2007 – Classroom management a shadow of the real thing
Allan Leighton, chairman of the Royal Mail, had some stern
words for delegates at the annual conference of the Chartered
Institute of Personnel and Development in Harrogate this
Speaking in People Management Magazine, ahead of the conference
where he was heading a session on leadership, Mr Leighton
said that HR professionals should not regard themselves
as responsible for employees in a company. That was the
job of managers, he said.
Nor should they be taking the lead on modern working practices
such as flexible hours and diversity. They should leave
that to line managers. The job of HR, he argued, was to
work on employment policies, training and progress monitoring.
His comments are striking because they coincide with a
vigorous attack on the influential human relations school
of management in a recent book, The Puritan Gift, by Kenneth
and William Hopper.
I came across the Hopper brothers some time ago when I
was researching my own book on the history of work,
Sweat and Tears, The Evolution of Work. I was
impressed at the depth of knowledge accumulated by Ken Hopper
on the development of Post Second World war Japanese working
But the book demonstrates a far broader understanding of
management history and puts the Japanese developments in
to context with those in the US. The Hoppers share my fascination
with the origins and influence of the protestant work ethic
to such an extent that if their book had been published
first, most likely I would have scrapped my project and
done something else.
The Puritan ethic, they argue, created the conditions for
a “golden age” in American management running
before and after the Second World War, between the years
1920 and 1970. The most important feature of this ethic,
they suggest, is attitude, the kind of attitude that is
willing to pool experience, lend a helping hand and work
for the whole.
I suppose this was exemplified in the collaboration achieved
by those under the supervision of Thomas Edison at his Menlo
Park Laboratory, New Jersey, in the late 19th century. Edison’s
workmen called each other “muckers,” reflecting
the way they mucked-in or pitched-in together.
But what really made the big American companies of the
20th century most effective, say the authors, was the systematic
approach of management that evolved to harness and magnify
the expertise of the workforce.
Somewhat controversially they argue that the US management
system has been undermined by what they call the “cult
of the expert” pursued by the business schools in
their aim of creating professional managers.
The late Peter Drucker had voiced such reservations as
early as 1954 in his book, The Practice of Management, when
he warned of the potential economic damage that could result
from a professonalisation of management if access to management
was limited to people with a special academic degree.
While the MBA has yet to secure an exclusive status among
managers, its penetration of managerial ranks is worrying,
say the authors. The same criticism might be levelled at
the relatively recent moves by both the CIPD and the Chartered
Institute of Management, to professionalise their respective
management qualifications by adopting chartered status,
although each of these organisations include time in the
job within their qualifications. Should a need for professional
qualifications exclude experienced business managers? I
don’t think so. Nor should it be placed at a premium.
Nothing can replace what the Hoppers describe as “domain
This is why some business managers such as Allan Leighton
and Jack Welch, speaking at another recent seminar, have
become cautious about the potential influence of some human
resources practices in modern companies. The danger for
business arises when the theory cannot match the experience
of managers and employees working in their respective roles.
The Hoppers extend their criticism beyond business qualifications
such as the MBA in to other academic areas. “The profusion
of doctorates existing today offers an extreme example of
credentialism, one of the worst intellectual vices of our
age,” they write.
The brothers are particularly heated about the lasting
impact of the work study experiments at Western Electric’s
Hawthorne plant in Chicago that influenced the human relations
school of management. As they put it, the academic analysis
of the Hawthorne experiments, was responsible for a persistent
belief that management had to be “nice” to the
While I agree that the conclusions drawn from the experiment
were flawed, ignoring the influence, for example, of pay
in motivation. I do not think that academics were wrong
in highlighting the importance of encouragement and recognition
in work. Unfortunately the academics overlooked other sources
of motivation such as fear of censure, demotion and, ultimately
of losing one’s job that remains a powerful incentive
for many in the workforce. I do not argue, however, with
the author’s point that the role of the manager is
to be “fair” rather than “nice.”
It’s a subtle but important distinction.
The Hoppers blame an emphasis on “niceness”
for a decline in shop-floor discipline. While this might
have occurred in the US I don’t recall witnessing
any kid-gloves management during my own career. I have known
one or two tyrants in management but most managers I have
dealt with I would describe as tough but fair.
This impression may be changing in today’s workplace
where graduates are entering the workforce with new expectations.
But collegiate-style working practices do not appear to
have done much harm to companies such as Asda, the supermarket
If I have one big criticism of The Puritan Gift it is that
it suffers from a sense of nostalgia, a niggling belief
that things were better in the past. I remember well the
distrustful days of “us and them” management
when unions and managers were trying continually to get
one over each other. Indeed I engaged in such practices
as a shop steward, or what unionised journalists quaintly
call the “father of the chapel.”
When I went on strike during the so-called “winter
of discontent” in 1978-79, the sole aim was to secure
a better pay deal. There was nothing personal. The editor
came in to the pub and bought everyone a drink.
It is tempting to hark back to the “good old days”
when workers had a little power and there was no going cap-in-hand
for a pay rise. But industrial strife didn’t seem
to do much for the economy. Golden ages abound in many economies
throughout history. They come and they go. In the meantime
US productivity rates continue to be the envy of other economies.
The best thing about The Puritan Gift is that it is a real
book, full of fascinating insights, intellectual rigour
and challenging, authoritative arguments that remind us
that there is nothing new about the responsibilities of
management. Perhaps its most valuable contribution is to
stress those responsibilities and to make the point that
there really is no substitute for knowing your job.
The Puritan Gift, Triumph, Collapse and Revival of
an American Dream, by Kenneth and William Hopper, is published
by I B Tauris, price £24.50
See also: Blood
Sweat & Tears