A critical history of management thought - Jean Allen

A critical history of management theory.

Submitted by solidaritejrl on October 19, 2013

Authors note: This paper began as a critique of Morgan Witzel’s A History Of Management Thought, a book which was assigned for a graduate course on Organizational & Management Theory. The work, which claims to be a summary of management thought from the beginning of civilization to the modern day, had a large number of apparent flaws and ‘holes’ in its historical structure, but during my critique I swiftly found that the issue was not the text itself, it was the flawed and ideological history that Management has built up around itself. As this realization dawned on me this paper moved from an attempt to ‘plug the holes’ of Witzel’s work--to present a discussion on the power structures of early capitalism which he glosses over--into a critique of modern management thought in general. Throughout this paper I attempted, to what degree I could, to present these ideas and my critique sans jargon and in a self explanatory way. I hope you enjoy.

“How would you arrive at the factor of safety in a man?” Wilson asked
“By a process analogous to that by which we arrive at the same factor in a machine,” he replied.
“Who is to determine this for a man?” asked A.J. Cole, a union representative.
“Specialists,” replied Stimson.
(Kanigel 2005 460)

When a political proposition is made, its political nature is seen, critiqued, its power structures discussed. But if that proposition survives, if it lasts a century or for centuries, it is no longer a proposition. It becomes a social system, a system we are brought up in, a system we are taught within, a system we have a hard time thinking outside of. This is especially true of management thinking.

A hundred years after the Congressional hearing on Frederick W. Taylor’s methods, and after decades of depoliticization, management has come to be seen as a science, a fact of life. In the meanwhile, management academics try desperately to fix the disorganizing effects of management thinking (Addleson 2011 1). What both the layman and the academic miss is that management thought is political and serves to hide and justify the power relationships which occur within the workplace. Within this essay I will discuss the political dimension of management thought through a critique of Morgan Witzel’s A History of Management.

Morgan Witzel’s A History of Management Thought is a task of amazing scope--an attempt to provide a survey of all management thought from the very beginning of civilization, showing that “since the birth of civilization, people have been writing and thinking about problems in management and how to solve them” (Witzel 2011, 2). Despite Witzel’s goal there are significant holes in his narrative--several times he says with surprise that this or that major civilization “did not produce much in the way of notable work on business...[or] administration” (ibid 26). Such a finding is without a doubt ‘strange, even perverse’ (ibid 25), but such major holes suggest a mistake, not so much in archival work as in historical perspective.

History is More Than Looking Back

In R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, he warns against thinking that the past is merely a backwards extension of the present, or thinking of writing history as a merely archival endeavor. Cut-and-paste history, as he calls it, is a school of thinking which attempts to understand the peoples and practices of the past without understanding the thinking of the past, and he calls it a critical misunderstanding of history--a method which turns the study of history into a series of technical problems: “a mere spectacle, something consisting of facts observed and recorded by the historian” (Collingwood 1946, 132).

He argues, instead, that thinking historically requires putting any event or reading within the context of the time, and attempting to put oneself in the shoes of those one writes about (ibid 172-173). This requires understanding the way a different culture or time functions, and appreciating the way that the context of the modern day presses itself on the study of history.

How does this relate to Witzel? Witzel writes very much in the context of his time, where even military or governmental organizations use the language of business and see themselves as businesses. He writes in an age where business and management is explicitly written about in hundreds of journals and self help books, where the development of business is seen as a positive phenomenon.

Our context is very different from even the immediate past. There was little explicit thought on the subjects of business and management until 18th and 19th centuries respectively. Much of the thinking about management and business before this was 'embedded' within society, ie people thought about management or organizations via analogies to other things which were more familiar to them. Without accepting the embedded nature of management thinking--which would recast management thought as an Ideology rather than as a discipline--accessing the past's implicit thinking about management would be difficult if not impossible. This explains the major gaps in Witzel's work before Taylor.

It also leads to a far more interesting question than why one university professor chose to write a history text in a certain way. That is, what happened to change management thinking into an explicit discipline? Throughout history people were able to manage massive organizations and projects without the help of management literature, and even as late as the 20th century there were many people who insisted that management could not be taught or explained to any satisfactory level. What led to the change?

