Is Management a Science?


As thinking about the nature of management has evolved over the years, there was a point at the beginning of the 20th century when management was very much seen as a science. This was the time of “scientific management”, the brain child of FW Taylor. It was the era of efficiency, with all activities undergoing measurement to ensure wasted effort was reduced to a minimum – time and motion observations were fundamental to effective management practice. 

Added on 10 October 2014 by Ian Hayward

Is management a science?

Henry Ford was the great exponent of scientific management. His moving assembly line required a worker to be trained in only 1 of the 84 steps required to produce his model T. The organisational metaphor was that of the machine and the corporate language of the time reflected this with references to “running like clockwork”, “pulling levers” and “production control”. Regarding management as a science was prevalent right the way through to the middle of the last century and arguable beyond, with the pre-occupation in the 1990s with “process re-engineering” being a good example of how the organisational metaphor continued at least in some quarters.

With the passage of time the distinction between management and leadership became the subject of lively debate and, for those who accepted the difference, the spotlight moved to evolving thinking about the nature of leadership. If management was about getting people to do the right things, then leadership was about getting them to want to do the right things. From the middle to the end of the last century leadership thinking was still influenced by the sciences, but by now it was the social and behavioural sciences with the organisational metaphor being that of the living organism that had to be nurtured and cared for.

Nowadays there is a school of thought that leadership is both a science and an art but I am not so sure.

Leadership is an art form. To be effective leaders, like artists, have to interpret their organisational context in order to generate a compelling and inspiring vision for those who follow, from an otherwise blank canvass. But I am less convinced that leadership is also a science. Science implies a precision that, in the uncertainty and unpredictability that many organisations face, is seldom possible.

The scientific connection between cause and effect is often blurred through the intervention of many different and sometimes competing variables, given the complexity of organisations nowadays. As well as an art, I believe leadership is a craft. Like a skilled craftsman the effective leader has to select then right tool for the job and deploy it with skill, varying their style to suit the needs of those they lead as well as the situation within which they are leading.

Given the challenges I see leaders facing day to day, e.g. leading complex change, managing diverse teams geographically and culturally dispersed, attracting and retaining talent and addressing environmental concerns, it is this combination of art and craft that enables leaders to effectively address today’s leadership challenges.

Dr. Ian Hayward is a Leadership and Organisational Change Faculty member at Ashridge Business School. Previously he held senior HR positions in the BBC and at British Airways