"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."
--L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Management is addicted to the idea of the new. We are bombarded by messages telling us that ‘the only constant is change’ and ‘the past is not a guide to future’. That last is true. Any historian will tell you that the past cannot be used as a guide to predicting the future. However, the past can be used as a guide to help explain both present and in future. And in our scramble to embrace change and shed old ideas in favor of new ones, we oftentimes forget that continuity as well as change can be a powerful force.
People have been managing businesses and other organisations for the past five thousands years – possibly even longer, but that is as far back as written records go. We know, oftentimes in surprising levels of detail, how these early organisations were managed. At the ancient Egyptian village known as the Place of Truth (the modern Deir al-Madina), records have been found that show how the workers who built the tombs of the pharaohs were organized and managed. The records tell us that the workers were organized in teams; that there was division of labor with each team made up of specialists assigned certain tasks; that there was competition between teams; that there were detailed accounts recording the use of manpower and tools and that junior managers were accountable to their bosses. We have records of sick notes by workers and a description of history’s first recorded strike. It all sounds entirely modern.
Do we really do business differently today? Peruse the immense archive left by the Italian merchant Francesco Datini in the late fourteenth century, with well over a hundred thousand letters, contracts and other documents, and it will seem not. Datini was worried about the same things we worry about today: market volatility, risk, price and exchange rate fluctuations, supply, labor. He knew, as good managers know today, that the key to successful management is information and knowledge. He knew too that
good relationships with suppliers and customers are essential.
The nature of management changes according to the times we are in, and culture and environment are powerful shaping forces that affect management thinking. We can see this in our own time, and if we are dispassionate, when we sit down and examine the management methods we use today, we can see how they are affected by the world
around us. The belief in decentralised organization and empowerment are the best ways to manage people have grown precisely in parallel with the beliefs in freedom and democracy in the world around us. This is not to say that this is either bad or good, only to make the point that society conditions and affects management thinking.
But the fundamentals of good management are the same today as they were five thousand years ago. And there is no reason to believe that they will not be the same five thousand years hence.
Fellow, Centre for Leadership Studies
University of Exeter Business School
Click here for more information on A History of Managment Thought