Was Taylor a Taylorite?

6 June 2006 at 11:43 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Speaking of scientific management, one of Frederick W. Taylor's biographers tells us that Taylor himself was no Taylorite. Yesterday I was looking for an article by Gavin Wright and stumbled upon Wright's review of Daniel Nelson's 1980 book Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management. (JSTOR subscribers can read the review here.) According to Nelson, Taylor was primarily an engineer — a very creative and successful one — with little interest in labor management. His inventions revolutionized the machine-tool industry, and he later ventured into "popular" management writing as a PR gimmick, to enhance his personal reputation and build his consulting practice. (We also learn that Taylor was a champion lawn tennis player, inventor of a spoon-shaped tennis racket and a two-handled golf club that was later banned, and the son of a radical feminist and abolitionist mother.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Myths and Realities.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JC  |  6 June 2006 at 7:56 pm

    As one who has written about Taylor – there’s a new piece about Scientific Management (SM) on my website – I am frequently astonished by the lack of understanding of Taylor and his work among BSchool folk. This in spite of the fact that there is no question SM comprises the vast bulk of what working managers think ‘getting things organized’ is actually about. Org theorists, bless us, have virutally no idea, and as for the microeconomists …

    Nelson’s book is mildly informative. Kakar’s earlier (1970) book, which portrays Taylor as a hopelessly screwed up neurotic, and so explains SM’s ‘well-known anti-humanist tendencies’, was rapturously received and is actually a very clever book by a very bright fellow. But Kanigel’s (1997) biography is the definitive work. From my point of view Kanigel does not wuite grasp what it was/is about SM that explains its power and persistence, but that’s just my carping. Yet this is a profoundly important question that is one of the many elephants standing in our classroom.

    I thought Stewart’s piece intemperate, immature, and insulting, especially to those eager young folk who go through the appalling BSchool selection and grind process. Surely the question of why the MBS ‘business model’ still seems to be working is something that deserves the attention of org theorists, microeconomists, and world-weary philosophers alike?

    I appended a midly critical comment about Stewart’s article to Lynne Kiesling’s note on http://www.knowledgeproblem.com.

    But I guess the bottom line is that we shall continue to spout and circulate these urban myths about arguably the most influential contributor to our disciplline – I mean management and organization theory, of course, not microeconomics (who knows what that is supposed to be about?).

  • 2. JC  |  6 June 2006 at 8:08 pm

    OOPS – I mean MBA business model and do not wish to insult my Alma Mater MBS.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  6 June 2006 at 9:02 pm

    JC, thanks for this terrific guide to the Taylor literature. As to doctrinal history more generally, well, it's no secret that economists and management scholars tend to be woefully ignorant about the history of their own disciplines. In economics, the usual explanation is "physics envy," combined with a naive Whiggishness about scientific progress. If economics is a real Science — capital S — then there is no need to know anything about the history of economic thought, as all true knowledge is incorporated in the current journal articles and textbooks. Likewise for management theory?

  • 4. JC  |  6 June 2006 at 9:50 pm

    Ah, but if we admit that the natural sciences are actually about managing the idiosyncratic, scarce, inimitable, etc. resources that natural scientists work with ….

    That’s what the sociology of science – and actor-network theory too, for instance – are trying to help us recognize.

    Latour and Polanyi, in their different but idiosyncratic ways, are trying to tell us to stop fantasizing about science (captial S) and get down to what gets done, to the real practices of advancing knowledge when that has become the organizational objective.

    If we understood why we fantasize as we do, that would tell us a great deal about what management is really about.

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