a group of managers

Scientific management, the human relations school, the quality movement, disruptive innovation, the learning organisation – management concepts come and go, their popularity rising and falling through the decades.

Some are instant hits then disappear, others surface periodically as the economic and business environment changes. Many never take off at all, gathering dust on the shelf marked 'new management ideas'. So why do some ideas attract more attention than others? 

I believed, along with my co-author Balázs Kovács, of Yale School of Management, that the way management concepts were positioned in the 'ideas market', relative to other concepts, played a major role in determining their popularity over time.

In particular, we were interested in the impact of three tactics: linking to other popular ideas - affiliation; linking to other similar popular ideas – local crowding; and combining elements that are often put together, or alternatively combining dissimilar elements that span several different aspects of management – category spanning.

When designing and launching a management concept, for example, intuitively it seems sensible to try and carve out some space in a relatively uncontested territory, avoiding powerful competitors. Another tactic might be to offer an innovative take on an already popular idea, maybe blending different ideas together. On the other hand, there could be advantages to associating with ideas that have already been explained and gained acceptance and attention, especially as concepts that try to combine elements in unusual ways might prove confusing for an audience.

Without knowing the impact of the three factors – affiliation, local crowding and category spanning – on popularity, evaluating the best strategy is difficult. The challenge was to find a method of measuring that impact. We did this by using keywords from a leading management journal, Harvard Business Review (HBR). The keywords provide a good indication of the main subject matter for each HBR article. Collectively they reflect the management topic landscape over a period of almost 100 years.

Using the yearly frequency of keyword mentions allows a concept's popularity to be tracked over time. And the keyword data can also be used to assess the impact of affiliation, local crowding and category spanning, on the popularity of a target concept. 

For affiliation we looked at the popularity of the keyword concepts that the target concept appears with and how that affects the target concept's popularity.

For local crowding we looked at whether a concept tends to appear with other similar popular concepts. How often does a keyword appear alongside other keywords as a proportion of its total appearances? The higher the proportion, the greater the local crowding.

And for category spanning we looked at whether a concept is used more frequently with just a few other keywords (or alternatively with keywords that are not combined very often).

In total we analysed 16,613 unique keywords from 14,700 articles, with 123,515 mentions in all, covering the period from the first edition of HBR in 1922 through to 2010.

The results track the evolution of management thought over the last century in terms of media popularity. Every management concept that made it to the pages of HBR is there, well-known or otherwise, and we can trace their popularity path through history. More importantly though, with respect to the framing and positioning of management concepts, the findings provide some pointers on how to create a media hit.

For a start they highlight the importance of not just drawing on success stories to formulate the best competitive strategy. For maximising the popularity of management ideas, what works best depends on how popular an idea is at a given time. The best strategy for promoting a highly popular concept is a bad strategy for new, less popular concepts.

Differentiating from popular concepts may seem intuitively attractive for new ideas, but it is the wrong course of action. Instead, it is better to position alongside concepts that are well-known in the hope that the rising tide of popularity lifts all similar concepts – including new ideas.

A good example of how new ideas can flourish in a crowd is the quality movement, which was particularly popular in the 1980s. The drive from Western economies to emulate the manufacturing success of Japan dominated the business and management press at the time and sustained an ecosystem of related concepts, such as Total Quality Management (TQM), the Toyota Production System, Six Sigma, Theory Z, W Edwards Deming's 14 points, and many others.

The results also show that it is better for a new concept to combine elements commonly associated with each other, rather than try innovative combinations that span different categories.

For highly popular concepts, though, a different approach is required. For these concepts following the crowd has a negative impact on popularity. Instead, concepts that are highly popular appear to be strong enough to differentiate, combining ideas in innovative ways, without adverse popularity consequences. Indeed they may need to differentiate to maintain their fame.

This suggests two routes to long term popularity for a new management concept. The first is to bet on being different in the hope that the concept is one of the few to gain traction, achieve success and continue to prosper as an early mover. However, the findings suggest that this is a highly risky strategy. 

An alternative approach is to piggyback on the popularity of existing ideas. Then, once an idea is popular enough, try to differentiate and pivot away from the initial concept. There are examples of highly popular concepts successfully evolving, shifting focus and application, and being reinvented over time. Take innovation guru Clayton Christensen's journey from disruptive innovation in the mid-1990s through to business model innovation in 2016. However, successfully evolving and reinventing a concept may mean navigating issues around external perceptions of legitimacy, credibility and authenticity of the idea.

Our findings support a more scientific approach to the championing of ideas. By tracking media mentions, using keywords for example, it is possible to monitor the popularity of concepts and map the concept landscape. Then, harnessing the power of new technologies such as AI and machine learning, the appropriate PR and communications strategy can be created to maximise a concept's popularity at any particular time. It allows someone promoting an idea to identify and ally with other concepts that are on an upwards trajectory, growing in popularity but still relatively under the radar, rather than ideas that are overexposed or on a downwards trend. It is also a technique that can be used to inform the initial design and framing of a concept.

As a final note, it is important to mention that while the strategy suggested by our findings may maximise popularity in terms of media mentions it does not guarantee adoption in practice (although there may well be a link between the two).

However, by taking a more scientific approach to managing the exposure of a management concept and, rather than proving a transient fad, someone may still be writing about that concept well into the next century.

Further reading:

Denrell, J. and Kovacs, B. 2020, The ecology of management concepts. Strategy Science, 5, 4, 293-368.

Le Mens, G., Denrell, J., Kovács, B. and Karaman, H. 2019, Information sampling, judgment, and the environment : application to the effect of popularity on evaluations. Topics in Cognitive Science, 11, 2, 358-373.


Jerker Denrell is a Professor of Behavioural Science and teaches Quantitative Methods for Business on the suite of MSc Business courses and on MSc International Business.

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