Reflections on the History of Management Thought

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  • Topic: Management, Peter Drucker, Abbott Lawrence Lowell
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  • Published : May 14, 2008
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Reflections on the history of
management thought
William B. Wolf
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
The purpose of this article is to share with the reader some interesting data related to developments in the history of management thought. The central theme is that history is an elusive phenomenon and, in the process of recording it, many of the significant causal forces are lost or little understood. At the outset it seems in order to put what follows into a setting…without such it is apt to be misunderstood and misinterpreted. About 25 years ago I began to explore seriously the development of contemporary management thought. First, I began a critical examination of what the “great” authors in the field said. However, as my research progressed, it became apparent that to teach management one should know not only the literature of the field but also how the “greats” developed their ideas. Thus, starting around 1961, I began a new quest. I began studying the intellectual developments of the key people in the field of management. I personally interviewed many of the recognized contributors to the literature and their associates. Included in my interviews were outstanding people such as Chester Barnard, Peter Drucker, Herbert Simon and William F. Whyte[1]. Furthermore, I explored archival data and, in a sense, attempted to do psycho-biographies of these individuals. My hypothesis was that such knowledge about “great” men in management could help interpretation of their writings. I hoped that this research would give insights to the best ways of teaching students to become excellent managers. A result of my efforts has been the isolation of a number of anecdotes which raise questions relative to the epistemology of the discipline of management – as well as epistemological problems of history in general.

Lawrence J. Henderson
A man who has had a significant impact on the development of much management thinking is Lawrence J. Henderson. He was one of the early pioneers who emphasized the study of organizations as social systems. Many key figures in the development of the field of organization behaviour were influenced directly by Henderson (e.g. Fritz Roethlisberger, co-author of the book Management and the Worker, calls Henderson his intellectual father[2]). Others whom Henderson influenced were George Homans (the noted industrial sociologist), Talcott Parsons who has contributed significantly to the study of organization, and Mary Parker Follet, whose papers are classics on the subjects of authority, control, and conflict management.

The strange fact is that Henderson was a biochemist who taught at Harvard. He was not a sociologist and had little or no background in management. He had trained as a medical doctor. So how did Henderson happen to change from explain how they could predict it, but it was based on what he called intuitive familiarity with the subject. That opened his mind quite a bit. There was an entomologist at Harvard whose name I cannot at the moment recall, I never knew him, who Henderson thought was the best-read man he ever knew. He was not a scientist, but was really a very learned and a very capable fellow in the fields of zoology and so forth. He said to Henderson one day, “You ought to read this book by Pareto!” Henderson said, “I’m not interested in reading what Pareto or anybody else has to say about the social system.” Now I should preface that remark by saying that Henderson was one of the best-read men in literature, German and French literature particularly, that I’ve ever known. It was not because of lack of interest in the humanist side of things, but he just separated the two spheres completely and absolutely. This man said, “But Pareto’s different. I think you will find that it is very much worth your while to read Pareto’s Sociology.” Henderson did and became captivated right away because Pareto’s got a lot of physics and mechanics and chemistry and that kind of an approach, much...
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