Management Learning in Historical Perspective: Rediscovering Rowntree and the British Interwar Management Movement

6 08 2019
I would like to draw the attention of my readers to a superb new business-historical paper that has appeared in Academy of Management Learning & Education.  The paper Mairi Maclean, Gareth Shaw, Charles Harvey and Alan Booth develops our understanding of the history of management education at the same time as addressing a classic debate in the field of business that was initiated by the late Al Chandler’s remarks about the role of education in the relative decline of British industry.

Abstract: British interwar management (1918-1939) has been criticized as overly conservative, comprising a core of progressive firms amidst a mass of conservatively-run, family-dominated businesses. According to the dominant narrative, British firms exhibited little interest in new managerial approaches. Our study of the Rowntree business lectures and British interwar management movement challenges this view; suggesting British managers displayed greater openness to innovation than is commonly recognized. We uncover and analyse a network of British firms engaged in management education through organized peer-to-peer communication, facilitated by lectures and management research groups initiated by Seebohm Rowntree. Our primary contribution to the literature is to offer a more nuanced perspective on the evolution of British management learning in the interwar years. This reveals dynamic knowledge networks reflexively engaged in advancing and codifying practice-based learning to promote the diffusion of effective solutions to shared problems – building communities of practice, codifying management knowledge, and drawing on an ethos of ‘business as service’. By undertaking archival research to create a coherent body of documentary material, and making this available to others, we also make a methodological contribution, creating a new ‘space’ for future researchers to explore, from which they can write new management histories of their own.

 

One of the many great things about this paper is that the authors have adopted a variant of the Open Data principle and have shared the data (i.e., the historical documents on which the paper is based) in an online repository. I have long advocated the adoption of Open Data as a norm in the field of business history (see our paper on the subject in Business History) and I am thus very pleased to see this principle being applied here in such an excellent way. Check out all of the historical sources on the companion website for this paper, which can be found here.


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