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My question relates to a certain type of opaque pseudo-technical prose that unfortunately is so pervasive in management literature. Authors with this kind of writing style like to make completely arbitrary distinctions between imaginary concepts which are devoid of any internal logical structure, inconsistent throughout the literature even within individual sources, and of highly questionable empirical value. Because of the low information density of such literature, I find it very difficult to retain and it is frustrating me to tears.

How can I approach this kind of literature in a way that allows for satisfactory information retention?

Again the most important characteristics:

  • Extremely low information density
  • Complete lack of academic wit
  • Inconsistent use of unclear terminology throughout
  • Distinctions which are introduced only to be violated
  • High noun-to-verb ratio which obstructs flow

To give you an example from a 'leading' textbook in this field:

The financial perspective specifies the financial performance objectives anticipated from pursuing the organisation's strategy and also the economic consequences of the outcomes expected from achieving the objectives specified from the other [...] perspectives

While this is merely a badly-written, not necessarily difficult sentence, I find it very difficult to pinpoint the central statement or to paraphrase the sentence in such a way that a clear, concise, and informative sentence results. This is typical of the kind of literature I have described above.

To clarify: Ignoring this source -- which I would usually do with literature of this kind -- is not an option as this source is the official textbook for a class I am taking and which I would like to complete. So what I am looking for are little tricks which I can use to maximise retention of this thin material and to extract what's truly important, while efficiently ignoring the rest.

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    I have an MBA from NYU and I have absolutely no idea what the sentence you are quoting means. I'd just ignore it. I have to say that I hate MBA-talk. My standard when someone writes something like that to me is "does it translate into anything that's actionable? Does it translate into anything that I can do with it?" If not, I don't bother with it. I just ignore it. It's garbage. – Vietnhi Phuvan Dec 14 '14 at 21:14
  • I'm glad you share my assessment! Sadly it seems most of the book I am reading is written in this way and ignoring the entire book is not an option. – Constantin Dec 14 '14 at 22:39
  • The unreadability of this book is your cue to seek alternative sources of information - Better to try going around the problem than keep banging your head into the wall. As long as you know which topics you are supposed to go over, you can google your way to the knowledge and if possible, look up more clearly and cleanly written books. Unfortunately, the authors of your book are typical of those authors you will understand only after you have acquired the knowledge - and maybe not even then :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Dec 14 '14 at 22:49
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    In this kind of situation, you need to ask yourself "is this going to be on the exam?" I can almost guarantee you that the contents of this sentence won't be in your exam. You don't want to spend weeks trying to decipher someone's writing only to discover that the prof is going to ask for something else on their exams - You don't have that kind of time and you have other courses to worry about. – Vietnhi Phuvan Dec 14 '14 at 22:58
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    The sentence you quoted is not too bad. The meaning (in plain English) is "When the auditors/supervisors/whatever other authorities ask you what is the "financial perspective" of your Ponzi scheme, you should tell them a) how much money you expect to flee to Bahamas with and b) how many public dollars will be needed to console the angry people left behind". I find it fairly clear, really ;-). – fedja Dec 16 '14 at 2:01
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Last-resort, completely-silly trick: When I had to force myself to read through a particularly awful textbook, I decided to read it aloud to myself in a series of silly voices. That actually did make me pay attention to what I was reading, so I could get the emphasis and inflections right... and perhaps surprisingly, I did find and retain the new ideas I was reading for.

Another approach can be to take it as a translation or editing task. Into another language, or into the same language minus the sequipedalian verbiage and jargon. Again, the goal here is to try to make a bit more of a game out of it so it isn't a completely uphill slog.

Note that if you have any interest in publishing your own textbooks at some point, this can be an excellent education in what not to do... you might want to take notes on that too.

Occasionally, the right answer is not to read the textbook at all and just work from the lecture notes. Or see if you can find a set of Condensed Cream Of Textbook notes somewhere -- Cliff Notes-ish things do exist for some books.

... But in the end, the real answer is "try things and see what works for you."

  • This is the kind of advice I am looking for! – Constantin Dec 15 '14 at 18:29
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I run into the same thing and agree it is frustrating. To decipher the example above, do the following:

Use different coloured highlighters. Separate the sentence at the "and"; this is a clear split between two sub-ideas.

The subject is "financial perspective" so realize that this is what you are defining. The "and" indicates two parts to the definition.

