The Management Science School

At the beginning of World War II, Great Britain desperately needed to solve a number of new, complex problems in warfare. With their survival at stake, the British formed the first operational research (OR) teams. By pooling the expertise of mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists in OR teams, the British were able to achieve significant technological and tactical breakthroughs. When the Americans entered the war, they formed what they called operations research teams based on the successful British model to solve similar problems. The teams used early computers to perform the thousands of calculations involved in mathematical modeling.

When the war was over, the Applicability of operations research top problems in industry gradually became apparent. New industrial technologies were being put into use and transportation and communication were becoming more complicated. These developments brought with them a host of problems that could not be solved easily by conventional means. Increasingly, OR specialists were called on to help managers come up with answers to these new problems. Over the years, OR procedures were formalized into what is now more generally called the management science school.

The management science school gained popularity through two postwar phenomena. First, the development of high speed computers and of communications among computers provided the means for tackling complex and large scale organizational problems. Second, Robert McNamara implemented a management science approach at Ford Motor Company in the 1950s and 1960s. (later he brought the same approach to his assignment as Secretary of Defense in the Johnson Administration) As McNamara’s so called Whiz Kids protégés moved to management positions at Ford and across American industry, the management science school flourished. If you find yourself working in an organization where crunching the numbers is the central way that management decisions are reached and justified you can thank McNamara and his generation.

Today the management science approach to solving a problem begins when a mixed team of specialists from relevant disciplines is called in to analyze the problem and purpose a course of action to management. The team constructs a mathematical model that shows, in symbolic terms, all relevant factors bearing on the problem and how they are interrelated. By changing the value of the variables in the model (such as increasing the cost of raw materials) and analyzing the different equations of the model with a computer, the team can determine the effects of each change. Eventually the management science team presents management with an objective basis for making a decision.

Management science offered a whole new way to think about time. With sophisticated mathematical models, and computers to crunch the numbers, forecasting the future based on the past and present became a popular activity. Managers can now play with the “what if the future looks like this? question that previous management theories could not handle. At the same time, the management science school pays less attention to relationships per se in organizations. Mathematical modeling tends to ignore relationships as data, emphasizing numerical data that can be relatively easily collected or estimated. The criticism is this that management science promotes an emphasis on only the aspects of the organization that can be captured in numbers, missing the importance of people and relationships.

Recent Developments in management theory:

Theories are powerful influences. The longer we use a given theory, the more comfortable we become with it and the more we tend to not seek out alternative theories unless events force us to change. This helps explain why modern management theory is really a rich mosaic of many theories that have endured over at least the past century. One benefit of understanding this concurrent popularity of many points of view about organizations is that it prepares you for your own organizational experiences. If this article has not already brought to mind different managerial styles to which you have been exposed, it will prepare you for the day when, for example, you work for a management science manager who in turn works for a manager who practices by one of the theories. Or if you have already experienced such managers, it will help you understand their perspectives better.

While it is impossible to predict what future generations will be studying, at this point we can identify at least three additional perspectives on management theory that can grow in importance: the systems approach, the contingency approach, and what we call the dynamic engagement approach.