Hoopes' book presents a gallery of management thinkers and introduce their work through the lenses of a political science perspective. Political scientists who use the concept of power to describe economic or social mechanisms are sometimes prone to its abuse: they see politics everywhere, and they consider all references to general ideals or moral sentiments as stratagems used by rulers to obfuscate the brutal exercise of top-down authority.
Power is indeed a key concept for political scientists, as interest is for economists, and both concepts may help them to build theories or propose models of corporate behavior. But management scholars are practically oriented, and they know that power or interests can sometimes be bad for practice. That is why politics is a bad name in a private business setting, and motivation takes many forms other than paycheck retribution.
According to Hoopes, the simple existence of top-down management power contradicts the democratic political values at the heart of American culture. "Ordinary citizen get their closest exposure to undemocratic government when they go to work for a corporation." The book argues that remembering that contradiction, rather than covering it up, as many management theorists have done, is the best way to manage well. "Top-down power and its potential abuse are here to stay in corporate America. It is foolish to think otherwise." So it is better to admit that we live two lives, one as free citizen and one as submissive employees, and that instead of extending corporate values in our democratic institutions we should build checks and balances in our political system to limit the abuse of management power. Unfortunately this is not the direction that management gurus have taken.
Hoopes begins his tour of portraits with Frederick W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management. Taylor is now considered mostly an embarrassment in the history of management, and he serves as a negative milestone against which later approaches were constructed. But his emphasis on efficiency, low costs, and pay to performance still makes sense today. Better, Taylor can be portrayed as a pioneer of knowledge management, as he saw knowledge as a key resource that had to be properly managed by teams of experts. His success owes much to the state of management education at his time: "new business schools such as Harvard had embarrassingly little systematic knowledge to teach and desperately embraced Taylorism to fill class time (....) Students attention could be concentrated on instruction cards, slide rules, and time study, lending business schools a facade of science and academic rigor."
The other scholar who took Harvard Business School by storm is Elton Mayo, whose human relations movement imposed a new curriculum in management education. The Australian social psychologist is cast as the villain in Hooper's story: he is depicted as lying about his curriculum, and as substituting intellectual aloofness for academic rigor. His dream was to replace democracy with therapy: he treated Bolshevism as a mental illness, and labor grievances as symptoms of deeply-held neuroses. HBS, where his recruitment owed more to his ability to attract money from the Rockefeller foundation than to his scientific credentials, gave him the institutional power to develop and sell his ideas, which reinforced the managerial profession's claim for social status based on its dedication to human service. Although he only supervised the study from afar, he is mostly remembered for the Hawthorne experiment at General Electric, which demonstrated that gentle and caring supervision created better group dynamics. But he is still considered as the founder of Organizational Behavior, a discipline that has become a part of every business school curriculum.
By contrast, Mary Parker Follett gets many praises as a shining personality and a brilliant social theorist. Trained as a political scientist, she contributed original insights to social theory and business management by trying to integrate the opposite interests of bosses and workers. Using her social work experience as a new model of political democracy, Follett eventually came to believe that a corporation at its best is a person. According to her, "the group, because it means a larger life than our single, separate lives, thrills us and raises us to new levels of efficiency and power." She believed that all employees should contribute to management, and she may have erred in her confidence in leadership as a substitute for power, yet her thoughts reflected the better aspects of corporate life.
Finally, Peter Drucker, whose portrait closes the volume, is the only management expert who deserves the title of guru, used generously throughout the book. His mix of social theory and practical business advice attracted a cult following, not only in the United States but also in Japan and in Europe. Fleeing central Europe's descent into chaos in the 1930s, Drucker began his career as a journalist and did some fieldwork at General Motors before moving to academia, where he became the quintessential business guru. In the 1960s, he first called attention to the growing role of knowledge workers; in the 1970s, he pioneered management by objectives and called attention to Japanese companies' distinctive practices; in the 1980s, his increasing disenchantment with corporate America led him to turn his focus to nonprofit organizations, which were in bad need of rigorous management techniques. Drucker also played a role of the ubiquitous social critic for business managers who usually have little time for sociological treatises and philosophical thought.
My impression upon reading this book is mixed. The introductory chapter presents a strong thesis, namely that management gurus obfuscate the anti-democratic nature of corporate power, but this basic insight covers only a limited aspect of the management doctrines that are reviewed in the subsequent chapters. It is not obvious that the author has actually read all the material that he covers--not that the management books of these mostly forgotten authors are worth re-reading anyway. If you need a critical introduction to the thoughts and doctrines of management gurus, I find The Witch Doctors by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge a much more pleasant and informative read.