The Origins and Development of ManagementWhy we manage the way we do

Launched September 2010 Updated February 2012 9 lectures
Mr. Morgen Witzel
Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Exeter Business School and Senior Consultant, The Winthrop Group, UK

‘We must study the present in the light of the past, for the purposes of the future.’
John Maynard Keynes... read more

Why do we manage businesses in the way we do? Where did the techniques and tools that we take for granted come from? How did management thought and practice evolve, and what pressures and forces, internal and external, shape the discipline as we know it today? In order to find out the answers to these and other questions, we need to go back into the history of management and understand how and why it has developed. The purpose of this series of talks is to help students and managers to better understand the nature of management and what managers do.

It is important to know the answers to these questions for several reasons. First, we should never take for granted that the ways we manage people, or customers, or finance are necessarily the best ways. (The fallacy of this belief as far as finance is concerned has been graphically illustrated over the course of the past couple of years.) The methods and techniques we use today do not necessarily represent best practice. Looking back at older management theories and management practices can help to remind us of potentially valuable ideas that have been forgotten.

Second, an understanding of how we have arrived where we are, can help us with the problem of the re-invention of the wheel, a problem to which management is particularly prone. Supposedly ‘new’ techniques offered by consultants often have, when examined in the light of the past, distinct resemblances to older methods (the most commonly cited example is the relationship between business process re-engineering and scientific management, but there are others). Looking at how managers have moved into new markets and used new technologies in the past, can also help modern-day managers to avoid falling into traps. It has been argued that had the first wave of dotcom retailers studied closely the methods used by catalogue retailers in the late nineteenth century, they might have avoided some of the distribution and fulfilment problems they encountered at the end of the twentieth century.

The most important reason for studying the history of management, however, is to get a better understanding of why we do things the way we do. Management education is very good at explaining the mechanics of management and all its various disciplines: marketing, HR, finance and so on. But it is less effective at explaining how these disciplines have evolved and why certain practices have become accepted. We need constantly to challenge ourselves and our own views. We also need to understand how present methods and practices might evolve in the future, so that we can be prepared for the future when it comes.

It is very important, perhaps more important than ever before, that we understand the nature of management. As the late Peter Drucker observed, businesses do not run themselves. A business enterprise cannot survive without good management, or at least not for long. That was as true a hundred years ago, or a thousand, as it is today. The past offers us another perspective on the subject of management. It does not provide all the answers, but it does provide some, and in the present uncertainty, we need all the answers we can get. At a time when there is increasing concern that there is not enough managerial talent being produced to meet the needs of businesses around the world, giving would-be managers an opportunity to view their subject in a new light and to understand more not just about how management works but why it works is essential.

The structure for this series of talks is a fairly conventional one. It begins with an introduction to the subject and a discussion of why management history is important and the practical benefits it can offer. It then looks at some of the key disciplinary areas including finance, marketing, strategy and the management of organizations. A series of overarching themes follows including technology and innovation, globalization, ethics and business in society and leadership. Last of all is the management of people, including HR but also drawing together some of the other themes and reminding audiences that business is a primarily human activity and is governed at least in part by the laws and rules of human and social behavior.