The Meaning of Management

What does management mean to you? What did it mean in the past and how has it changed over time?

Social Change

Before the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700’s, most people lived and worked in small communities. The corporations or government enterprises we are familiar with today did not exist at that time. Hence, managing people and workload was not so complicated a matter.

However, industrialisation saw the establishment of many large enterprises (such as cotton mills, mining, railways, and international shipping). Most of these businesses relied on steam powered machines, which were the latest technology at the time. They also required a large workforce to operate these machines. So, there was a massive relocation of people from rural areas to the industrial cities. The age of big business had dawned. And with that dawning, how to manage people and workload became an important issue.

Management Becomes a ‘Thing’

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people were employed as farm workers or in small businesses. There were not many large-scale employers at that time; but there was one – the military. So, it’s not surprising that the new enterprises turned to the military for inspiration.

The military managed thousands of soldiers; providing training, discipline, and structure to people and workload. So, following this model, managing businesses at that time looked a lot like a military operation. It was hierarchical, obedience was expected, roles were defined, and there was a clear chain of command.

But as the Industrial era progressed into the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the world was changing quickly. The hard sciences were flowering, new technologies were emerging, and people were beginning to apply scientific methods to social contexts.

One of these social contexts was management. These thinkers were not military men but academics and engineers. Three names are associated with the emergence of ‘Classical Management Theory’. These people are Max Weber, Frederick Taylor, and Henri Fayol.

If you’re interested to learn more about these people and their ideas, you can easily find information online. Here we need only to state their broad ideas. These are:

  • Management should take the form of a bureaucracy – it’s not about relationships; it’s about business,
  • Workload and processes should be developed along ‘scientific’ grounds – there should be evidence supporting the best way to do things,
  • Managers must do clearly identified and important administrative tasks and follow set principles.

This summary simplifies the contributions of these people, but the principles they advocate reflect the thinking at the time. There was that slow emergence from a military model of management, so it’s not surprising that the ideas of these men have that ‘control and command’ flavour to them. They also lived at a time where huge steam-powered machines dominated life, so it’s not surprising that they saw organisations like huge machines.

But they also lived at the crossroad, where scientific thinking was being applied to social settings. They wanted scientific evidence about ‘what works’; hence the emphasis on Time and Motion studies, identifying best practices, and efficiency studies. They stood at the beginning of the era in which we live. They wanted scientific thinking to be applied to management. They wanted evidence about what worked.

If I were to summarise these ideas, it would go something like this: Organisations should operate like a well-oiled machine. Managers must accumulate scientific evidence about the best way of performing work-related tasks. Science has identified a discrete set of processes that managers must perform. Organisations must be governed by formal relationships and hierarchies. Workers must follow the instructions they are given. A worker’s life outside the organisation must stay outside.

Moving On

These ideas are what we call ‘Classical Management Theory’ and they still have some relevance in modern times. However, new ways of thinking emerge over time and old ideas often appear old fashioned and limited. Today, many people would see Classical Management Theory as having these limitations:

  • It is mechanistic in its approach. It views the organisation as a machine and workers and processes as parts of the machine.
  • It is rigid in its structure, providing structured rules and principles about ‘the best way’ to do things. It can be overly authoritarian.
  • It emphasised efficiency but overlooked the needs of workers. This led to industrial conflict.
  • It failed to reflect the complexity of modern organisations, which operate more like an integrated system than a machine.

Modern thinking about management involves ideas like these:

  • Relationships matter – how people relate to each other affects how they perform,
  • Motivation matters – people who find their work meaningful and enjoyable perform better,
  • Interactions matter, what happens in one part affects other parts of the organisation, and harmony is important. Organisations are more like biological systems than mechanical devices.
  • Adaptation matters – organisations, like organisms, must adapt to changing environments, or die.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Thinking around management must adapt to new realities in society. And new realities are upon us. COVID has brought the reality of having to manage virtual workplaces. And as the Fourth Industrial Revolution speeds up, managers will find themselves in new relationships with machines.

So, where does management go from here? What new challenges will emerge?

What do you think?

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Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at