This question--what events led to the emergence of management thought as a discipline rather than as a series of societal beliefs, is the key question of this essay. To answer it, I will examine Witzel's text--as A History of Management Thought is above all else a perfect example of the Whig History management has of itself--while constructing an alternate explanation for the creation of management.

This essay will be organized in three sections corresponding to three eras of management thinking. Through the first section, which will follow the time when management was an implicit mode of thinking, I will discuss three civilizations which Witzel says 'did not have much to say' about management (Rome, Ancien Regime France, and Ming China) as well as others to attempt to explain the hole in his narrative. With the knowledge gained there, the second section--following the 19th century and the evolution of an explicit field of management--will explain the reasons for management's shift into the public light. And in the third section (going over the 20th and 21st centuries), I will will return to discussing the holes in Witzel's narrative and how the origins of management still affect it today.

Noblesse Oblige: Aristocratic Management

Witzel’s choice to begin his discussion of management thinking at the very beginnings of human civilization is both a highly innovative choice and one that leaves open much space for problematic writing. Many traditional histories of management have started with Frederick Taylor’s work or immediately earlier (Witzel 2012 1), and in doing so are able to talk about management thought that occurs in a society relatively similar to ours rather than the massively different societies of the Classical, Medieval, or Enlightenment eras not to mention the management thinking of the rest of the world.

Witzel expresses shock throughout his earlier chapters that this or that major civilization (the Romans, the Chinese) either did not have much to say about management or did not produce anything in the realm of management thought (ibid 26). This seems to be wrong on its face--how could the Chinese or Romans administer massive empires without thinking about the subject of management? Why is it that even as firms did business on a global scale, management thinking existed in an intellectual squalor, only being mentioned on occasion and in passing, which Witzel notes (“most earlier authors did not set out to write works on management” [Witzel 2012 2]) but does not seem to appreciate. This leads to the question: why did management thought not emerge until the dawning of the 20th century? Or more specifically, what changed to necessitate the creation of management thought?

Pre-industrial management thinking was constrained in two ways: the anti-commercial underpinnings of aristocratic society, and the belief in the other-worldly superiority of the aristocrat. These beliefs reinforced each other, leading to a society that did not need and did not want a concentrated literature on business management.

Nearly every pre-industrial society afforded a special rank at the lowest positions in society for the merchant class. Whether via bans on usury as in the West or through the legal-social construction of merchants as a low social class as in India, China, and Japan, business was widely seen as a ‘low’ activity across societies. The only legitimate form of wealth accumulation, from Republican Rome to Ancien Regime France to Ming China, was through land ownership and rents--that is, forms of wealth gained without the exertion of labor (Ranum 1979 197-199; Brooks 1999 278-279). The sons of successful merchants would often give up their business as a way to gain entry into the aristocratic elite, a tendency which could be seen in societies as disparate as 18th century Paris (Ranum 1979 197-199) and 14th century China (Brooks 1999 278-279).

This anti-business viewpoint came from two combined viewpoints--the importance of otherworldly goods and the subsequent distaste for those straining for worldly goods. These otherworldly goods (karma, familial prestige, gentilesse) had in common that they could not be established within one lifetime but instead were gained over multiple generations and lifetimes. But more importantly, these otherworldly goods were thought to provide far greater skill than anything which could be taught: thus even as markets developed in Europe and China they remained something dominated by aristocrats.

This leads to the belief in the inherent superiority of the aristocracy. This belief impeded the development of management thought in two key ways. The first was the idea that aristocrats had inborn abilities which meant that there was little to no need for teaching or even thinking about management. The second was a widescale belief that the poor were subhuman or otherwise incapable of agency, an idea which meant that there was no need to develop a set of ideas based around managing other individuals. These two intellectual products of the feudal economy combined with an allegorical view towards businesses made the development of management thinking unnecessary. It took not one but three revolutions to shake this framework.

That aristocrats had inborn abilities was commonsensical to the people of the pre-Industrial era. Many of the patrician families of Rome claimed to be descended from Gods (Holland 2004 21-22), and both Ming China and Ancien Regime France had a concept of gentlemanliness (in French, gentilhomme and in Chinese junzi), an inborn concept which placed one irrevocably above his peers. Gentillesse was a characteristic that could only be provided through the blood: “the King might create a noble, but not even he could make a gentleman...[gentillesse could only be created] by deeds, heroic deeds, and by time. Two generations usually sufficed” (Ranum 1979 135-136). The gentilhomme was a larger than life character, capable of more destructiveness and more greatness than any mortal could possibly grasp.

