Solving yesterday's solutions: A history of management theory

The idea that management practices can be studied, with lessons learned and distilled into theories, has been with us for decades. Short vignettes such as A Message For Garcia by Elbert Hubbard (1899) and The Go Getter by Peter B. Kyne (1921) have extolled employee virtues, and Alfred P. Sloan's "Organizational Study" memo to GM (1920) is considered a foundational work of corporate management theory.

Of course the business environment changes over time, with corresponding shifts in the theories of what management practices work best -- often based on the (reported) recipes used by the success stories of the day. It would be useful to chart these theories and their changes over time in order to ask: Are there consistencies across eras? Can we observe, and perhaps predict, cycles of in best practices? Do certain practices have a "shelf life," beyond which we can expect them to become obsolete?

We enjoyed Nicholas Lemann's recent piece in the New Yorker,When G.M. Was Google” precisely because he takes this long view and

addresses these questions. Among the changes Lemann notes is the decline in the social vision of the corporation, as well as the shift from viewing “bureaucracy” as a solution to attacking it as a problem.  Indeed, on the later point he notes:

What managers consider a problem is typically what their predecessor considered a solution.”

He also finds enduring similarities in the recipes for success over time, notably an attention to consumer/user needs, and corporate cultures that don’t just foster innovation inside the company—they attract the brightest and most innovative minds from outside and draw them in.

Image source: The New Yorker

--Clara Shen

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