Wise words from an (almost) unknown guru

Peter Day
Global business correspondent

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What can I tell you about Mary Parker Follett? Well, she was a woman, which meant that though she was taught by Harvard professors, the university could not give her a degree.

She also uttered and wrote some of the wisest words about business life that anyone has put together.

Despite this, she is almost unknown, except among a small group of dedicated followers.

In a calling that now raises suspicions, but before it was even defined or named, Ms Follett was - quite simply - one of the greatest management thinkers of them all.

But it was all a long time ago. She died 80 years ago this month in 1933, at the age of 65.

I would like to suggest her ideas leap the decades with their prescient relevance, and their humane understanding of how people live, move and work in organisations. They are now more important than ever.

International reputation

Mary Parker Follett was a New Englander, born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1868. She studied hard in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where Harvard is located), and at Cambridge, England, and then became a social worker in a rough part of Boston.

She did social work for 25 years, and she started thinking hard about the way organisations worked, and how they could best reach the people they worked with. And when she thought, she communicated her ideas, eventually lecturing at the London School of Economics among other places.

In particular she wrote - in The New State - about governance - replacing the power of the bureaucrat with democratic networks of people who together analysed problems, and then accepted responsibility for solving them.

This book gave her an international reputation, and introduced her to the world of industrial relations. Her next book has a title that is still a rather thrilling way of thinking about business - Creative Experience. Her collected papers bore the title Dynamic Administration.

The idea of dynamic movement was very important to her, and that is perhaps why she was so happy to be out in the real world, rather than studying it as an academic (assuming that academic life would have been opened to her, as a woman).

Humanity and common sense

I know much of this thanks to an exciting book put together 20 years ago by a British consultant and businesswoman, Pauline Graham, who was bowled over by Ms Follett's ideas when she encountered them by accident in a London public library in the 1960s.

Mary Parker Follett - Prophet of Management has a notable cast of enthusiastic contributors, including business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and the now dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria.

The late management consultant and professor, Peter Drucker - a true genius - is the one who calls Ms Follet the prophet of management. He wrote: "She was not only right, but supremely relevant, and her relevance persists today."

In the first years of the 20th Century, corporations were dominated by the ideas of the time-and-motion expert Frederick Winslow Taylor. He took a stopwatch to measure the efficiency of the coal shovellers at the Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel Corporation, and thereby invented what he termed scientific management - organising human work for maximum output.

Ms Follett breathed humanity and common sense into this relentless approach to work. She thought that the study of human relations and of operating should be bound up together.

This respect for the wholeness of things - work, organisations, companies, societies - was a very important principle for her. She was fascinated by dynamic, complex organisms, and shunned the simplistic. This alone makes her very modern.

Because of this, you will not find a lot of catchy bullet points littering Ms Follett's work. Her power is the overwhelming balance and reasonableness of her wise approach to running things.

Do not try to see which side is right in a conflict, she says. Assume both sides are "right", and make the conflict work to produce an integration of interests, which is not victory nor compromise, but something in advance of both of those.

Ms Follett shunned amassing research data. Instead, she spoke as she found. On leadership, she wrote: "Many people tell me what I ought to do and just how I ought to do it, but few have made me want to do something."

Then she argued - as summed up by Prof Drucker - that business was a social institution, when most business people thought of it only as an economic thing, subject to a kit of management-theory tools.

She believed in the sanctity of work, and the intertwining of work and society. She told a British audience in Oxford in 1926 that "industry is the most important field of human activity and management is the fundamental element in industry".

This is supremely relevant when - over and over again - modern businesses (such as banks) lose sight of their social role and betray the trust of those who use them and need them.

Pointing the way

Prof Drucker thinks Mary Parker Follett was neglected after her death not because she was a woman, but because of the revolutionary nature of her thoughts - they ran counter to the developing management ideas of the mid-20th Century.

"The 1930s and 1940s simply did not want to hear," he wrote.

And how she would have deplored the way that financial capitalism has wormed its way into the business world, so that short-term profitability and the payouts associated with it have replaced most of the other wider aims of the corporation.

When I reviewed 25 years of my BBC Radio 4 programme In Business for a recent Archive on 4, some people objected that there were so few women among the roll call of big business thinkers we put into the show.

I could only reply that in 25 years of making the programme I had not encountered many women who made me think business was really changing direction, in a way that lots of the men did.

But then I never had the opportunity to put a microphone in front of Mary Parker Follett, and if I had done, she would have stolen the show. She is still pointing the way into a better organisational future, 80 years after she died.