The junzi was a remarkably similar character, a person beneath only the sage (a saint like figure) in societal placement. The junzi was literally translated to ‘lords son’, which keeps with the inherited nature of nobility. The junzi, moreover, was defined by his ability to see what the everyman could not: his virtue and knowledge of the classics led to transcendent accomplishments inconceivable to the ‘small minded' (Wilson 2009 xviii).

The gentleman was an anti-business person, explicitly defined in noneconomic terms. The French gentilhomme was a martial and artistic figure while the junzi was at heart an academic living isolated from the world (Brooks 1999 2). In both cases these figures exist without any discussion into the origins of their wealth. But the conception of in-born gentlemanliness challenged management from another front. Witzel notes that as late as the 20th century British business schools would not teach management, believing management to be an “aristocratic x-factor” (Witzel 2012 131), something which could not be taught. This gets to the heart of the problem--why think about management if the ability to lead was simply in the blood? Why not think about, instead, the blood? Pre-industrial societies shared widespread horrors at the possibility of miscegenation, and the societal punishments involved in a gentilhomme family marrying a non-noble one were so strong that no such combination has been found (Ranum 1979 135). Love between the Indian castes was viewed with similar anxiety (Fukuyama 2011 167). This anxiety, and the complicated categories of nobility and peasanthood constructed over the centuries in nearly all societies, lead to a society where inborn abilities were seen as as powerful that “certain physical characteristics exemplifying nobility were intentionally sought out and bred” (Ranum 1979 136).

This belief in the inborn abilities of the nobleman had another side to it: a disbelief in the ability of the poor to think or act for themselves. The Fronde, a civil war in 17th century France, began because the crown considered the nobility as responsible for the revolts of their peasants who were “considered to be something like leashed animals, and when they revolted, the king, the bishops, and the nobility frequently blamed the nobles...for not keeping the peasantry in hand" (Ranum 1979 200). Because the peasants were considered to be ‘childlike’ and obviously followed their superior masters, revolts along the Seine valley were considered to be aristocratic plots rather than a reaction by individual actors.

A similar example of individuality being viewed as either an aberration or as the purposeful malice of the master can be seen in the American south. During the 19th century, a pseudo-science was built around understanding the origins of slave revolts and runaways. The idea of Drapetomania, that is, the irrational want to run away from one’s masters, was prescribed as a reaction slaves had to masters “attempting to raise him to a level with himself” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html). That the position of the African slave is given as “the Deity’s will” (ibid) is a common trend which occurs in readings from all over the world in the preindustrial era.

The belief in a hierarchy ordained by a divine being (or by the laws of science) permeated nearly all pre-Industrial cultures, manifesting in different ways in different societies. In India it manifested as literal castes (Fukuyama 2011 164-167), in China in the ‘Nine Ranks’ (ibid 146), in Europe as the Gentilesse/Noblesse/bourgeoisie/peasant distinction. This hierarchy created an interlocking set of beliefs which destroyed the need for management thinking. These beliefs--in the supernatural and inborn powers of the nobility, in the lack of agency of the lower classes, in the unimportance of business--combined into a feudal ideology which devalued the idea of social mobility, devalued the individual excepting the aristocratic individual, denied the agency of the lower classes and devalued the unheroic task of running a business. Combined, they formed a social system which allowed very little room outside of it. If nobility is inborn and nobility is only gained through ‘heroic’ acts, why care about running a business? If the peasants had little to no agency, why think about managing them? If social mobility is de facto impossible except through the state and the nobility, why invest one’s time in a business when a title is clearly so much more important?

This set of questions explains Wiztel’s surprise in finding little to no development ion management thinking in Chinese, French, or Roman cultures--they thought about management analogically, through metaphors to leadership (which they considered inborn) and the family. The workplace--the prime focus of management--was seen as merely another, inferior, aspect within society. Furthermore, management rests on an a priori assumption of a relatively equal relationship between the boss and the worker--the worker could be fired, the worker could work poorly, the worker could leave but in management the worker is assumed to have agency--which did not (intellectually) exist within the latifunda workplace. The general examples that Witzel finds of proto-management in the pre-Enlightenment era occurred in exceptional cases where upheaval destroyed the idea of inborn ability (Machiavelli’s Il Principe was written to the victor in an assumed coup, an event which occurred often in Italian city states), or in the case of something considered more important (warfare). This intersecting set of ideas was so strong that it took centuries before it started to fall apart.

