publications generally gather nominees, then editors or boards of experts rank them according to largely subjective criteria. But while these lists might provoke lively debate around the watercooler (and perhaps generate enough buzz to sell extra copies of the magazine), they offer managers and executives little in the way of practical, actionable information.
But thanks to the World Wide Web and various online databases, it is now possible to objectively measure the impact of business gurus, and from there to create a credible ranking. As part of a broader project to identify the process by which business and management ideas enterorganizations¹, the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change has created such a ranking: The Top 50 Business Gurus.
We began with a list of more than 300 names, ranked according to the three criteria used by American scholar and jurist Richard Posner in 2002 to create a similar list of “public intellectuals².” The criteria are:
- Hits by Google, the Internet search engine, using the variations of a guru’s name (for example, Michael Porter, Michael E. Porter, Mike Porter) minus any of those hits that are not relevant to the guru. Google offers a measure of how much a guru is being talked about on the Web and his or her ability to capture the public’s attention across the globe (or at least the English-speaking parts of it; most management theory is written in that language).
- Citations in the ISI Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI)—that is, the number of times that academics have cited the guru’s published work. Because this measure indicates a guru’s ability to garner the attention of serious scholars, it gives the guru credibility (or, at the very least, a certain notoriety). Leading universities use the SSCI to determine a scholar’s impact, reputation or worthiness for tenure.
- Media mentions in LexisNexis, the online database of English-language business and popular media. This measures the extent to which a guru is seen, heard and talked about through channels other than the Internet. It also offers a measure of whether a guru has the respect and attention of the gatekeepers to corporate America’s attention—the business press.
In short, a leading guru must be highly visible on the Internet, publish work that is widely known in the academic world and be frequently mentioned in the media. (Unlike Posner, we excluded people who are no longer alive.) Rankings in each of these individual categories were given a corresponding numerical score. For example, if a guru ranked No. 1 in Internet hits, No. 6 in SSCI citations and No. 20 in media mentions, those scores would be 1, 6 and 20. Overall guru rankings are based on the sum of these three scores, which, in this example, would be 27 (the lower the total score, of course, the higher the overall ranking).
Although perhaps confirming some suspicions, our Top 50 runs counter to several longstanding assumptions held by industry experts—and, more important, held by the managers who use ideas popularized by gurus.
For example, nearly every opinion-based list—and just about everyone else’s knee-jerk supposition—puts Peter Drucker in the top spot. Our research suggests, however, that Drucker’s supposed “hegemony”—as Business 2.0 described it a few years back—is now over. With comparatively few mentions in non-business categories (SSCI and media mentions), this perennial favorite comes in at No. 4 on our list.
So who is No. 1? Michael Porter, the well-respected strategist, Harvard Business School professor and author of two classic business texts, Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage. Much more a scholar and consultant than a media celebrity—though he also scored well in media mentions—Porter continues to conduct serious research. His critique of the dot-com era, “Strategy and the Internet,” was named best Harvard Business Review article for 2001 (a distinction he won for an unprecedented third time). Rounding out the first five are Tom Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence, in second place; Robert Reich, US Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, in third; and University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker in fifth.
Another popular misconception is that gurus aren’t “organization men” but are instead mavericks who make and market themselves without the benefit of institutional ties. But a scan of the Top 50 shows the central role that brand-name affiliations play in establishing and marketing a guru’s reputation. For example, the associations Jack Welch (No. 34) and Richard Branson (No. 45) have with two of the best-known corporate names in the world, GE and Virgin, thrust them into the Top 50 by sheer volume of media mentions and Web hits.
In fact, without the significant hurdle of the SSCI, which shows scholarly impact and thus does little to boost a corporate chieftain’s ranking, both Welch and Branson would have placed in the top five. They would have trailed Bill Gates, however, whose Microsoft brand gave him the No. 1 position in both Google hits and media mentions and the No.19 ranking overall.
But nothing boosts a guru’s ranking like the combination of brand and academic credentials. Seven of the top 10 have ties to leading universities, including Harvard (Porter), the University of Chicago (Becker), MIT (Peter Senge) and the University of California at Berkeley (Hal Varian).
The list also reveals striking biases in gender and nationality. Clearly the shifting demographics evident in much of the business world—precipitated by globalization and the rise of women to positions of power and influence—have yet to be felt in the halls of gurudom. There are only two women among the Top 50—Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter (No. 11) and Esther Dyson, chairperson of EDventure Holdings, at No. 32. And 44 of the 50 are Americans, at least by residence. The six exceptions: Charles Handy, Sumantra Ghoshal and Branson, all of the United Kingdom; Canadian Don Tapscott; Ken Ohmae of Japan; and Edward de Bono, who writes from the De Bono Institute in Australia.
No doubt the American business hype machine, which sets the world standard, clearly favors its own (especially its own men). On the other hand, given the historic US dominance of the world’s economy, the global prevalence of American business methods and models, and the worldwide reputations of American business schools, this tilt toward US gurus is perhaps understandable.
Finally, while there is very little diversity of gender and home base, there is a surprising variety in the backgrounds of the Top 50. If Drucker is the prototypical guru, it is the interdisciplinary nature of this thinking that others emulate, not his résumé. Although nearly all of the Top 50 are boundary spanners in terms of profession—many circulate from consulting to academia to journalism and back—the institutional ties we described above reveal four basic types of gurus in the Top 50: business academics (27), consultants (16), practicing managers (4), and journalists (3).
But there is significant heterogeneity within each taxonomic type, suggesting that managers need a variety of intellectual talents to help them make their organizations more efficient, effective and innovative.
For example, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, of New Yorker fame, writes on the social aspects of organizations—including a recent scathing critique of “the war for talent”—and markets, while Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, writes and speaks about the parallels between biology and information networks. Academic Varian of Cal Berkeley uses economics as a lens on information management for business-people, while the University of Chicago’s Becker uses economics as a lens on the social aspects of organizational productivity.
Although they vary in the issues they address, our Top 50 gurus have one thing in common: a desire to influence the practice of business and management. In his autobiography posted on the Nobel Foundation website, Becker puts it this way: “[Agreeing to write a monthly column for BusinessWeek] was a wise decision, for I was forced . . . to write about economic and social issues without using technical jargon, and in about 800 words per column. Doing this has enormously improved my capacity to discuss important subjects briefly and in simple language . . . [and it] makes me stay abreast of many subjects that interest the business and professional readers of the magazine.”
Successful companies are not, of course, built on Nobel prizes, best-selling business books or mountains of scholarly output. In the end, what is required is that critical alchemy that turns ideas from many sources into applied innovation and best business practices. And it is at this point that the gurus cede center stage to the executives and managers who must put the ideas to work.