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Gurus' magic fix-it potions can turn out to be hemlock

The Witch Doctors:

Making Sense of the Management Gurus

By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

(Times Books, $25)

"I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, ineffectiveness and demoralization."

_ Gaius Petronius, court counsel to Roman Emperor Nero, as quoted in The Witch Doctors

Many of today's corporate managers probably would shout "amen" to Petronius' nearly 2,000-year-old lament over the remedies applied to troubled organizations.

The pattern is as classic as Rome itself: A corporation's earnings fluctuate because of factors like labor costs or competition; shareholders complain to the board of directors, which directs management to fix the problem immediately.

Enter the management gurus who advocate reinventing or re-engineering corporations. The consultants typically recommend giving employees more authority and organizing people from different departments into teams.

But their corporate clients often translate this advice into massive shake-ups and cost reductions, particularly in the form of layoffs, according to The Witch Doctors, a superbly written book about management theory and its promoters.

These reorganizations and employee reductions might temporarily improve a company's balance sheet, yet many times the negative long-term effects _ low employee morale, anxiety over job security, distrust of management _ can be crippling, the book says.

Consider AT&T, which "has long been a playground for the gurus, forever calling in consultants or sending staff members on management courses," write authors John Micklethwait, business editor of The Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, an Economist correspondent who writes about management issues.

AT&T has laid off nearly 70,000 people over the past 10 years, and last year AT&T boss Bob Allen announced 28,000 more job reductions, the book says. AT&T workers sometimes joke that one day the company's abbreviation might stand for Allen and Two Temps.

One of AT&T's management consultants is Stephen Covey, a Brigham Young University management professor who wrote the best-seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He gives seminars around the country (including one in Tampa last month) and runs the Covey Leadership Center, which leases part of Robert Redford's Utah retreat to conduct weeklong seminars.

The participants, which include AT&T executives, spend their time reading Plato, Confucius and Ben Franklin, assembling Covey's patented personal organizer and mountain climbing together, the book says.

"It would be interesting to know how many of the AT&T managers who scampered around the mountains with Covey were later downsized in the telecommunications giant's huge restructuring _ and even more interesting to know how many returned from Provo to plot that restructuring," Micklethwait and Wooldridge write.

Still, there are some effective management theorists out there, the book says, citing famed management expert Peter Drucker's books as an example of substantive and useful commentary on management theory.

And the authors provide sensible advice for executives considering the use of management gurus. Read their books carefully and thoroughly, they advise. Go slowly: Heeding advice too quickly can have disastrous effects down the road.

Most importantly, be selective.

"Nothing is more witch-doctorish than the suggestion that one magic potion will cure all ills," Micklethwait and Wooldridge write.

_ George L. Fleming is a Times correspondent.