The Republic In the Workshop — Management as Reaction

The general notion of history is as a march to the present. It is the mistake of every society to think that the zeitgeist of the present day came about as the result of a series of won compromises and that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds”. The general history of America takes this viewpoint. The Founding Fathers are not seen as revolutionaries in their time--promoting a radically different system than what had came before--but as conservative figures in our time, promoting the current system that we have. Each step in American history is seen as a step towards the present that could only have gone one way when in reality each event had an infinite number of possible conclusions. From the perspective of the contemporaries of Washington, Jackson, or Lincoln, it was not so obvious where the events of their lifetime would lead.

I say this because Witzel’s history of management is written in a similar line--management is depicted as a problem solving methodology (Witzel 2011 81), which would have emerged in roughly the same form regardless of the thinking of Tyler or of the events of the 19th century. Management was simply an answer to the organizational problem of factory life, which came contextless into the world. I will argue in this section that once management is put in its political context it becomes far less innocuous.

While the feudal ideology I described in the last section was collapsing in Europe over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was only with the events of the late 18th century--the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution--that finally broke the back of the aristocratic notion of inequality among the classes. It was the notion of equality, first conceived by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and then given form by the republican governments of France, the United States, and Britain, which attacked both the notion of inborn ability by allowing any man to stand for office and the idea that the poor had no agency by allowing the poor to vote.

These movements were thought to have occurred naturally--that the abolition of slavery or the extention of the franchise were a natural outgrowth of the birth of capitalist democracy. Hierarchical structures like slavery, the caste system, and noble privileges were economically “inefficient”, and thus their dissolution was inevitable (Fukuyama 2011 164-165). Such a construction ignores that these orders were as ideologically rooted and that the deconstruction of these orders was revolutionary in its time. And even if we accept that slavery’s dissolution was inevitable, the way in which an event occurs and what exactly replaces it is just as important as the event of dissolution itself.

Similarly, even if we take the eventual development of a field of scientifically minded management as a given, the kind of management thought that developed was just as important as the fact that a form of management thought emerged. Multiple strands of management thought grew at once in the late 19th century and despite much of Taylor’s work being based on forgeries (New Yorker 2009 ”Not so fast”) scientific management dominated all other forms of management in the early 20th century. This is because scientific management was about more than merely solving problems: it was an ideological response to the threat of socialist and democratic movements who sought to bring the logics of republicanism into the workplace.

Manifestations of this tension appeared throughout the Western world during the early 19th century. Recent scholarship has found that Marx was influenced a great deal by the American workmans parties and the Knights of Labor, who advocated the redistribution of property. Their reasoning had its roots in juxtaposition of liberty in the voting booth combined with autocracy in the working floor: “the consequence [of capitalistic relations] now is, that while the government is republican, society in its general features, is as regal as it is in England” (The Jacobin 2012 “Wage Slavery and Republican Liberty”). The Workies pamphlets also featured a discussion of the similarities between chattel and wage slavery: “For he, in all countries is a slave, who must work more for another than that other must work for him...whether the sword of victory hew down the liberty of the captive...or whether the sword of want extort our consent, as it were, to a voluntary slavery, through a denial to us of the materials of nature…” (ibid). From this point to the Civil War, it was not entirely clear whether the abolition would stop at the emancipation of chattel slaves, and Union officials used emancipatory rhetoric through the 19th and early 20th centuries (Beaty 2008 “The Rome of the Railroads”).

Similar events occurred in France. After the 1830 July Revolution, French workers waited “for the introduction of the republic in the workshop”. The “applied republic”, that is a democracy which was replicated within the workplace, was a common call during the July Monarchy and the Second Republic . It was in France during the election of 1848 that the first divergence emerged between “a social republicanism, seeking direct application of republican principles in the economic sphere, and a republicanism that sought to restrict these principles to the political sphere” (Politicsinspires.com 2013 “Revolutionary France and the social republic that never was”), with the republicans winning.

