Doubling Down: The “Classic” View Persists

Wren’s textbook was published in a fifth edition in 2005, though now under the title The History of Management Thought—maybe to signal defiance against all odds? The sixth edition in 2009, however, reverted to the original title and also, for the first time, included a co-author, Arthur G. Bedeian (see earlier). For the most recent seventh edition, both the title and the authorship remained unchanged (Wren and Bedeian 2018). A comparison of Wren’s (1972) original book with Wren and Bedeian’s 2018 version more than four decades later indicates only limited changes in the overall approach and narrative. The three-stage process of progression from “scientific management” to “social person” (instead of “man” in the original) and then to “modern” remained the same, though

Classic Management History 135 the latter term is no longer used and is replaced by “Moving Onward: The Near Present”. The “cultural framework”, changes in which were believed to influence developments in management practice and thought, is still there with the addition of a “technological facet” to the earlier economic, social and political aspects. And Weber again sits side by side with Fayol. Although the parallels with Taylor are no longer mentioned, Weber is still presented as attempting, like Fayol, “to develop methods for managing large-scale organizations” (Wren and Bedeian 2018: 187; see also Bedeian 2004: 96 and later).

What has changed most is the treatment of the last stage in the progression of management thought. Apart from some updated coverage, including, for instance, population ecology, transaction costs and agency theory, and the introduction of present-day popular topics such as ethics, corporate social responsibility and globalization, there are two particularly notable changes: First, taking the Fayolian management “functions” or “management process” approach as a unifying framework is no longer present. However, there is still reference to the somewhat elusive notion of “general management theory”, apparently understood as the unfolding of Fayolian ideas into strategic management (Wren and Bedeian 2018: 338). Second, the somewhat hesitant hope in the original book that “general systems theory” and/or “comparative management” might offer a “potential for synthesis” is not upheld any more (cf. Wren 1972: 524). The authors appear to have come to terms with integration being out of sight among the different practical and theoretical pathways that they have identified in the post-World War II era.

Book-length treatises on the history of management or management thought in countries other than the US have remained relatively rare, confined, at least in the English language, to the UK. Brech’s (2002) collection spanning the period from the mid-nineteenth to the later part of the twentieth century is one example. The five volumes cover the management models and the literature in Britain over this period, as well as the various organizational bodies that were established to advance the cause of professional management and management education. A more recent example is Wilson and Thomson’s (2006) history of management in Britain, which begins with the late eighteenth century and then traces management development, thought and practice until the end of the twentieth century.

There is another author who has done much over the last two decades to propagate the classic perspective of management history—though with a somewhat more international focus than most others: Morgen Witzel, a Canadian who had studied history and worked as an independent writer before moving to the UK in 1995 to lecture at the London Business School until 1999. His debut in management history was with an edited collection of 600 biographies (Witzel 2001). And the first of his authored books traced the “evolution” of management (Witzel 2002).

It was of a popular kind with little referencing and with vignettes on some of the individuals included in his earlier biographical compilation. Nevertheless, the book did demonstrate Witzel’s “classic” approach to writing management history. This was to become more apparent in a textbook that he published a while later purportedly with “cases”, which were in fact brief histories of different organizations, mostly companies, collated from secondary sources (Witzel 2009). True to the spirit of the classic view, what Witzel appears to want to teach is that the past needs to be studied because it could inspire new ways of looking at management practice in the present and possibly in the future. There is also a strong conviction that management has a very long and proud history, that much of what now goes as management has roots in the past and that the kind of problems faced by managers and the core aspects of managing are essentially timeless. Witzel’s (2009) book does differ however from Wren and Bedeian’s (2018) in that management and business activity are treated somewhat synonymously; his history is actually structured according to business functions such as marketing, finance and human resource management, among others.

In his subsequent, more academic treatise Witzel (2012) turned to a chronological layout, starting with ancient times, moving to the Middle Ages and then to the industrial revolution and eventually to scientific management and human relations. He nevertheless explicitly stated that he does not fully subscribe to an “evolutionary”—read: progressive— approach because the “long path of management thought is littered with the wreckage of good ideas that failed” (p. 6). Still, a functionalist interpretation persisted, as he also said that “new ideas about management emerge because new ideas about management are needed” (p. 4). And he admitted to having “generally portrayed management thought in a positive light” (p. 234). Witzel’s proclivity to equate management with a full range of business activities showed itself in this book too, though in this instance largely in a separate chapter where he also included topics such as the development of business education and management consulting. And, notably, Witzel diverged from Wren’s (1972) legacy of treating the development of twentieth-century management thought as a singular trajectory by sidestepping from his chronological progression and including a chapter on Europe. While largely devoted to Britain, the chapter also considered France, highlighting Fayol, and Germany, mentioning academics of the early twentieth century, including Weber, as well as industrialists such as Rathenau (see Chapter 5, this volume). Most notable, of course, is that although Fayol and Weber appear in the same chapter, different from the view propagated by Wren (1972) and Wren and Bedeian (2018), Weber is not portrayed as a management theorist who had sought methods for increasing efficiency in large-scale organizations.

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