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OR vis-à-vis Management in the 1950s: Background May 29, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
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I have a new article out: William Thomas, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s,” Business History Review 86 (2012): 99–122.  Thanks to the journal’s liberal author’s rights, you can download your very own copy by clicking on the title.  Here’s the abstact:

This article examines the establishment of the field of operations research (OR) at the Arthur D. Little consulting firm and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OR advocates envisioned the field as a new kind of bureaucratic organ dedicated to general studies of business problems, staffed by trained scientists who could employ sophisticated methods if needed. The crux of their promotional strategy was to use their appreciation of general managerial practice to overcome the tensions to be expected from their claims to apply generic scientific methods to nonscientific activities. However, they discounted possible intellectual competition with established professions. This competition ultimately confined OR’s identity to a jurisdiction defined by novel mathematical techniques.


I’d like to try a little experiment with blogging as a complement to official publication.  As all historians of science know, there is much more to science than the sum total of what is contained in published papers, and this, certainly, is no less true of the history of science literature itself.  So, starting with this post, I’d like to use EWP to add some commentary on this article.  I don’t think the article is especially worthy of such treatment, but I think it would be a better world if authors did this sort of thing for everything they wrote.

My work on the history of OR dates back to my undergraduate senior thesis, which I finished in 2001, but my work on OR in America dates to my first semester of graduate school (2002-03), and a seminar I took with David Kaiser at MIT on the history of modern physics.  Grad school being the indulgent institution it is, I was allowed to revive my OR project for the seminar’s term paper, and Dave, being a strong proponent of pedagogy studies, suggested I look at the establishment of an OR program at MIT.  (It wasn’t totally out of place: a key figure was the theoretical physicist Philip Morse.)  So, the MIT material is some of the oldest material in my dissertation/book.  I interviewed Morse’s student John D. C. Little for the paper.  I also interviewed Arthur D. Little’s John Magee in 2005, but did not properly put together the material on Arthur D. Little until I was writing up in 2006-07 — an attentive reader would note that most of the Arthur D. Little material is based on Magee’s own published reminiscences as well as historical publications by him and other firm employees.

My last semester of graduate school at Harvard, I was a teaching assistant for Sven Beckert’s course on the history of American capitalism, which brought BHR editor Walter Friedman’s book Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (2005) to my attention.  Part of that book is about how some people sought to systematize selling into a “science” (a term that I urge be read simply to mean a well-thought-out, reasonably general body of knowledge).  Since Friedman was located just across the Charles River at the Harvard Business School, I thought it would be worthwhile to meet him, and this led to him suggesting that material on Arthur D. Little would be of interest for BHR.  After arriving at my first post-doc at the American Institute of Physics, I decided to submit the half-chapter of my dissertation on MIT and Arthur D. Little for consideration.

The difficulty, as ever, was in framing the material.  The intention was to extend a hand from the history of science to business history.  The major link to the business historiography was some discussion of Christopher McKenna’s then-new book, The World’s Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century (2006).  Mainly, however, in a typical grad student move, I substituted neologism-coining for historiographical familiarity, trying to build a “taxonomy” of professionalization using the cases at hand.  This was a sort of cynical ploy to begin with, and it didn’t go over well with the referees.  In the end, though, I did manage to convert that discussion into a more palatable form, which now appears at the end of the article.  It is now part of a healthier discussion about how the relatively narrow studies of the article should be fit into larger historical portraits of the professionalization of American business.

The gist of that discussion in both its original and final form was and is to distinguish between the rise of professional management — as in the organizational developments discussed in Alfred D. Chandler’s well-known 1977 book, The Visible Hand  — and the professionalization of specific intellectual jurisdictions and business functions (familiar to historians of science and medicine, but also present in Friedman’s book, for instance).  The idea is that OR proponents’ activities must be located in a third effort to professionalize management as if it were a jurisdiction.  In this, OR followed in the footsteps of Taylorism, cost accounting, and management consulting (as related in McKenna).

The argument is that failing to distinguish itself in this task of professionalizing management, OR tacitly fell back on a specific jurisdiction (logistics design, data analysis, etc.) where it could make a clear contribution.  Reading this back into the OR historiography, this argues against the common point that OR turned to mathematical specialism, because mathematization was the apotheosis of efforts to bring scientific credibility, authority, and prestige to managerial decision-making.  That was never a goal, nor would managers have ever entertained it seriously had it been, and OR proponents knew it.

The most valuable work on these sorts of professional dynamics is sociologist Andrew Abbott’s The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (1988), which I actually learned about from the referees.  I think my brief discussion in this article complements that book well.  I gather that the sociology of professions was abandoned with the rise of the sociology of knowledge in the historiography of science, and I would like to discuss that development in a follow-up post.

To complete this brief history of this paper, though, I believe I switched my original framing material from the beginning to the end after the article had already been accepted in 2008 or 2009 in response to editors’ and external readers’ further comments.  The wait in the publication queue was rather long.  If I had my druthers, this would have come out around the same time as my article with Lambert Williams on Jay Forrester in 2009, as they were written more or less together, and deal with related material.  Still, the article did continue to improve up through its final pre-publication edits, so the lengthy gestation period wasn’t exactly wasted.

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