Despite the victories of capitalistic republicanism in the early 19th century, social democratic parties and movements continued to gain strength, with the German Social Democratic party becoming the largest single party in the country (Anderson 2000 273). The French created a word, sinistrisme, to describe the situation of the 3rd Republic wherein the leftist parties of one generation would become the right of the next as increasingly socialistic parties appeared and took their place (http://dictionary.sensagent.com/sinistrisme/en-en/). The reason for the continued decay of the 19th century rightist parties was their tendency to use traditionalistic (that is, reliant on the feudal ideology I explained in the last section) justifications for the injustices of society, and the reason that Taylorism was so successful was that it finally presented a new and comprehensive argument against republicanism in the workplace: by creating “one best way” for all workers the manager is able to make everyone better off.

This argument (if the workers were only to sublimate their desire for agency gained via social movements and their relationships with each other into a desire for agency gained via the piece-rate system and their contract with their manager then everyone would be better off) was able to convince such social justice advocates as Louis Brandeis (New Yorker 2009 ”Not so fast”), and leads Witzel to see anti-capitalist critiques as merely desires for better management (Witzel 2011 80).

This shows the degree to which Tayloristic thinking has survived within management: the problem of workers asking for representation is changed into the problem of workers needing better managers. That is, a problem involving class conflict is turned into merely a problem of insufficiently skilled elites: it is notable that the union movement has no part to play in Witzel’s history. By viewing the problem of worker’s dissent as a technical problem, Witzel is able to argue that the answer was “to make management more efficient and to restore harmony with the workers” (ibid 83). In effect, Witzel was able to erase the ideological aspect of both scientific management and the workers movements and to present a movement which disempowered workers as the restoration of harmony.

Taylor’s process--to watch a laborer at work, design a better way to do that job, and then to require each and every worker to work at that pace--disempowered workers in several ways. Firstly, it deskilled the job of craftsman, turning autonomous workers into pseudo-automated machines without knowledge of their subject which could be used without the manager's assent (The Jacobin, “The rise of the machines”). Secondly, it applied the division of labor hierarchically--all thinking to be done about the nature of the job and the task was to be done by management and the consultant (a division shown by consistent comparison of the manager to the ‘brain’ in organic metaphors of management and organizations (Witzel 2011 190). Thirdly, by arguing that most firms were inefficient and that the “scientific" methods applied by experts were superior to rule of thumb methods, Taylor was implicitly denying the worker’s own experience and knowledge. Lastly, it applied those two processes not under the old arguments that managers were simply born as leaders, metaphors which were clearly unpopular as seen in France where old-rightist parties died out within two generations. Rather, these processes were applied under a new argument: that it was more efficient to deskill, mechanize, and autocratize the workplace, and that to argue against this process was to hurt the whole.

In a time when democratic ideals were increasingly becoming the norm and were spilling out into the factory floor, Taylor was able to create an ideology which denied democracy to the workplace which was not founded on aristocratic ideas of an otherworldly hierarchical order. This allowed one to be simultaneously a democrat in general while being an autocrat in the workplace. The contradiction of capitalistic republicanism, while not resolved, was now obfuscated.

The Abysmal Science and the Pathologies of Management

If economics is the dismal science because it the needs of 'science’ requires a perfect seeming model which rests on many of assumptions, then management is the abysmal science because even after expressing all of its arguments through algebraic notation and even after constructing highly complicated models meant to create computer simulations (Bardach 1993), it is still deals entirely with the most difficult of variables: unabstracted, individual, human beings, and under a highly mutable criterion: efficiency.

The first issue of management is that any problem involving the interaction of human beings in the social sphere is a wicked problem, which is a problem as much of interpretation and meaning construction as it is a real problem of ‘objective’ interests. Wicked problems are highly contextual which interacts badly with scientific management’s claim of ‘one best way’s and universalism.

The second problem of any scientific management is with the idea of efficiency. Deborah Stone, in her work Policy Paradox, notes that efficiency is an almost completely subjective measure, that is what is efficient for one actor may be inefficient for another (Stone 2002 61). It is also comparative: something is only efficient in comparison to something that is inefficient. Management has simultaneously constructed efficiency as the manager’s efficiency, erasing the perspectives of the infinite other actors who’s lives could be ‘more efficient’ at the sacrifice of the manager.

