“What Managers Do: A Brief History Of Management Theory”

In the 130 years since Frederick Taylor took out his stopwatch and timed the activities of workers at the Midvale Steel Company in order to lay the foundations for a scientific understanding of work and how it can be guided and controlled, successive waves of new thinking have refined our understanding of what management is and what managers do.

Taylor’s work led to decades of similar studies and the establishment of Scientific Management, which focused on workers and task performance.

Around the same time, the French mining engineer and industrialist Henri Fayol was examining how individuals who supervised workers and work processes functioned. Fayol observed these “managers” planning, commanding, coordinating, organizing and controlling the process of work and production. Successive inquiries by Fayol and others led to an understanding of Administrative Management. And Fayol’s functions of management were condensed to planning, organizing, leading and controlling.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s studies were conducted at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago to see if altering aspects of the working environment could improve productivity. Initially the tests focused on the impact of different light levels on worker productivity. What emerged was that the study itself seemed to have an impact on productivity as workers responded to the attention being paid to them as subjects in the study. Elton Mayo, an anthropologist from Harvard University, was attached to the study group to design further study situations and investigate the behavioural responses and psychology of study subjects to understand what became known as the Hawthorne Effect. With this work it became clear that an understanding of human behaviour would be an important component in the evolving knowledge of management.

These three approaches to understanding management–the science of production and work, the administration of production and work, and the behavioural underpinnings of production and work–supported a dramatic surge of inquiry and study of management theory during the post World War II economic boom, a surge that continued well into the second half of the 20th Century. The results of these inquiries are reflected in the study of Organization Development, Systems Theory, the adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theories to an understanding of employee motivation, the delineation of leadership and management roles and practices, the nature and role of excellence in management, the notion of the learning organization and the five disciplines needed to make such an organization work.

Organization Development came out of the study of group dynamics as applied to businesses and manufacturers. It originated in the work of the research Center for Group Dynamics, founded by Kurt Lewin, a psychologist at MIT. The Center conducted research to determine how behavioural science can be employed at various levels of an organization to bring about planned change.

Sociotechnical Systems Theory grew out of research work conducted at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, England. Researchers worked to develop methods of job design that included both social and technical aspects, recognizing that there are subsystems within the overall organizational design. There is an environmental subsystem, a technical subsystem(which includes procedures and related knowledge as well as particular technologies), and a social subsystem. 

Consistent with these approaches, social scientists turned to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory to examine aspects of human behaviour that impacted on the theories of management that were evolving. Psychology was brought to bear on understanding the motivations of workers and managers alike. This approach was reflected in the Theory X and Theory Y  discussions in the 1960s that impacted the design and implementation of personnel policies and practices that underlay developing Human Resources Management.

All of these approaches continues during the 60s and 70s and were reflected in the concepts of Action Learning in Europe, and the Management Grid and Performance Technology in North America. These efforts focused on developing behavioural-engineering models with accomplishment specifications as the starting points in the development of performance standards.

One of the by-products of these efforts was Thom Peter’s “In Search of Excellence”, which looked at 47 of America’s greatest companies and identified eight common factors that made them great. Most of these factors reflected the discoveries that modern students of management were identifying as important:

  1. Bias for action
  2. Close to the customer
  3. Fostering innovation and nurturing “champions”
  4. Productivity through people
  5. Hands-on, value-driven: management
  6. Staying with the business that you know
  7. Simple form, lean staff 
  8. Autonomy within shop-floor activities guided by centralized values and visions.

Discussions like these led very naturally to the concept of the Learning Organization, as put forward by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”. A learning organization is one that understands itself as a complex, organic system that has a vision and purpose. To succeed, the organization must encourage and value teams and leadership at all levels.

All of this represents a great amount of study and research, and quantum leaps in our understanding of the role human behaviour and psychology in the workplace. I will look at some aspects of all of this in future articles, but will do so firmly focused on a fundamental concern with what is management and what is it that managers do.

Stated most simply, management is the processes of coordinating and integrating work activities so that they’re completed efficiently and effectively with and through other people. Efficiency reflects a relationship between inputs and outputs that minimizes resource costs. Effectiveness reflects the attainment of chosen goals.

Managers are the individuals within an organization designated to direct and coordinate the activities of others to attain the goals of the management process.

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