Scientific Management Essay

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One of the signal events in the history of modern organizational management was the 1911 publication of Fredrick W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. This work, along with Taylor’s widespread personal influence and the invention of the automobile assembly line by Henry Ford, gave the term scientific management a central place in the lexicon of both scholarly research and professional management practice. Although Taylor had used the phrase in an 1895 paper, it was the publication of the influential 1911 volume that moved the concept from innovative idea to established managerial practice.

At its inception, scientific management consisted of aggressive task specification and intense worker supervision. Time and motion studies were used to break production tasks into the smallest possible units, examine in detail how the most productive workers performed each task, and then carefully supervise all workers to ensure that each performed his or her tasks in the most efficient way possible. Taylor, recognizing that this initiative would not be attractive to workers, focused attention on linking compensation to task performance through piecework and other forms of incentive pay.

The intense managerial control of scientific management, in combination with the rational and functional design of bureaucratic organization, provided the cornerstones of modern organizations in government and education as well as in business and industry. Well before World War II, these twin concepts had become a kind of orthodox business and civic ideology. Raymond Callahan derisively called the introduction of this ideology into the management of public schools a “cult of efficiency.” David Tyack described it as the ideological framework used to enhance professional control over the schools and, under professional leadership, to design education’s “one best system.”

Throughout the twentieth century, organizational theorists and leading industrialists maintained an intense love-hate relationship with the concept of scientific management. Enthusiasm for measurement of performance and micromanagement of worker task performance never waned, but criticism of both the dehumanizing and potentially destructive consequences of worker alienation and the overcentralization of organizational control began to surface almost as rapidly as the scientific management idea was carried forward by the Industrial Revolution.

By the 1930s, what came to be known as the human relations school of management had begun documenting the extent to which worker productivity is influenced by attitudes (pride of workmanship, enthusiasm for the work being done, a sense of identity with the employing firm, etc.) as well as task definition and the workers’ technical skills. Management theories began to recognize both the limits of rationality and the more human dimensions of worker supervision. These movements eventually led to substantial interest in “job enrichment” and redesign or reengineering of corporations.

On a more technical level, the idea that task management of everything from automobile manufacture to reading instruction could be guided by scientific, data-driven management blossomed into a virtual obsession. A “theory movement,” grounded in social scientific interpretations of organizational behavior, confidently predicted that task definition, functional organization designs, and careful measurement of product quality could lead to workplaces that are both humane and highly successful. W. E. Deming is widely credited with bringing scientific management concepts to bear on the rebuilding of Japanese industry following World War II and with making this devastated nation economically successful and a leader in the production of highly reliable and durable products in a broad range of industries including electronics and automobiles. Advances in theory and the advent of digital computers enabled the development of operations research, total quality management, and strategic planning, all aimed at refining the scientific management process and improving the micromanagement of production processes.

In public education, the latest round of scientific management theory lies at the heart of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind policy (Public Law 107-110), which insists on outcomes measurement, scientifically based program improvement, and high-stakes accountability enforcement for professional educators. In a recent and provocative essay, Dorothy Shipps challenges the scientific management model, not for its dehumanization of workers or naïve confidence in rational task specification, but for its denial of the fundamental importance of democratic political principles. She argues that scientifically managed organizations, particularly public bureaucracies like school systems, are driven by this ideology to reject democratic principles of decision making, thus becoming hopelessly insensitive to the rights and needs of clients (or customers) and forgetting the purposes for which they were established.

For Shipps, the tension is not between scientific management and respect for workers, but between organizational autonomy and the political legitimacy that comes with respect for democratic principles of decision making. This same challenge to the emphasis of scientific management on autonomous entrepreneurial control over organizational operations is being offered under the rubric of the “new institutionalism” by organizational theorists focusing their attention on the importance of links between organizations and their social environments.


  1. Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Powell, W. W., & DiMaggio, P. (1991). The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Shipps, D. (2006). The science and politics of urban education leadership: Toward a reorienting narrative. In
  4. E. Mitchell (Ed.), New foundations for knowledge in educational administration, policy and politics: Science and sensationalism (pp. 181–210). Mahwah, NJ: LawrenceErlbaum.
  5. Simon, H. A. (1947). Administrative behavior. New York: Macmillan.
  6. Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  7. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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