Although each generation has to find this fact out for itself: the role of manager is in no way a modern phenomenon! As a matter of fact, the world has needed to organise teams and optimise the way they work for many years. Think the Church, the Army, etc…But how have management theories and approaches changed? Deputy CEO of Julhiet-Sterwen, Julien Lever, whose background is in management…and history…has taken the time to give us the benefit of his insight…
What can we learn from the history of management?
When we look at the history of management theories over a long period, we notice that there are two ever-present opposing dimensions. We see an authoritative dimension that is hierarchical, structured, cold and controlling, complemented
by a more flexible dimension with a more people-centred focus built around good listening and comprehension skills. The first dimension is certainly behind the top-down management structure found in large organisations such as the armed forces or the clergy, also providing inspiration for a base of theories advocating the streamlining of work processes (the most well-known exponent of which is Taylor). Nevertheless, the second dimension is not the preserve of contemporary thought either! When we look a little more closely at the historical literature (the works of Thibault le Texier being a prime example), we see that the idea of “management” emerged in 18th Century England as a sort of ideology of “care”. The care which a man’s wife must take of her household, her children, her family and her home. But also the care which a man must take of his farm, his land and his livestock. Basically, “managing” his business well meant taking good care of it. Of everything and everyone. For the benefit of everything and everyone. And to some extent, this idea is regaining currency today with the advent of the “benevolent” manager who listens to others and has good communication/collaboration skills.
All the same, hasn’t Taylorism still left an indelible mark on the 20th Century?
The answer is: “Yes, it has”. In fact, that was perhaps the thing that surprised me the most when I was preparing my speech for PerformanSe Day. Indeed, one could say with total confidence that Taylorism is basically Fordism. It’s likesomething out of Chaplin’s Modern Times, harking back to along by-gone industrial age. It really had lost all relevance even before the Second World War. In practice, though, all
academic thought on management by objectives is still based on a variant of Taylorism. It is definitely more subtle, more financial in focus and it is applied mainly to more senior, better-trained teams, but it is still based on a strict division
of work, as much streamlining as possible, top-down control, etc. As such, this kind of organisational structure and “chain of command” has ultimately dominated more or less the whole of 20th Century and continues to do so to this day…
With awareness of self and others once again being seen as desirable qualities and good management skills, are things coming full circle?
It’s almost as if time is actually cyclical as opposed to linear…something our friends in China have always believed! Or rather, it’s as if “proper management” is achieved by everybody taking one of the two dimensions as a starting point and striking the optimal balance between the two (organisation/autonomy, control/care) in their own individual way.
So you’re saying that the agility in the face of uncertainty concept we are always hearing about these days isn’t a modern phenomenon at all?
As a matter of fact…when we look back with hindsight, we see that the idea of agility in the face of uncertainty was already beginning to take shape in the early 70s at the time of the second oil crisis. This is because the really significant ideas are never really new. And also perhaps because we weren’t capable of or didn’t succeed in integrating the lessons we ought to have learnt from this initial challenge into our growth model as defined after the Second World War…
More generally, what positive lessons can we draw from taking a more “historical” approach to management?
Management theories are often presented as having invented a “new” seminal way of thinking, when in reality they aren’t doing much more than reintroducing and remarketing old (sometimes ancient) ideas. However, it isn’t the method or the marketing that matters. Rather, it’s learning to think about situations in the right way that counts. Whether we’re a trainer, consultant, director or manager, our job is to make our reality as vibrant and as positive as possible. And help everybody live their life as best as they can. Because we can’t manage a team well if we don’t know how to take care of ourselves…That’s why the advent of artificial intelligence could provide the stimulus for management to redirect its focus towards people. As a manager, you need to take care of both yourself and your employees: that’s the challenge of the 21st century. It only took us three centuries to rediscover that fact…
“When we look back with hindsight, we see that the idea of agility in the face of uncertainty was already beginning to take shape in the early 70s.”
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