The Progressive Roots of Management Science

New research highlights that sustainable management is a fundamental business practice, not just a modern trend.

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Conventional wisdom holds that the original objectives of management science were to promote economic efficiency and financial returns; the pursuit of goals loftier than moneymaking is seen as a recent development. But this isn’t the full picture. At its roots, the discipline is also closely aligned with current thinking about organizational purpose and managing with a broad community of stakeholders in mind. Today’s conversations about corporate social responsibility are not moving away from the principles of scientific management; they’re returning to them.

Anyone who has studied management will likely have been taught that the field’s founder is the efficiency-obsessed Frederick Winslow Taylor. The notion attributed to Taylor — that economic efficiency is management’s fundamental principle — reigned in the 20th century and into the 21st. Administration expert Luther Gulick wrote in 1937 that for management, “whether public or private, the basic ‘good’ is efficiency.” Management guru Peter Drucker echoed the idea in 1946, stating that “the purpose of the corporation is to be economically efficient.” More recently, management thinker Gary Hamel has perpetuated the view that “management was invented to solve the problem of inefficiency.”

Over the past century, managers have certainly acted as if their ultimate performance metric were economic productivity, made manifest in common measures like return on investment, earnings per share, and profit margins.

However, our new research highlights that the work of Louis Brandeis preceded Taylor’s. In the early 1900s, Brandeis was an advocate and business adviser who came to be known as “the people’s lawyer.” His view that business should serve a higher social purpose sounds strikingly contemporary. His ideas became popular and found significant audiences among businesses that applied and advocated sustainable work practices.

Brandeis — who would go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939 — was the primary legal counsel for the conservation movement, which was conceived by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and adviser Gifford Pinchot at the turn of the 20th century. It was developed to counter the prevailing view that the American dream conferred freedom to take advantage of natural resources for financial gain, whatever the environmental or social costs.

In 1910, as part of the campaign promoting conservation, Brandeis articulated a new approach he termed scientific management (a term often wrongly credited to Taylor).

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