Notice the final subordinate clause for the first section: "pursuing the organisation's strategy." They are asking what the quantitative result is of the strategy.

The second half is stating that another set of objectives exist, and there will be outcomes from those objectives which are not obviously financial (employee morale, innovative ideas, etc.) They are asking what the expected financial return (or loss) would be from achieving those objectives.

I have had to go through entire textbooks analysing ridiculous sentences like this. I feel for you. Breaking the sentences down by highlighting will help tremendously.

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It is a mistake to read any scientific literature like a novel, and especially when you are trying to sift to see if there is anything worth reading at all. Instead, you should take a triage approach, in which you first attempt to determine what, if any, meat an article actually contains.

My own personal triage list goes:

  1. Read the title and abstract. The abstract should tell a story roughly of the form: Context, Problem, Solution, Evidence. If it does not, the article is already in big trouble.
  2. Skim the structure of the paper and look at the figures, especially figures showing results. You should be able to get a sense of what the paper is about and what evidence it is bringing forth from this. In my opinion, every paper needs figures, preferably lots of figures: even the most abstract mathematical symbol manipulation can generally benefit from diagrams that help give intuitions and intellectual roadmaps for the reader.
  3. If there weren't any results in figures, go looking for results in the text. Theorems, numbers, any sort of evidence that they authors actually have produced evidence.

At this point, if you haven't been able to find anything the authors appear to have actually done, it is appropriate to discard the paper as meaningless. If they have done something and you haven't yet been able to penetrate their prose, then if you need to understand what they've done you can start recursing with further passes and dissecting particular sections for material. A nice guide for doing so can be found here.

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    This is very good advice for reading scientific papers. However, the OP is reading a management textbook, which seems to pose distinctive challenges. For instance, in scientific writing I have rarely if ever encountered whole sentences which one suspects are essentially content-free. On the contrary, scientists tend to rebel against this kind of writing: see e.g. philosophynow.org/issues/59/… for a famous example. I think the OP needs an answer more specific to his discipline. – Pete L. Clark Dec 15 '14 at 2:09
  • @PeteL.Clark I have been under the impression that good management literature plays by the same rules as other scientific writing, and that has been my experience in reading it. I've also encountered similar levels of drivel in bad scientific writing in my own field. – jakebeal Dec 15 '14 at 7:08
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    Is management literature a kind of scientific writing? I find that to be a bit of a stretch. (Also: are there really any theorems in management?? Do tell.) I am (sincerely) sorry to hear that content-free writing is familiar in your branch of science: I have not seen it myself (though most of what I read professionally is mathematics, which is not quite science either). The other difference is that you speak of reading papers and the OP is talking about a textbook. As he mentions, discarding the textbook as useless does not seem like a good strategy for his situation. – Pete L. Clark Dec 15 '14 at 7:35
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    "Science does not equal theorems" Indeed. I mentioned theorems because you mentioned them in your answer, and I was trying to understand the connection to management literature. "[R]eading a textbook is just a scaled up version of reading a paper" Well, I must respectfully disagree with that. With regard to encountering drivel in reviewing: no, I haven't. I've encountered papers that are very poor in content and/or expression, including those which contain passages which I would call "trivial", but I can't think of an instance of the sort of vacuity described here. – Pete L. Clark Dec 15 '14 at 8:03
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    @PeteL.Clark It does seem like the sort of papers Jake is talking about here are fairly different from the ones we tend to see in math, as I would say that a lack of figures is rarely a bad sign in math (I would even say that often too many figures could be a really bad sign that the paper is missing some actual content and is trying to pad itself with those figures). – Tobias Kildetoft Dec 15 '14 at 9:32
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Bad writing reflects bad thinking. The 'material' you quoted is basically garbage, and if I were you I would ignore it completely. The old tale of the emperor with no clothes comes to mind here....

Unfortunately in the academic world and the management world this sort of language is all too common.

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Read the intros and conclusions, and skim over any big bullet-points. Most business-speak is bullshit through-and-through. Above all, don't take it seriously.

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Read it quickly, badly and inattentively. Do not try to treat it as if it contained useful content. Definitely do not highlight it in six different colours! Make only the briefest of notes, if any.

Your subconscious will filter out the meaning from the rubbish. That is what it is designed to do. Ask yourself about the book a few days later and if you answer "yes, it had this or that idea in it", then you can go back and have another look.

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