It is fully possible to create a rigorous field of study under these conditions: psychology, philosophy, and history all deal with these problems. However, management has not responded to the problems of unclear criterion and mutable variables by embracing critical methods. Instead, management has structured and presented itself more and more as if it were a hard science dealing with the interactions of protons and electrons rather than the interactions of people (Witzel 2012 184). Efficiency has been discussed as if it were an objective physically extant variable rather than a construction that was then reconstructed in a specific way. Over and over again the vacuous baubles of the org chart and process chart have been embraced, leading to expensive reorganizations which do nothing but redraw the chart. Indeed management’s continued embrace of scientistic discussion has led to an overfocus on the organization (which, like efficiency, is treated like an objective physically extant object rather than a construction) leading to a management thought which does not have much to say about work and people--supposedly the two subjects of the discipline (Addelson 2012 22). And despite all of this faux-scientism, management has become inundated by pseudo-academic gurus who pump out books that tell people that they can take charge in the workplace in X easy steps by the hundreds (ibid 232).

All of these trends emerge from management’s original sin: that it was not created as way to create knowledge. Instead it emerged in response to two needs: firstly, as I have said, the need to create a coherent justification for authoritarianism in the workplace, and secondly, the anxiety of managers who want easy answers to their immensely difficult problems. Management, rather than evolving from its origins, has remained an ideology: a field of explicit knowledge based on implicit and unquestioned views. Because management stands on (largely up until recently) unquestioned notions, the discipline has found itself riven with pathologies of its own making, that is management is finding itself breaking apart even within its own rules.

The pseudo-scientific methods of the gurus are an example of this. While they are decried by management scholars their methods are actually highly similar to Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. During one of Taylor’s consultations, he asked 12 of the strongest men in a factory to simply ‘work harder’, guessed that under this level of work these men could haul 72 tons of steel (which he rounded to 75) instead of 42, and then set 75 tons of steel as the minimum amount of steel one could haul per day. This is not the seed of a rigorous field of knowledge (New Yorker 2009 “Not So Fast”)1.

While scientific management has not succeeded in providing answers to the problems of the manager, it has succeeded in building a highly resilient ideology around itself, an ideology that has been based on the aping of scientific methods. The result has been the successful depoliticization of Taylor’s ideological assertion of authoritarianism in the workplace and the continuation of the ‘gospel of efficiency’ to the degree that people now talk of efficiency as if it were an objective measure. However, the trends which have emerged from management’s original sin have started to become highly problematic, not only for those on the outside of the discipline but for the discipline’s practitioners.

Disciplinization and the ‘silo effect’ is one of the pathologies which has emerged from management’s attempts to don scientific garb. While the splitting up of management into different sub-disciplines has as much to do with the m-form organization (a way of organizing firms wherein each task would have its own department/division, an organizational method which had its roots in the divisional structure of armed forces (Witzel 2012 163) as it does with the academy, the silo effect, which is the complete separation of the management sub-disciplines into their own self contained worlds academically and creating fiefdoms within organizations, is one of management’s major pathologies. This phenomena has two aspects--the academic aspect (the silo effect which occurs in the academy) and the practical aspect (the silo effect that occurs in the workplace). I will explain each in turn.

The academic aspect of the silo effect emerges straight from management’s origins. The belief in the need for experts and the simultaneous disbelief in the importance of the lived experience of the workers creates a need for a highly specialized expert class with knowledge which is independent of the workplace--that is a managerial class with a “view from the top” rather than a view from the workplace (Addleson 2011 15). And at the same time, scientific management and its successors have little to say about power relationships within the workplace. This dual absence--the absence of work and power from management--has exerted a centrifugal force on the management discipline, leading to disparate sub-disciplines.

A look at an example of good organizing, the Valve company, shows why such a sub-disciplinary trend is necessary from a control mindset. In the Valve company, there are no formal control structures, everyone is allowed to move around, and because of this, everyone, from the accountants to the lawyers to the managerial executives, is asked to gain a degree of knowledge in programming, which is the company’s specialty (Valve 2012 39-40). Without a rigid command structure originating from an invented concept, Valve requires everyone to have a common language and thus asks for T-shaped people (that is, generalists who also have a specific capability), because commonly held knowledge allows for easier collaboration (ibid 42). This syncretic, ‘liberal arts’ viewpoint of management is exactly the opposite of mainstream management teaching and thinking, because management is not concerned with work.

