Repositioning the weight of management history and its relationship to sustainability

by Stephen Cummings and Todd Bridgman /

One of the perceived barriers to promoting sustainable management is the weight of history. It seems hard to advocate for such a new approach when the foundations of what management and business are believed to be about run contrary to sustainability. Management’s ‘good’, its primary aim or motive, is understood to be economic efficiency. That’s what it has always been. That’s what history tells us management was for. Correspondingly, if economic efficiency was the message, then the institution of the business school was the messenger, and as the form of the business school was standardized in the 1950s and 60s in the United States the curriculum was built around the views of economics and finance that were prevalent at that time. Not surprisingly, social and environmental concerns were secondary to the development of the business school and not a part of the theories of the firm and the raison d’être of business organizations that we borrowed from economics.

But our book, The Past, Present and Future of Sustainable Management, argues that history is not against us. History is with us. It’s just that the historical connections between sustainability, social goods and the birth of management as a subject have been marginalized and forgotten over time. 

While anybody who has studied management in the past 100 years will have been taught that the Father of Management is the efficiency obsessed Frederick Winslow Taylor, our research shows that the first person who actually conceived of management as a subject was Louis Brandeis, an advocate and business advisor known as ‘the people’s lawyer’ (as he sought to represent ‘the people’ against the pervasive interests of big business).

Brandeis, who went on to become the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, was the main legal counsel used by The Conservation Movement, which was conceived by President Theodore Roosevelt and his advisor Gifford Pinchot. The movement was developed for the purpose of providing Progressive politicians a way to offer a counter to the ‘American Dream’ of freedom to explore and exploit at all costs that was decimating the American landscape at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1910 as part of the ongoing campaign promoting conservation, Brandeis created an approach he termed Scientific Management. He used it to win a landmark case against a railroad monopoly that was gouging customers by increasing their shipping prices. Brandeis argued that if the railroad employed scientific management practices to reduce waste, they could keep their prices as they were and increase their profits too. Brandeis made the cross-examined railroad executives look self-important and ill-informed and won the case to front-page acclaim. He was lauded as both a ‘legal Hercules’ and ‘the American most hated by big business’. Brandeis described scientific management as ‘a new approach to industry which has conservation as its central motive’.

Taylor had been approached by Brandeis to be an expert witness in the case, but he declined believing that Brandeis’s prosecution would not be successful. He only jumped on board once Brandeis made scientific management popular and organized all the subsequent publicity. In so doing, Taylor embraced conservation as the primary good of management, and until the middle of the 1910s Brandeis was regarded as Management’s founder. Then Taylor passed away, Brandeis was elevated to the Supreme Court, and the history of Management’s foundation was tilted toward a view that its defining good was economic efficiency and its founder was FW Taylor.

One arena that inspired us as we began to write the book was the re-appreciation of indigenous approaches to managing our relationship with the earth and balancing social, environmental, cultural and economic concerns in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Particularly the misunderstood and much-maligned practice of ‘cultural burning’ in Australia, which is now being embraced by some local and state governments who realize that modern-Western approaches to fire and land management, with their short-term focus, are failing.

To us, this indicated that sustainable management can be seen to be as old and those indigenous traditions. Seeing Brandeis and his contemporaries (like the often over-looked Mary Parker Follett and Charles Clinton Spaulding who advocated for Management’s purpose being to advance social goods) as Management’s founders, enables us to draw a line from our concerns for advancing sustainable management today all the way back through these hidden figures to pre-modern times.

Repositioning the weight of management history in this way would enable us to see management practices in pre-modern societies focussed on developing sustainable balanced lives, rather than those that excited the economic efficiency boosters who wrote the histories that have populated management textbooks for the last 50 years – namely, the Egyptians, Romans and Chinese managing (with slaves) to build pyramids, aqueducts, and walls.

Thinking different about the history of management like this can help our efforts to do management differently and configure business schools differently for the future. Whereas the guiding questions facing those who sought to establish business schools in the 20th century revolved around ‘what should they do and how should they gain in status?’, we have an opportunity to now be guided by answers to other questions, such as ‘why and for whom do they exist?’ In fact, a forthcoming special issue of the Academy of Management Learning & Education journal seeks to utilize a range of historical perspectives to help us explore the future ‘why?’ of the business school.

Looking again at management’s history can help us think innovatively and sustainably. Advancing sustainable management should not involve convincing others to do management in a way it has never been done before, but rather it is a return to our historical fundamentals. Our un-questioning assumptions about history over the last one hundred years had convinced us that the foundational good that defines management must be economic efficiency. Reconnecting with Brandeis and any number of indigenous practices would suggest otherwise. In this way, a new, broader history of management can become a wind at our backs rather than an obstacle in our way.

Stephen Cummings is Professor of Strategy and Innovation, and Director of Entrepreneurship Programmes and Co-Director of the Victoria University of Wellington’s innovation space ‘The Atom’ (Te Kahu o Te Ao).

Todd Bridgman is Associate Professor of the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management and Editorial Board member of The PRME Blog.

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