To what extent and why, might an improved historical understanding of management and organizations improve the performance of current managers?

Managers today face the ultimate paradox of keeping everything running efficiently and profitably, while, at the same time, changing everything. It is no longer enough just to learn how to measure and control things. Success accrues to those who learn how to be leaders, to initiate change, and to create organizations with fewer managers and less hierarchy that can shift gears quickly.

Management philosophies and organizational forms change over time to meet new needs. The workplace of today is different from what it was 50 years ago, indeed, from what it was even 10 years ago. Yet some ideas and practices from the past are still highly relevant and applicable to management today. A historical perspective provides a broader way of thinking, a way of searching for patterns and determining whether they recur across time periods. For example, certain management techniques that seem modern, such as employee stock-ownership programs, have repeatedly gained and lost popularity since the early twentieth century because of historical forces. William Cooper Procter, grandson of the cofounder of Procter and Gamble, introduced a profit sharing plan in 1887, and expanded it by tying it to stock ownership a few years later. Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart’s financial records, including salaries, to all employees in the 1960s, long before business magazines were touting the value of open-book management.

A study of the past contributes to understanding both the present and the future. It is a way of learning from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them; learning from other’s successes so as to repeat them in the appropriate situation; and most of all, learning to understand why things happen to improve our organizations in the future.

The passage of time also contributes to the institutionalization of managerial attitudes. As a result, employee behavior becomes not only more predictable but also more difficult to change when attitudes are outdated.  A historical perspective on management provides a context or environment in which to interpret current opportunities and problems. The value of studying management lies not in learning current facts and research but in developing a perspective that will facilitate the broad, long-term view needed for management success.

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