Sustainable business might seem like a relatively new management innovation, a corrective to the profit-driven, shareholder-focused, efficiency-above-all ideology that fully ascended around the 1980s.
But the science of management actually emerged in the early 1900s in the US as a focus on conservation of resources and human effort, according to the new book The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Management by Stephen Cummings and Todd Bridgman of the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
They make the case that Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis actually originated the term “scientific management,” not Frederick Winslow Taylor, traditionally regarded as the primary founder of the field of management. They contend that Brandeis viewed conservation as a core goal of management and that Taylor’s focus on efficiency has been misapplied. Cummings and Bridgman further argue that Mary Parker Follett, a contemporary who was a writer and social activist, should join Brandeis and Taylor in getting credit for establishing the field.
Even before their new book, Cummings and Bridgman have gained notoriety for their research challenging the foundational stories of management. They’ve written an alternative history of the Harvard Business School case study method and have argued that the famous pyramid attributed to psychologist Abraham Maslow is a misinterpretation of his work.
The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Management is more of an academic book than we usually cover in this newsletter, and it contains a somewhat tedious discussion of the intellectual framework provided by French philosopher Michel Foucault. But it’s also a surprising and exciting work as it challenges many of the assumptions we have about the field, and explores why what is often taught about it is foundationally wrong.
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The surprising hero of Cummings and Bridgman’s book is Brandeis, who as a lawyer in 1910 successfully argued against price increases by a railroad monopoly by introducing the concept of “scientific management.” Brandeis’s tactic was to contend that the managers of the railroad were negligent in not utilizing such an approach to reduce waste and conserve resources, and that they could have maintained profits without raising rates if they had done so. Brandeis drew on his decades of experience as a business advisor and tried to enlist Taylor, who would publish The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911.
Brandeis had published Scientific Management and the Railroads several months earlier. He taught business classes at MIT, advocated for management as a profession, and served hundreds of business clients over his career up until joining the Supreme Court in 1916.
Making the connection to sustainability, the authors write, “For Brandeis, efficiency was about doing the same, or a little more, with less, so as to enable more time, resources and consideration for improving wellbeing. It was a means to other ends: individual wellbeing through education and a more balanced existence through improved leisure, greater social connections, and time spent in nature; but also collective wellbeing, stronger communities, and better civic engagement.” (p. 106.)
Cummings and Bridgman examine why Taylor’s contributions are better remembered today, and his philosophy—which was largely aligned with Brandeis—often wrongly reduced to a profit-driven focus on efficiency. They link it at least partly to business schools’ efforts to establish credibility as a field worthy of study alongside other disciplines.
“As business schools became a more accepted part of the academic world by aligning with Economics, the growth in the number of degrees they conferred continued to increase, and through the 1960s and 70s the focus on efficiency as the good or end of Management and a manager’s efforts was redoubled,” they write. (p. 26)
To be sure:
- The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Management takes an academic approach, making it dry in parts.
- The book’s title overpromises, especially when you include the subtitle “From the Conservation Movement to Climate Change.” It’s not nearly as broad or future focused as the title suggests.
- It’s unclear whether making the case that sustainability, workers’ rights, communities, and environmental protections were embedded in the early formulation of management practices before being largely written out of the history has any meaningful impact on promoting those practices today.
- It’s expensive to buy copies in the US at the moment—we’ve shared below a code that offers a 20% discount if you buy directly from the publisher.
Memorable facts and anecdotes:
- In the Eastern Rate Case, Brandeis made the headline-grabbing claim that the railroad could save $1 million a day by adopting scientific management.
- President Teddy Roosevelt’s administration formally established the conservation movement in 1907 to curb rampant industrialization and preserve natural resources.
- Brandeis encouraged the creation of the “Taylor Society” to honor Taylor and buttress his contention in court that scientific management was an established field—but Taylor refused to endorse it.
- Two favorite clients of Brandeis’s business advisory practice were shoe manufacturer William H. McElwain and the Filene brothers retailers. Brandeis highlighted the Filenes’ progressive practices including minimum wages, arbitration processes for worker disputes with management, and an employee cooperative that could veto management policies.
- Brandeis’s unconventional legal briefs in lawsuits, with exhaustive factual accounting of business operations, became a model for management consultants’ later reports to their clients, Cummings and Bridgman contend.
- Follett, in writings from the 1910s and 1920s, advocated for strikingly contemporary views around the benefits of diverse workforces and the gains from replacing organizational hierarchies with empowered groups united around common purpose.
The bottom line is that The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Management challenges assumptions about business in compelling ways. It’s a refreshing read, providing relevant historical context for important questions faced by managers today.
You can order The Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Management at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) Charter newsletter readers can also get 20% off the printed book or e-book by using the discount code “haxFj8k2bpjyMQE” to order from the publisher’s website. All page numbers referenced above are for the hardcover edition.
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