One hundred years of management

The roots of modern management lie at the turn of the 20th century - and, for good or ill, in the stopwatch.

The roots of modern management lie at the turn of the 20th century - and, for good or ill, in the stopwatch.

Elihu Root (1845-1937) was an exceptional man. Yet the life of this dandy of the late 19th and early 20 centuries is generally overlooked amid the pantheon of great statesmen and empire-creating business heroes.

Root was a brilliant lawyer with a ruthless streak and a capacity to get things done. In one criminal trial, the judge pointedly advised Root to spend more time with his conscience. Theodore Roosevelt, whom Root keenly supported, referred to him as “the greatest man that has arisen on either side of the Atlantic in my lifetime”, adding that Root was “the brutal friend to whom I pay the most attention”.

If you wanted brutality with bangs, you called on Root. No less an authority than Gore Vidal has described him as “an animated feather duster”. President McKinley called in 1899, asking him to become secretary of war. This was a surprising appointment. Root was an active New York Republican and lawyer but was largely unknown and untried. McKinley recognised that Root’s brand of intellectual force was what was required in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.

The war had been won. It had, however, revealed the American military machine to be a complete shambles. The army had problems devising its strategy because it didn’t have any maps of the right areas. Soldiers were dispatched to Cuba with winter uniforms. The logistics were chaotic – at one point 300 railroad cars arrived in Tampa, Florida, without anyone knowing what they contained. After the war’s end, the Dodge Commission sought to get to the bottom of the incompetence. It took eight volumes and concluded “no well regulated...corporation could transact business satisfactorily” if organised as the military then was.

The secretary of war, R A Alger, did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the way open for Root. What then followed was a complete reorganisation of the US Army. The feather duster indulged in a rigorous spot of spring-cleaning.

Root identified a lack of co-ordination among the various parts of the army as a key problem. He wanted to make the various army chiefs accountable and in touch. Too many, Root lamented, “had become entrenched in Washington armchairs”. The army’s administration was reorganised; a war college established; and, among many other initiatives, a general staff created. When Root was questioned by Congress on his innovations, one senator observed that “Washington and Napoleon had no need for strategy boards”.

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