The Relevance of Kuhn’s Ideas for Understanding Changes in Management Theory

Thomas Kuhn, an influential physicist and philosopher who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, changed the way many people think about how science develops.  Before Kuhn, science progress was dominated by the idea that it occurs in a linear way. However, Kuhn’s ideas differed dramatically. He saw that science progresses through a series of alternating normal and revolutionary phases (Horgan, 1991). To support his ideas, Thomas Kuhn took examples of the revolutions that occur in science, particularly related to his work in astronomy and physics. He described Copernican revolution and the development of quantum theory.

Although the changes explained by Kuhn occur in science, actually such changes can be found in other fields. As in science, theory in the field of management has changed and evolved. In this essay, I want to argue that Kuhn’s ideas of science progress are very revelant for understanding changes in management theory. My main thesis is that changes in management theory also do not occur in a linear way, but progress through a series of alternating normal and revolutionary phases similar to the structure of scientific revolutions described by Kuhn. In the first part, I will explain Thomas Kuhn’s ideas regarding the structure of science revolution. Next, I will explain the relevance of scientific revolution to the changes in management theory by specifically discussing the changes from ‘Taylorism’ to the new management theories.

In 1962, Kuhn explained that science progresses through several stages. The first stage of science progress according to Kuhn is prescience or preparadigm. During this stage, there is no specific consensus on theory, assumptions, or believe to define, and tackle problems. After several puzzles can be solved within a single mental framework or paradigm, science progress goes into the second stage called ‘normal science’. During this stage, scientists run daily research activity and proceed in a puzzle-solving mode within the prevalling paradigm. In this stage, the failure of a result to conform to the paradigm is seen as the mistake of the researcher. As time goes on, anomalies appear. In the beginning, scientists still try to solve the anomalies by using approaches guided by the prevalling paradigm. Nevertheless, unresolved anomalies thus accumulate which ultimately convince scientists to accept that the existing paradigm fails to resolve the anomalies. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis. This leads to the next phase that is called revolutionary science. At this stage, there is great enthusiasm for developing a new mental model that can be used as a guideline to resolve the anomalies. In this case, a paradigm shift occurs when the new mental model is perceived as a better explanation than the old paradigm. Kuhn believed that this shift is a long period process and cannot be established solely based on objective criteria, but depends on the consensus of a scientific community (Okasha, 2002).

Similar to Kuhn’s explanation, over time changes in management theory take place through the stage of preparadigm, normal science, crisis, and revolution. In the 18th Century there was no consensus on any management theories. At that time, methods to support decision-making were mostly based on personal experience and intuition rather than proven facts. However, after the American economy started to grow, industry then expanded and faced the challenges to keep up with the new demands from huge population.

Following Kuhn’s flow, management thinking then entered a phase where researchers start searching for a default mental model. In 1911, Frederick Taylor abolished rule of thumb principle and conducted extensive research that led to the establishment of standard rules and regulations which were popularly known as scientific management (Bedeian and Wren, 2001). According to Taylor, the maximum good for all society can come only by applying scientific methods. Taylor believed that the most important goal of a firm in business is to make money for its shareholders. To achieve the goal, managers must direct and fully control the workers through bureaucracy and top-down communication (Taylor, 1911). Furthermore, Taylor suggested that the best way to encourage the workers to be more productive is to use monetary incentives (Taylor, 1911).

Relevant with the period of ‘normal science’ described by Kuhn, for the next hundred years, the basic assumption and belief that the best way to manage a firm is to apply scientific methods became the default mental model or paradigm. During this stage, many researchers implemented ‘Taylorism’ paradigm, fine tuned the paradigm, solved more puzzles, and extended the paradigm’s range of application. H. L. Gantt was one of the researchers who worked within the paradigm. Gantt developed Gantt chart, an aid for helping us schedule tasks and display the flow of work, so that managers can implement scientific management easily (Daniel, 2015). Harrington Emerson extended the application of scientific management in the railroad industry. Emerson’s finding showed that to improve efficiency, managers in the railroad industry must direct and advise the ‘line’ workers (Montgomery, 1974). This result confirmed the idea of managers controlling workers and top-down communication explained by Taylor. In the construction industry, Frank Gilbreth developed motion studies that complemented Taylor’s time studies. James O. McKinsey, founder of a consulting firm bearing his name, also worked within the paradigm as he advocated budgets as a means of assuring accountability and of measuring performance. All of the aforementioned researchers worked within the paradigm and believed that Taylor ideas helped management by making employees more efficient.

