Lyndall Fownes Urwick was born on 3 March 1891 at Malvern, Worcestershire, the only child of Sir Henry Urwick and his wife Annis (née Whitby). He was educated locally in Malvern and then as a boarder at Boxgrove School, Guildford (1900-05), before entering Repton School (1905-10) from where he won an open history entry to New College, Oxford (1910-13). On graduating in 1913 with a second class degree in modern history, he joined the family glove-making firm of Fownes Brothers and Company (formed 1777), in which his father was a partner.
During the First World War he joined the 3rd Worcestershire Regiment in August 1914 as a second lieutenant. He saw action in 1914 at Mons, Le Cateau, Marne and Aisne, and in 1916 at Vimy Ridge and the Somme. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917, was demobbed as a major in 1918; he received an OBE in the January 1919 Honours List. He rose to pre-eminence in the scientific management field due primarily to his advocacy of the directions of Taylor and Fayol and, not least, his pioneering of a ‘management consultancy’ in the post WWII era; it is for these reasons that the author believes that Urwick should be considered as one of the fundamental pioneers of scientific management, despite the fact that he operated in the 20th century.
NB: Students should research all the references to Urwick that are contained in the papers at the Henley Management College and in particular the submission of M.D. Matthews and T. Boyns of Cardiff Business School, whose research was funded by a grant (No. R000223557) from the Economic and Social Research Council. These papers are re-produced later in this account for students to examine.
Lifetime Champion of Scientific Management and Accounting:
The contemporary accounting craft and dialogue reflects business and government fixations upon the pursuit of cost minimisation, profit maximisation, economy, efficiency and effectiveness. These contemporary fixations are redolent of focused philosophies and concerns of the scientific management school of thought that dominated business and government thinking in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Part of this reflection is manifested via contemporary accounting conventions and practices. In order to understand and critique the persistence and impact of such philosophies upon today’s accounting, we need to better understand the foundations from which this persistent contemporary influence upon our thinking and practices was born.
One of the major influences in this regard has been the writings of scientific management pioneers who espoused philosophies and approaches to managing organisations, including their planning, control, cost and financial management.
While attention has been paid in varying degrees to the ideas of scientific management founders Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol, another key advocate has remained in the shadows. Lyndall Fownes Urwick, subsequent long-time promoter of scientific management and arguably its leading exponent, produced writings extending over some 40 years (from the 1920s into the 1970s).
As a central objective, this paper seeks to explore and articulate Urwick’s profile, his views of scientific management and his approach to scientific accounting over the extensive period of his advocacy and publications. This can help illuminate the underlying philosophies and agendas of ideas and concepts that remain enmeshed and influential in accounting thought and practice today. The following explores Urwick’s background and lifetime’s work, and his advocacy of scientific management with particular reference to his allegiance to Frederick Taylor. The work goes on to explore Urwick’s positioning of accounting within this framework of scientific management, including his approaches to planning and control. Finally this paper returns to reflect on Urwick’s considered perspective of scientific management and its underpinning of contemporary accounting rationale.
A Lifetime Commitment
Lyndall Urwick’s career spanned 60 years. Born an only child in England in 1891, Lyndall Fownes Urwick was educated in Malvern, Boxgrove School Guildford, Repton and then New College Oxford, graduating with a degree in modern history.
After initial employment in his father’s family glove-making firm, he served as a second lieutenant and then major in World War I, earning the Military Cross and subsequently an Order of the British Empire (OBE). Having read Frederick Taylor’s Shop Management in the trenches and served in several administrative staff officer positions focused on organising in the military, after a brief period of post-war service as partner, he left his former firm, having been unable to convince his family partners to try his new found approaches to management. In 1922 he joined the organising office of Rowntree & Co, chocolate and confectionery manufacturers, there being influenced by two management thinkers, Seebohm Rowntree and Oliver Sheldon (serving a period as Sheldon’s assistant). While there, he participated and lectured in the Oxford Management Conferences, assisted Rowntree in establishing informal national Management Research Groups for exchanging ideas on new management developments, and embarked on professional writing in management, by 1927 attaining readership in the USA and the UK (Bedeian, 1972; Jeremy and Shaw,1986; Matthews and Boyns, 2001).
In 1928 he became director of the world’s first international management body, the International Management Institute in Geneva, serving till early 1934 when the Institute closed due to withdrawal of funding by the Institute’s sponsor. The Institute’s main purpose was the promotion of scientific management, and his work there connected Urwick to a wide range of scientific management and other management thinkers throughout Europe and the USA, not least through his role as honorary secretary of the International Council for Scientific Management. Returning to London, along with Scottish engineer and consultant J.L. Orr, he established the British management consulting firm Urwick Orr & Partners. Apart from his absence from the firm due to his government service in World War II, Urwick served as founder, managing partner (1945-51) and Chairman (1934-61), and subsequently President, even after his move to Australia in the early 1960s. His WWII service included consultant to the British government Treasury, deputy director of the Petroleum Warfare Department, and member of the Mitcheson Committee on the Ministry of Pensions, completing his military involvement at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In his management consulting career, Urwick not only built his firm to national and international prominence, but was also the first president of an informal international association of management consultants, and leader of the British Management Consultants’ Association (Urwick, 1968; Bedeian, 1972; Jeremy and Shaw, 1986; Matthews and Boyns, 2001; Thomson, 2001).
