Perspectives: The Emergence of Management Science in Canada

Management sciences permeate modern life. Once thought to be largely the purview of corporate executives, management buzzwords about “value propositions,” “performance metrics,” “client-centred” services now can be heard in almost any organizational context. As individuals, we cannot help but encounter management thinking - as customers and workers, we are its targets, its perpetuators, its products.

It is hard to imagine there was a time in Canada when there was no managerial class, no large-scale organizations, and certainly no business buzzwords as we would understand them. These were, in part, all products of the Industrial Revolution and urban growth, the twin processes that transformed what was then a mostly rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial one. But they were also partly the result of a broad-based, determined intellectual movement dedicated to addressing the attendant problems of modern business and society through both scientific management and organizational control (Wiebe, 1967; Haber, 1973; Krywulak, 2005).

As railways, steamships, and telegraphs opened new markets and businesses became larger and more complex, business owners and production engineers began to recognize that the benefits that could be achieved through economies of scale brought problems of its own. Bigger businesses meant more customers, more workers, more raw materials, more parts, more of everything to manage. The solution was to hire more administrative personnel to track, coordinate, and improve efficiency and eliminate waste. Soon many larger businesses would have their own mini-bureaucracies of secretaries, supervisors, and managers (Jenks, 1960; Chandler, 1977; Lowe, 1987). Naturally, these people would require training. At first, it was easy enough for businesses to do this in an informal way through on-the-job apprenticeships. Yet as demand for the skills increased, an opportunity arose for enterprising educators to develop formal training programs to fill the gap. Several did just that with the opening of trade schools in business such as the British and American College (Toronto, 1860), the Ontario Business College (Belleville, 1868), and the Forest City Business College (London, 1885).

It was around this time that some began to think that “scientific” management would be more appropriately taught in universities rather than in “applied” college programs. In North America, the first of these programs was launched at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1881. Other institutions sought to do the same, but often met with resistance from university faculty and administrators who said that universities were not trade schools and should instead continue to focus on the core components of a true classical, liberal education - history, philosophy, literature, Latin and Greek, with perhaps a little of what was then known as “political economy.” This was among the reasons why universities in Canada did not even begin to offer its university-level business courses until the early 1900s (Owram, 1986; Austin, 2000).

In spite of this, pressure to offer applied programs that were thought to be more appropriate to modern life continued to escalate through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Parents and students wanted it, businesses and governments needed it, and some universities were beginning to offer it. Those that failed to do the same risked being left behind (Owram, 1986; Austin, 2000).

Even in these circumstances, what business education really needed to break through was the perception of social respectability and scientific credibility. So long as many of its functions, such as “production engineering” and “bookkeeping,” were regarded along the lines of manual labour or clerical work, and “management” was seen to be an applied practice instead of a science, business could never rise to the same stature as other university disciplines. This began to change as professional associations were established to promote the status of various business functions, and to protect the interests and standards of those operating within these areas. The founding of organizations such as the Dominion Institute of Chartered Accountants (1902) and the Life Office Managers Association (1924) reflected these trends.

Equally important was the creation of a scientific body of knowledge. A major step in this direction came with the publication of F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911), widely regarded as one of the founding texts of modern business thinking. Though the idea of adopting a scientific approach to business efficiency was hardly novel, what Taylor and other early management gurus did was to codify, popularize, and develop the emerging approaches for doing so. Soon their ideas were being transmitted through conferences, trade and professional journals, and the popular press (Wren, 1972, Nelson, 1975; Merkle, 1980; Alavarez, 1998).

By the early 1920s, the science of management had reached the “tipping point.” Queen’s University would launch the first full Bachelor of Commerce program in 1919, with schools such as McGill (1920), Toronto (1921), Western (1922) and others following suit soon thereafter. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, these programs expanded, becoming increasingly specialized as new sub-disciplines started to emerge areas such as marketing, finance, and operations management. The administrative demands of the Second World War and the postwar expansion of business and government only further heightened the demand for specialized business graduates - oftentimes, ironically those with the very kind of “applied knowledge” once derided by the opponents of business education.

Today, one may wonder if university-based business research has gone the other direction. A recent report by the Council of Canadian Academies Expert Panel on Management, Business, and Finance (MBF) Research found that - while Canadian MBF research ranks “above the world average” overall - “collaborative work with the private and public sector represents less than 10 per cent of co-authored papers,” and that the “most significant weakness in Canadian MBF research is its lack of explicit relevance and usefulness as perceived by the potential end users of the work.”(Council, 2009) This was identified as a missed opportunity, since more directly applied MBF research could be a major contributor to Canadian business productivity and growth - not to mention an additional stimulus to the perceived value of university-based business research. In thinking about the future of business education, today’s business researchers thus may be well advised to look for inspiration in its past.

Tim Krywulak is a former Program Director at the Council of Canadian Academies.


Works Cited

Alvarez, Jose Luis (ed.), The Diffusion and Consumption of Business Knowledge. London: MacMillan, 1998.

Austin, Barbra (ed.). Capitalizing Knowledge: Essays on the History of Business Education in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Council of Canadian Academies. Better Research for Better Business: The Report of the Expert Panel on Management, Business, and Finance Research. Ottawa: Author, May 2009.

Haber, Samuel. Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era, 1890'1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Jenks, Leland. "Early Phases of the Management Movement," Administrative Science Quarterly 5 (1960), pp. 420'447.

Krywulak, Tim. "An Archaeology of Keynesianism: The Macro-Political Foundations of the Modern Welfare State in Canada, 1896-1948." PhD thesis, Carleton University, 2005.

Lowe, Graham. Women in the Administrative Revolution: The Feminization of Clerical Work. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987.

Merkle, Judith A. Ideology and Management: The Legacy of the International Scientific Management Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Nelson, Daniel. Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Owram, Doug. The Government Generation: Canadian Intellectuals and the State, 1900'1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986.

Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877'1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.

Wren, Daniel A. The Evolution of Management Thought. New York: Ronald Press, 1972.

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