Zlatko Bodrožić–Leeds University Business School
Paul Adler – University of Southern California
J. Michael Wahlen – MIT Sloan School of Management
Question 1. This paper is motivated by the fact that the academic record of the historical transformations of models of management was “frustratingly thin” (p. 2); did the idea for this paper more come from examining the historical transformations and realizing the theoretical literature was missing a key point, or from studying the theoretical literature and wanting a historical perspective?
While we value the work of historians, we think of ourselves as management and organization scholars aiming to understand the present. Zlatko did his doctoral training at the University of Helsinki and was inspired by what he learned there about Cultural Historical Activity Theory (especially the work of Yrjö Engeström, based on the psychology of Lev Vygotsky). This tradition assumes that present-day organizations and their challenges can be understood best as the emergent results of both contemporaneous and more long-lived processes and tensions. Imagine watching a movie, but you see just the last part of it: you wouldn’t understand much about why the characters behaved as they did. Similarly, in our efforts to understand some of the changes we see in organizations around us today, we need to understand how current management practices came into being and how they evolved over time. Our assumption was that these practices are shaped in part by various normative “models” of management. Given the lack of systematic historical data on practices, it’s not surprising that we don’t have robust theories of the evolution of these models; but more data alone won’t solve our problem: we also need a theory with which to make sense of those data. And on that score, we felt we could push beyond the theoretical frameworks provided by colleagues like Barley & Kunda (1992), Guillén (1994) and Abrahamson (1997).
Question 2. One of the difficulties of doing historical research in organizational studies is balancing history, which focuses on the contingency of events, and theory, which emphasizes the generalizable causal mechanisms behind events. This article achieved a strong balance of these two perspective; how did you achieve this balance, and how did the review process affect it?
We think that one possible synthesis of ‘history’ and ‘theory’ is to develop an ‘evolutionary theory.’ In a sense, our approach is similar to the approach of developmental psychology within the discipline of psychology: we think we get deeper insight into a phenomenon (human behavior, or organizational structure) if we understand the dynamics of its evolution. (Just to clarify: we don’t assume that ‘evolutionary’ theory should fit the specific paradigm of variation-selection-retention that organization theory has borrowed from biology: we have in mind a broader range of conceptualizations that aim to grasp the mechanisms and patterns of change.)
Our theorization process followed a spiral path. The historical data on events and patterns—sparse though they are—suggested some initial theoretical conjectures. Then we went back to the data to see how well these initial ideas could explain the patterns observed there, and used the gaps and discrepancies to drive another round of theorization. The review process was another important cycle in this spiral. We were challenged by other historical data and theoretical questions posed by the reviewers, which prompted us to improve our framework. We were very lucky to have very knowledgeable and thoughtful reviewers and an AE (Mauro Guillén) who was also a key contributor to the literature that we were addressing.
That said, we certainly did not entirely overcome the tension between the specificity and contingency of events and the generalizability of theorized mechanisms. In particular, as the review process revealed, there is a lot more to be said about the role of war (especially the Civil War and the two World Wars) in shaping management models: our neo-Schumpeterian approach only takes us so far in understanding these events’ genesis and impact.
Question 3. This article shows that management models have been shaped by a diverse and changing cast of actors inside and outside of firms. Yet, while the article discusses gurus and consultants a good deal, there is less focus on academics and the role of business schools. What do you see as the role of universities, and in particular, academic research, in affecting management models in the past? And, is this role changing?
Yes, indeed, there are interesting reciprocal relationships between management models and universities, even though we did not have space to discuss them in our paper. On the one hand, the technological revolutions that we see as sparking the emergence of new management models also had a deep impact on universities—on the topics of research, the subjects taught, and indeed the functioning of universities as organizations. The steel and electric power revolution spurred the emergence of a new paradigm of engineering research that also had an impact on management research, in particular under the heading of scientific management. Similarly, the automobile revolution sparked developments that led to entire new fields such as marketing or strategic management. And the ICT revolution has shaped recent management research and teaching, prompting the emergence of new fields of study and new course offerings. On the other hand, various scholars (e.g., Mayo, Drucker, Juran, Davenport) involved in academic research played a pioneering role in theorizing the foundational concepts of management models. And universities of course played an important role disseminating management models through their teaching.
Is the role of the university changing? We conjectured that it may well be. We think that the creation, theorization and dissemination of management models involves a network of change agents—innovative managers, researchers in universities, gurus, consultancies, government agencies—and that, over the longer period, this network has tended to broaden and the boundaries between these groups of actors to blur. Universities are perhaps uniquely positioned to contribute to all aspects of this process—to its creation, theorization and dissemination phases—and could thus become its ‘intelligent centers’ (Dunleavy, 2017). But to play this integrative role, universities would need to reorient themselves towards more “engaged” scholarship and overcome the current rigor-relevance dilemma. If universities don’t evolve in this direction, we see a danger that they become marginal actors instead of central ones.
Question 4. The paper suggests that management models are responses to both technological change and new problems faced by firms (e.g., pp. 27-28). It seems that firms today are confronted by a rapidly changing technological landscape and an increasingly complex business environment; how should we think of this in light of recent work by Pankaj Ghemawat, Phanish Puranam, and others suggesting that the rate of new management ideas is slowing?
It depends on which management ideas we are talking about. Ghemawat (2016) sees a drop-off in the development of new ideas about strategy. Strategy is a foundational concept of the Strategy-and-structure model that emerged and diffused during the automobile revolution. The ICT revolution sparked the emergence of the business process model and the knowledge management/communities-of practice model. Our theory would therefore predict that strategy-related concepts—while not disappearing—gradually lose influence relative to these newer concepts, and we find support for our view in the proliferation of new management ideas like those around coworking, community management, digital transformation, the internet of things, big data analytics, to name just a few. That does not mean that strategy-related topics become irrelevant, but they need to be rethought and reconceptualized in the context of the ongoing ICT revolution.
Question 5. There has been a lot conversation recently on the promise of incorporating a historical approach to organizational theory (for example, in the recent book Organizations in Time, edited by Marcelo Bucheli and R. Daniel Wadhwani). This paper supports this in showing how management models have changed over time, and why a historical view was necessary to understand the role of technology in affecting management models. What kinds of opportunities do you see for further historical work on this subject?
Indeed, we think that many aspects of organizational theory would benefit from a historical, evolutionary perspective. Let’s take, for example, the concept of community. It was an important concept in the 19th century, became almost invisible in the 20th century, and is now remerging in sociology and management (e.g., as ‘communities of practice’), but in a somewhat different shape. If we can develop a theoretical understanding of the evolutionary development of practices and concepts such as community, we will get a much deeper understanding of organizations. Another example is ‘organization development:’ much of the activity that used to fall under that heading seems to appear now under the heading of ‘change management.’ An evolutionary perspective would aim to understand what new problems and new solutions have prompted this shift, and how the new practices and concepts could evolve further to meet the emerging needs of organizations. Organization theorists have long noted the rise and fall of fads and fashions; the historical-evolutionary approach alerts us to the way concepts of enduring value are reimagined to respond to new problems and opportunities facing practitioners.