After being widely applied to improve business efficiency, as in science, anomalies to ‘Taylorism’ paradigm also appeared. One of the anomalies associated with the application of scientific management was revealed by Elton Mayo (Miner, 2006). From 1927 to 1932, Mayo was conducting an experiment at Western Electric. In his experiments, Mayo undertook a series of changes in working conditions such as changes in monetary incentives, working hours, rest break, and so on in order to know how the changes affect business productivity (Bourke1, 1949). The results of Mayo’s research revealed that the changes in the input variables did not have a significant effect on productivity. This is contrary to Taylor who argued that giving monetary incentives will improve firms’ performance. According to Mayo, factors like human emotions and good communication between management and workers are more influential in determining productivity (Kennedy, 2007). It was showed by the fact that workers’ performance improves when the workers believe that management is making changes to help them increase performance. Again, this is very different from the basic idea of ‘Taylorism’ paradigm, which assumes that managers control workers and top-down communitation are the best ways to improve firms’ performance.

However, anomalies found by Mayo didn’t not necessarily make researchers immediately leave the ‘Taylorsim’ paradigm. After Mayo’s research, many companies were still applying the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm to improve business performance. This is relevant to Kuhn’s idea stating that previous successes resulting from the use of prevalling paradigm have encouraged the belief that solutions to solve anomalies within the same paradigm are available.

Nevertheless, just as described by Kuhn, anomalies accumulate. Sometimes, Taylor’s principle led to conflict between employee and employer. The failure of scientific management to pay attention to the importance of human emotion and good communication between management and workers sometimes also led to strike.

Chris Argyris argued that change in the workforce and the nature of work for the application of ‘Taylorism’ paradigm creates many problems. He explained that earlier in the century, ‘Taylorism’ paradigm might have been suited to an ill-educated and deferential work force.  However, by the 1950s, he believed that autocratic methods guided by the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm no longer suited well-educated workers with democratic values who wanted autonomy and meaningful work. He stated that applying the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm to the new work force would lead to conflicts.

Besides not paying much attention to the human factor, other reasons that cause anomalies in the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm are globalization and technological advancement. In the past, when a few big firms could dictate terms to the marketplace, the idea that the firm could simply focus on efficiency and making money for its shareholders as guided by ‘Taylorism’ paradigm worked. However, globalization and technological advancement like Internet steadily shifted the balance of power from the firm to the customer. Customers have more options and eventually competition makes the firm’s profit margin decrease. All of these factors made researchers start questioning the effectiveness of ‘Taylorism’ paradigm.

After the confidence in the prevalling paradigm has declined, Kuhn explained that the science development enter a revolutionary phase. Some researchers in the field of management began to re-examine the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm, including the assumptions that the goal of the firm is to make money for shareholders, that managers control workers via top-down communication, that work is coordinated by bureaucracy, and that efficiency is the most important value of the firm.

The re-examination of assumptions used in the ‘Taylorism’ paradigm ultimately led to changes in management theories. This is relevant to Kuhn’s ideas stating that there would be great enthusiasm for developing new mental models that are different from the prevalling paradigm so that they can be used to resolve the anomalies. In the field of management, several new theories emerged to address anomalies caused by human emotions, bad communication methods, and the shift of power from company to customer due to globalization and technological developments.

Several researchers proposed new theories to address the problems associated with human dimension and communication method. In 1960, Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Management in which he introduced the concept of Theory X and Theory Y styles of management. According to McGregor, theory X was the name for the style of management most in use at the time that stresses the importance of strict supervision, external rewards, and penalties. This is similar to the concept of managers control workers guided by ‘Taylorism’ paradigm. McGregor believed that it is a form of negative reinforcement so he proposed a new theory called Theory Y. This theory is based on the belief that generally workers would act like mature adults, and would make the goals of the company their goals. Theory Y encourages workers to approach tasks without direct supervision. This can be an answer to the limitation of ‘Taylorism’ paradigm that neglects the importance of human dimension of work. Besides McGregor, Charles Handy in 1993 suggested that works should be coordinated via dynamic linking instead of via bureaucracy (Handy, 1993). In addition, Handy also suggested that communication should be in the form of horizontal socially-based conversations, as opposed to vertical communications guided by ‘Taylorism’ paradigm.

Besides new theories to address human dimension and communication method, there are also new theories to address problems caused by globalization and technological advancement. In 1993, Charles Handy stated that companies’ goals must be set to add value to their stakeholders instead of just maximizing profit for their shareholders. Similar to Handy, Phillip Kotler took into account the importance of adding value to stakeholders by proposing several new theories in the marketing field that emphasize the shift from product-centric marketing to customer-centric marketing and later on to value-centric marketing (Kotler and Kertajaya, 2015). All of these theories emphasize responsibility over profitability and believe that organizations success should be measured by the satisfaction among all stakeholders. Furthermore, these new theories also introduce other values than financial value that need to be pursued by the organizations.

Based on the explanations mentioned above, we can conclude that Kuhn’s ideas actually are very relevant for understanding changes in management theory. We know that in the past ‘Taylorism’ paradigm had been working well for years to improve companies’ performance. However, after the nature of workforce changed and internet shifted the power from companies to customers, applying ‘Taylorism’ paradigm did not always result in an increase in company’s productivity. This led researchers to search for new theories. The change from ‘Taylorism’ paradigm to the new theories did not occur linearly, but through a series of alternating normal and revolutionary phases following the pattern of scientific revolutions explained by Kuhn.

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