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Reflections On The History Of Management Thought

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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 вЂ"

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 of which is obsolete today. That’s what got Henderson excited

about it. Then he got into some disputes with other people about it, especially with a cousin of

his who was a professor at Yale, Yandell Henderson. He got himself into a polemic position

where he was fighting everybody all the time on behalf of Pareto[3].

The entomologist who encouraged Henderson to read Pareto was the Harvard

professor, William Morton Wheeler. Wheeler was an expert on social insects.

He wrote several classics on social behaviour among insects, e.g. Ants: Their




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