Originally created 05/01/00

Brannen: Management strategy has rich past



The practice of managing organizations has changed over time and therefore has its own history of development. Organizing a group of people to accomplish a goal predates industrial and business organizations by thousands of years. What follows are selected examples of management concepts that were developed long ago but remain valid today.

Thinking about the best way to marshal and direct human resources began with the military and government projects. The most often cited ancient government project requiring sophisticated management is the pyramids of Egypt. The Egyptians were aware that the optimal ratio of supervisor to subordinates is about one to 10. We now call this the span of control, and the "rule of 10" has persisted throughout organizational history, from the Roman army to the present-day military. The Egyptians were perhaps the first to describe a separate professional managerial role as a "vizier," from which is derived the word "supervisor." Today, it is managerially fashionable to diminish the external trappings of authority, but they do remain.

Around 400 B.C., Socrates wrote of the universality of management practices and the importance of people skills: "Management of private concerns differs from that of public concerns only in magnitude ... neither can be carried out without men ... and those who understand how to employ men are successful directors of public and private concerns, and those who do not understand will err in the management of both."

About 300 B.C., Aristotle commented on a prerequisite for leadership: ""He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander." In the Bible, the value of employee participation in goal accomplishment is addressed: "Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counselors they are established" (Prov. 15:22).

Xenophon knew of the advantages of the division of labor and specialization in 370 B.C.: "... he who devotes himself to a very specialized line of work is bound to do it in the best possible manner."

One of the first how-to books on leadership is The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513. He points out some managerial conundrums, such as whether it is better to be loved or feared by subordinates, and the problem of organizational change: "There is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things." While Machiavelli was not on the warm and fuzzy side of management practice, he did understand the issues.

Business and industry as we know it today began with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, in part because of Adam Smith, who changed economic thinking, and James Watt, whose steam engine made large factories possible. In factories, employees were required to be punctual, attend regularly, standardize their work and accept a different kind of supervision. There were serious problems of discipline and motivation that were approached by positive incentives, negative sanctions or appeals to better nature. Then, as now, extra money was given for extra output, today called pay for performance. Absenteeism on Monday was a problem then also and resulted in fines of 30 cents out of a weekly pay of $2.

At the beginning of the 1900s, we entered the Scientific Management Era, in which management was not just a trial-and-error endeavor, but was subject to study, research and experimentation. For example, studying the human factor in industry was a major topic for those desiring to improve efficiency and the nature of work. One of the first books on the subject was The Psychology of Management in 1913, by Lillian Gilbreth, who was the first woman recipient of a Ph.D. in applied management and the first female professor of management.

Since then, there has been an ever-increasing quantity of research, writing and speculation on management and what works best. In this there are trends, fads, fashions, and an occasional really new and good idea. But in retrospect, the basic principles that exist today are much the same as those of centuries ago. However, they are constantly being repackaged, recombined, renamed and reintroduced as new or improved.

Dalton Brannen is a senior professional in human resources and a professor of management in the College of Business Administration at Augusta State University.