In addition to his voluminous writing and publication in the management field, Urwick was prominent in promoting management education and the management profession. He was founder member and then chairman (1947-52) of the British Institute of Management, chair of the British Institute of Management’s Education Committee, chair of the education committee of the Institute of Industrial Administration (1944), chair of the Ministry of Education Committee on Education for Management (1945-46) that proposed a national syllabus for teaching management in the UK, chair of the Anglo-American Productivity team on Education for Management in the USA (1951), and first president of the Federation of European Management Consultants (1960). He was also a driving force behind the 1948 launch of the Administrative Staff College at Henley-on-Thames (now Henley Management College). His lecture tours and management advisory work, particularly from the 1950s, took him to many countries. He held visiting professorships in business in universities in the USA, Canada and Australia, and on his “retirement” to Australia, he continued his writing, publishing and speaking career. He advised and made presentations to the American Management Association, the Indian Planning Commission for an Institute of Management, and the Australian Institute of Management (Urwick, 1957a, 1960a, 1968; Bedeian, 1972; Jeremy and Shaw, 1986; Trinkaus, 1992; Matthews and Boyns, 2001).
As will already be evident, Urwick was internationally prominent. His awards and accolades were many, being mostly achieved during the zenith of his career in the 1950s and 1960s. They included the International Committee of Scientific Management gold medal, the Wallace Clark International Management medal, the American Management Association’s and American Society of Engineers’ Henry Laurence Gantt memorial gold medal, the Taylor key, the British Institute of Management’s Bowie medal, Knight first class of the Order of St. Olaf (Norway). He was made fellow or honorary member of numerous organisations and associations (Urwick, 1968; Bedeian, 1972; Jeremy and Shaw, 1986; Matthews and Boyns, 2001). Urwick’s last published work appeared in 1980, two years before his death (in 1983) in Sydney, Australia, at the age of 92. He left a legacy of more than 14 books that he authored, co-authored or edited, and hundreds of published journal articles, conference papers, lectures, seminar presentations and addresses covering a plethora of management subjects including scientific management, management history, leadership, control, business/government management and relations, human resource management, office organisation, management semantics, organisation structures and committees, and management education. The volume and scope of his published output, the extent of his international involvement and impact, and the length of time over which he strode the international stage is arguably unrivalled amongst his peers in the 20th century.
Advocating a Scientific Art
Urwick conceived of organisational management as a social philosophy and discipline dictated by what he saw to be an economy based upon the physical sciences and power-driven machinery. For him, the solution to the effective management of society, government and business lay in a scientific approach to their technical leadership, economic control and social direction (Urwick, 1938, 1956a; Urwick and Brech, 1945a). Science, he saw as a codified body of knowledge, and argued for its development in management: providing an understanding of ‘the laws and causes which rule the world’ (Urwick, 1933: 24, 1956a). He repeatedly talked of using a scientific ‘temper’ and method: approaching every management issue through definition, analysis, measurement, experiment and proof, as in the ‘exact sciences’ (Urwick, 1933: 30, 1952). Consistent with his view of management as a social discipline, he advocated a social engineering approach that required managers to think ‘scientifically’ about themselves and other people (Urwick, 1942, 1943).
This social engineering philosophy was prompted by a view of the economic, social and organisational world as based on ‘power-driven machinery’ (Urwick, 1953: 375). For him, the technological revolution had brought an array of changes and forces, primarily through ‘machine industry’ that required acceptance, discipline, planning, direction, supervision and control (Urwick, 1933; Urwick and Brech, 1945a: 9). His philosophy of science and management was machine-focused, whereby machinery was portrayed as imposing a mental discipline that emphasised quantitative analysis of objectively determined facts. This he regarded as essential for managers’ mastery of their machine environment (Urwick, 1933; Urwick and Brech, 1945a). While occasionally alluding to the organisation as being akin to a living biological organism, Urwick (1942, 1947) immediately re-asserts his mechanistic view of the organization, at times referring to his ‘engineering approach’. Seeing people as the social groups that assisted in production and distribution of economic goods, he therefore aimed to control people as the power behind (or adjuncts to) machines (Urwick, 1933; Urwick and Brech, 1945a). Consistent with his predisposition to record and encompass on the full spectrum of developing management thought, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, Urwick attempted to retain his mechanistic social engineering approach to management while formulating a scientific philosophy that purported to be all-embracing. Scientific Management, according to Urwick’s definition, appears as a virtual oxymoron. He repeatedly defined it as an art: the art of managing human beings. However his definition required the art to be practised in accordance with scientific methods and standards (Urwick, 1943, 1952, 1956a, 1957a). He arrived at this position by setting up his own interpretation of the medical profession as the exemplar for management to follow. The medical profession, he argued, is the art of healing, requiring clinical experience and judgement, but based on a scientific body of knowledge, that draws on a range of underlying scientific disciplines such as biology, physiology, anthropology, sociology, individual and social psychology, as well as the physical and statistical sciences (Urwick, 1928, 1943, 1952, 1956a, 1957b). As will be seen in this paper, such a definition allowed him, while continuing to champion a predominantly Taylorist view of scientific management, to claim competing schools of thought as part of his own eclectic scientific management philosophy.