Instead management takes as its focused the invented concept of the organization, and how to best rule that invented concept. From this highly sterilized viewpoint, hierarchies become so necessary that they are rarely thought about--the authoritarianism in the workplace which was so problematic in the 19th century has been reconstructed as a battle between efficiency and equality, a battle which goes unquestioned (Stone 2002 80). Furthermore syncretic knowledge is unnecessary because tasks are split into their component parts, allowing each part to be done by a specialist (a phenomenon which would not be unfamiliar to Taylor or Ford) (Witzel 2012 191). This factory viewpoint leads to necessary overspecialization by academics and management students, because cooperation between the highly disparate parts is assumed.

Yet when management students come to the workplace they find that cooperation is rarely forthcoming. Because management has historically seen all of the things which grease the wheels of cooperation--talking and building social relationships within one’s job--as unnecessary and wasteful (Addleson 2011 22). Furthermore, when cooperation is modeled by management thinkers, it often looks little like what we would think of when we think of cooperation. Works like Bardach’s Developmental Dynamics: Interagency Collaboration as an Emergent Phenomenon places ‘acceptance of leadership’ as one of the key steps/goals of collaboration while simultaneously complaining of agencies which worry about “imperialistically minded agencies [which] might steal a march on them” (Bardach 2001 153, 157).

This fear of collaboration leading to annexation emerges from management’s lack of focus on the work and on management’s competitive mindset. Because ‘the work’ is seen as comparatively unimportant compared to the need for control, collaboration must be done for some other goal besides merely getting things done. And because competition is seen as more important than cooperation, management often transforms cooperation into a competitive act--for instance the imperialistic theories which Bardach uses wherein each step is a step towards control. In such an environment there is little reason to cooperate, leading to the silo effect within the workplace.

But what is tragic about management is that despite the pathologies and its inability to provide technical solutions to wicked problems, its logic has become massively powerful within our body politic. The growing influence of management thinking over politics will be the focus of the next section.

Managing society, or “I know the system works, I also know that not everyone follows the system”

While modern day management has failed in many respects, its promise of technical solutions to wicked problems has made it hugely successful as an intellectual lens. We can see this because even while management academics try to find a new form of management, they wring their hands about loss of control and the chaos brought by equality. Even Valve, a model of new management, asks ”So if every employee is autonomously making his or her own decisions, how is that not chaos?” (Valve 2012 23).

Management thinking, despite its flaws and pathologies has moved out of the workplace to become a part of the contemporary zeitgeist. This has produced two strange juxtapositions--firstly, while the pre-Industrial world saw business only via analogies to more important institutions, in the modern day business has become the sole operating lens through which other institutions are viewed. We see government, the arts, non-profits and even families as analogous to businesses and thus reduce them to a specific kind of economic lens.

Secondly, due to this domination, management, which was once used to defend authoritarianism in the workplace, has now become a way to argue for authoritarianism in the body politic. In our modern system we are such advocates for democratic systems that we are willing to go to war to establish it in other countries, while being unwilling to establish democracy in the workplace. We believe that man is worthy enough to weight in on matters of national security, the country’s economic system, and even how one’s schools should be run, yet we do not believe that man can be trusted to have a say in the events that go on in their workplace. The paradox of democratic capitalism which produced management has now been wholly obfuscated by it.

A perfect example of this is the discussion of the role of the president in our political system. A massive series of worried articles have come out in the last 4 years saying that the job of the president “is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership” (New York Times 2012 “No Bully in the Pulpit”). As Ezra Klein notes, this concept “is not quite clear enough to rise to the level of wrong...it’s impossible to argue with these columns because they never actually say what they’re about. If Noonan or Dowd explained what the president should actually do, we could have a discussion. But they don’t, presumably because they can’t.” (Washington Post 2012 “Politics is not here to please you”). These vague requests emerge from the powerful yet meaningless demands of management thought and the way that they have mapped onto our politics. Just as management is absolutely sure of the need for an authoritarian manager while having vague answers for what a manager should do in any situation, in politics we know we need an authoritarian president so he can do something instead of listen to parliamentarians bicker over what to do, we just do not have an idea of what exactly we need that authoritarian president to do.

