How management style has evolved across the centuries

feature-management-century-200To pinpoint a place and time that the first glints of the management century appeared on the horizon, consider Chicago, May 1886.

There, Henry R Towne, a co-founder of the Yale Lock Manufacturing Company, asserted in a speech that “the management of works has become a matter of such great and far-reaching importance as perhaps to justify its classification also as one of the modern arts.”

During the century that followed, management as we know it would come into being and shape the world in which we work. Three eras punctuate the period from the 1880s until today. In the first, the years until World War II, aspirations to scientific exactitude gave wings to the ambitions of a new, self-proclaimed managerial elite.

The late 1940s until about 1980 was managerialism’s era of good feelings, its apogee of self-confidence and widespread public support.

The third and ongoing era has been marked by a kind of retreat – into specialisation, servitude to market forces and declining moral ambitions. But it has also been an era of global triumph, measured by agreement on certain key ideas, steadily improving productivity, the worldwide march of the MBA degree and a general elevation of expectations about how workers should be treated.

The age of ‘scientific management’

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the US was shifting – uneasily – from a loosely-connected world of small towns, small businesses and agriculture to an industrialised network of cities, factories and large companies linked by rail. A rising middle class was professionalising and mounting a progressive push against corrupt political bosses and the finance capitalists, who were busy consolidating industries such as oil and steel.

Progressives claimed special wisdom rooted in science and captured in processes. Frederick Taylor, who wrote that “the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules, and principles”, clearly counted himself in their camp. The publication, in 1911, of Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management set off a century-long quest for the right balance between the “things of production” and the “humanity of production”, as the Englishman Oliver Sheldon put it in 1923. Or, as some would have it, between the “numbers people” and the “people people”. It’s the key tension that has defined management thinking.

Management triumphant

Beginning with Concept of the Corporation (1946) and continuing through The Practice of Management (1954) and Managing for Results (1964), Peter Drucker laid out a vision of the corporation as a social institution in which the capacity and potential of everyone involved were to be respected.

The overall thrust of post-war managerial thinkers was to elevate the “humanity of production”. Workers will be most productive, the reasoning went, if they’re respected and if managers rely on them to motivate themselves and solve problems on their own. Not that the old order went down without a fight. After researching General Motors, Drucker persuaded rising GM executive Charlie Wilson to propose a set of reforms including greater autonomy for plant managers and what we’d call “worker empowerment” today. Two forces killed the idea. One was the rest of GM management, including CEO Alfred P Sloan. The other was the United Auto Workers, in the person of Walter Reuther, who wanted no blurring of the line between management and labour.

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