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Discovering management
Discovering management

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1.2.1 The split in the field of management

The field of management has long been marked by a conflict between two competing views of professional knowledge. On the first view, the manager is a technician whose practice consists of applying to the everyday problems of the organisation the principles and methods derived from management science. On the second, the manager is a craftsman, a practitioner of an art of managing that cannot be reduced to explicit rules and theories. The first view dates from the early decades of the twentieth century when the idea of professional management first came into good currency. The second has an even longer history, management having been understood as an art, a matter of skill and wisdom, long before it began to be understood as a body of techniques. But the first view has gained steadily in power. 

The idea of management science, and the complementary idea of the manager as a technician, has been carried by a social movement which has spread out from its centre in the United States to encompass the whole of the industrialised world. The origins of this movement are difficult to identify, but a critically important milestone in its development was the work of Frederick Taylor who, in the 1920s, conceived of management as a form of human engineering based on a science of work. While Taylor may not have invented these ideas, he was certainly the first to embody them in a practice of industrial management and consultation, and he popularised them in a way that has had enormous influence in industry, in business, and in the administration of public agencies.

Taylor treated work as a man/machine process which could be decomposed into measurable units of activity. Every industrial process, from the shovelling of coal to the processing of steel, could be subjected to experimental analysis. The design of tools, the bodily movements of the worker, and the sequencing of production steps, could be combined in an optimum configuration, a ‘one best way.’ Taylor saw the industrial manager as a designer of work, a controller and monitor of performance, and a distributor of rewards and punishments carefully selected and applied so as to yield optimally efficient production. Above all, he saw the manager as an on-line experimenter, a scientist in action, whose practice would consist in the trial and measurement of designs and methods aimed at the discovery and implementation of the one best way.

Taylor’s views were not unique. Thorstein Veblen, to take one extraordinary example, also perceived that industry had taken on the characteristics of an organisational machine within which managers of the business enterprise must be increasingly concerned with standards, measures of performance, and the articulation of interlocking activities. But it was Taylor who embodied these ideas in practice, and it was Taylor’s version of the practice of industrial engineering, efficiency expertise, and time and motion study which has evolved into the management science of the present day.

World War II gave an enormous impetus to the management science movement, first, because of the general rise in prestige of science and technology, and second, because of the birth of operations research and systems theory. These disciplines, which grew out of the use of applied mathematics to solve problems of submarine search and bomb tracking, were later exported to industry, commerce, and government. In the wake of World War II, management science grew to maturity. Teachers and researchers in the new schools of management, in partnerships with managers in public and private sectors, have engendered a plethora of new techniques. There is no field of management which has been immune to the incursions of management science. What was once true only of industrial production has now become true of sales, personnel selection and training, budgeting and financial control, marketing, business policy, and strategic planning. Technical panaceas have appeared on the scene with clocklike regularity, old ones making way for new. Value analysis, management by objectives, planning, programming and budgeting, and zero-based budgeting are only a few of the better-known examples. Even the human relations movement, which had originated as a reaction against Taylorism, has tended increasingly to present itself as a body of techniques.

Yet in spite of the increasingly powerful status of management science and technique, managers have remained persistently aware of important areas of practice which fall outside the bounds of technical rationality. This awareness has taken two forms.

Managers have become increasingly sensitive to the phenomena of uncertainty, change, and uniqueness. In the last 20 years, ‘decision under uncertainty’ has become a term of art. It has become commonplace for managers to speak of the ‘turbulent’ environments in which problems do not lend themselves to the techniques of benefit-cost analysis or to probabilistic reasoning. At least at the level of espoused theory, managers have become used to the instability of patterns of competition, economic context, consumer interests, sources of raw materials, attitudes of the labour force, and regulatory climate. And managers have become acutely aware that they are often confronted with unique situations to which they must respond under conditions of stress and limited time which leave no room for extended calculation or analysis. Here they tend to speak not of technique but of intuition.

Quite apart from these exceptions to the day-to-day routine of management practice, managers have remained aware of a dimension of ordinary professional work, crucially important to effective performance, which cannot be reduced to technique. Indeed, they are sometimes aware that even management technique rests on a foundation of nonrational, intuitive artistry.

Among theorists of management, the nonrational dimension of managing has had several notable exponents. […] I have cited Chester Barnard’s description of ‘nonlogical processes,’ Geoffrey Vicker’s analysis of the art of judgment, and Michael Polanyi’s reflections on tacit knowing.

More recently a Canadian professor of management, Henry Mintberzg has caused a considerable stir with studies of the actual behaviour of top managers that reveal a virtual absence of the methods that managers are ‘supposed to’ use. In some of the most prestigious schools management, where the curriculum depends on cases drawn from the actual experience of business firms, there is a widely held belief that managers learn to be effective not primarily through the study of theory and technique but through long and varied practice in the analysis of business problems, which builds up a generic, essentially unanalysable capacity for problem-solving.

It is no exaggeration, then, to say that the field of management is split into two camps, each of which holds a different view of the nature of professional knowledge. At the same time that management science and technique have grown increasingly in power and prestige, there has been a persistent and growing awareness of the importance of an art of managing which reveals itself in both crucially important situations of uncertainty, instability, and uniqueness, and in those dimensions of everyday practice which depend upon the spontaneous exercise of intuitive artistry. One sign of this split is that in some schools of management, representatives of the two tendencies – the professors of management science and the practitioners of case-method – no longer speak to one another. The representatives of each school of thought go about their business as though the other school of thought did not exist.

But a split of this kind, which is barely tolerable in a professional school, creates for thoughtful students and practitioners a particularly painful variant of the dilemma of ‘rigour or relevance.’ For if rigorous management means the application of management science and technique, then ‘rigorous managers’ must be selectively inattentive to the art which they brings to much of their day-to-day practice, and they must avoid situations – often the most important in organisational life –where they would find themselves confronted with uncertainty, instability, or uniqueness.

But if the art of managing can be described, at least in part, and can be shown to be rigorous in a way peculiar to itself, then the dilemma of rigor or relevance need not be so painful. Indeed, it may be possible to bring the art of managing into dialogue with management science.