Similarly, so many policy arguments in the public sphere have been reduced to great man-ist arguments. The “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics”, also known as the “Confidence Fairy Theory"--the idea that “the only thing limiting us [in foreign policy] is a lack of willpower” (Nyhan 2009 “The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency”) has been used by conservatives and liberals alike to attack non-managerial approaches to policy. Practically, the idea of ‘willpower’ and 'confidence’ is so vacuous that the idea that it is used in foreign policy talks seriously is almost laughable. But the ‘willpower’ argument is used to argue for an authoritarian figure in public policy just as scientific management is used to argue for an authoritarian figure in the workplace. In fact, things have devolved--we are so entranced by the power of authoritarian figures that our arguments are reminiscent of the faux psychologists who diagnosed slaves with drapetomania: the confidence argument has been used practically to argue that merely treating foreign rulers with respect--for instance, bowing to a foreign king (Washington Post 2011 “Obama ‘bowing to foreign dictators’ — and his golf game”) weakens the confidence other countries have in our power and our will to use that power.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the supposed total victory of democracy over all the tyrants of the world, a new earning for autocrats is being expressed everywhere, from the fringes of the left to mainstream neoconservativism to libertarianism. This autocratic argument is new: it is not the old feudalistic argument for a person who represents the father of the whole nation. It is instead expressed in the language of Taylor, and the desire to transform our messy and muddled political arguments into the idealized hierarchy envisioned by management. Phrases like “It is for the experts to present the situation in its complexity, and it is for the Master to simplify it to a point of decision” appear even from leftist sources (The New Statesman 2013, “The Simple Courage of Decision”). The idea that if only we were more courageous, willful, and authoritarian that we would be able to make the hard decisions easy, that within each wicked problem is a technical answer which we could find if only we had an authoritarian figure with enough willpower steps from the faith we still have to the system of scientific management. We believe that, like fairies, the manager will only be able to provide us with the easy answers if we believe in the system enough.

These emerging trends, which came out of scientific management to become far larger than the factory workplace it originated in, are hugely problematic: the belief in society of simply and rational answers is so enmeshed that any of its failures are attributed to the failures of individuals. This belief is larger than management and the schisms within the management field: just as positivism is based on a very particular and superficial notion of the hard sciences (Collingwood 1943 126), our current management norms are based on a very superficial idea of modern management thinking.

The line of thinking which I have been discussing is not directly connected to 'the work’ (Addleson 2012 22) but rather to an idealized view of the way that workplaces should work. This is because this line of thinking has always been about control rather than results, and due to this the changes that have occurred within management academia have had little effect on management as it is practiced. In Witzel’s last chapter he does bemoan the disconnect between management and management academia, saying that “management thinking is now the province of the academic” (Witzel 2012 238). This is not, strictly speaking, true: management fads and gurus have in many ways a broader audience than management academia. This is even more problematic than the possibility Witzel (rightly) presents, that management may be obsoleting itself by closing itself to the nonacademic world (ibid): because management academia has a far better ability to turn management into a truly intellectually rigorous field--in which both the theories and assumptions of management are questioned with the goal of creating more knowledge rather than upholding an ideological framework based on control--than the guru cottage industry is, management academia’s willingness to specialize and ostracize itself into obscurity is highly worrisome.

This gap desperately need to be breached if management is to become less problematic. But that is not enough. Larger participation by different parts of society, including workers, in management needs to occur both at the practical and academic levels in order to get organizations focused back on work and interpersonal relations. The larger problematic attitudes of society towards management need to be deconstructed at every level--simply attacking them in the academy will not be enough. To some degree, the goal is obvious--a more inclusive and democratic view of management is necessary. It is necessary both because it 'works’ but also because an affirmation of human value in the workplace has long been necessary. But while being simple, the task is immensely difficult. We will need to rebuild our labor organizations, to fight with management, to attack the very ideology of the current age. To some it may seem impossible.

But democracy in the workplace is a worthy ideal. It will help restore the agency of the worker, help create a more fulfilling workplace, and it will allow us to better utilize the people’s intelligence. Enough of this century long derailment, it is now time--as Peter Drucker put it--to declare management dead, and forge a new path into a more democratic future.

This article originally appeared in Solidarité Journal of the Radical Left (September-October 2013)


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10 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Picket on October 23, 2013

great read thanks :)