A Loyal Taylorist
Throughout his professional life and long after most writers had abandoned Frederick Taylor, Urwick advocated Taylorism as a guiding light for management practice. He was an apologist for Taylor’s shortcomings such as failing to ‘generalise with sufficient precision’, while simultaneously arguing that Taylorism implicitly contained substantially every feature which has come to be recognised as essential to modern practice (Urwick, 1928: 170). As an apologist, he repeatedly claimed that Taylor had often been the victim of jealousy amongst his peers, undue rigidity by his disciples, and misunderstandings and misrepresentations by his critics and that he and his ideas had suffered ongoing abuse, particularly from academics in the USA (Urwick, 1929, 1956a, 1969). Indeed, Urwick himself reinterpreted Taylor in an attempt to demonstrate Taylor work was consistent with Urwick’s own re-definition of scientific management philosophy discussed above. That is, he argued that Taylor’s use of the term ‘scientific’ could be understood in two ways. Firstly, the term ‘scientific’ could be understood in a “one best way” sense to advocate the precise and objective measurement of shop floor practice that we usually associate with Frederick Taylor’s work and the principles of scientific management (Parker and Ritson, 2005ab). However, in Urwick’s mind Taylor had used the term ‘scientific’ in a quite different sense to embrace any systematic and organised body of knowledge when referring to higher levels of organisation and their management. In essence, Urwick drew on this second meaning of the word ‘scientific’ to respond to claims that Taylor attempted to produce engineering solutions to the complexities of managing people (Urwick, 1956a, 1969). Urwick denied that Taylor ever suggested his principles were an exact science, claiming that Taylor only advocated a spirit of scientific enquiry and the study of common organisational problems by people trained in scientific method.
Consistent with his own view of scientific management, he characterised Taylor as advocating not a set of detailed methods or devices, but an attitude and philosophy that treated management problems scientifically: defining, measuring and analysing and producing a stock of knowledge ‘with a foundation in the exact sciences and, where exact knowledge ended, still using a scientific methodology in its approach to its problems’ (Urwick, 1928, 1929, 1952: 12, 1943; Dale and Urwick, 1960). Thus to contemporary readers, Urwick’s work proffers an idiosyncratic reinterpretation of scientific management and the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and philosophies of its founding figure, Fredrick Taylor. The weight of international critique of Taylorism induced Urwick to develop his reinterpretation to yield a more humanistic form of scientific management that was consistent with pre-existing British managerial practices and his own beliefs.
The Accounting Role
Urwick’s advocacy and reinterpretation of scientific management over such an extended period also included a clear positioning and promulgation of the centrality of the accounting role. Urwick et al (1937a, p. 131) saw accounting as an all encompassing function in the organisation. The sphere of the accountant in this matter seems to lie rather in exercising a functional supervision and control over the methods adopted in many departments.
Accountancy is not a mystery, but a universal implement of management. He considered that every department in a large business involved the accounting function to some degree and invariably included accounting clerks in its staff profile. Thus he proposed that accounting work could be spread throughout the organisation rather than all being placed in one centralised accounting department, and sought a role for the chief accounting personnel that was one of oversight, indirect control and audit of accounting systems within the organisation.
Linked to his views on control and the related accounting role, Urwick (1929, p. 85) welcomed the passing of a view of accounting as showing cash results of a business at infrequent intervals and serving as a mere preventative against speculative behaviour. Instead he saw accounting as having been applied with statistics to showing the ‘actual facts of the business’ and enhancing business control. In this development he also recognised ‘the comparatively new profession of Costing’ which he saw as providing insights into the cost of various items and their contribution to the organisation’s profit. Similarly he recognised the development of budgeting and saw this as enabling management to identify waste and excessive expenditures immediately upon occurrence, providing advance estimates of receipts and expenditures, planned profit margins, and frequent reporting of actual results, thereby enabling prompt adjustments to meet changing conditions of trade. However he cautioned against accountants becoming excessively preoccupied with producing ‘theoretically perfect’ overhead cost allocations which would be of no practical value to managers for whom they were beyond their units’ control and reported to them too late for decisions they had already made (Urwick, 1947).
So Urwick recognised financial accounting, cost accounting and statistical work being carried out within the overall organisational accounting function. In fact he saw accounting as developing interests in performance measurement issues beyond simply financial factors, and advocated a close rapport between organisational accountants and engineers. However Urwick still argued for the location of the control function to reside with management, leaving the accountant to provide detached and impartial control related figures for control to management.
Information Based Planning
Along with his positioning accounting as integral to the implementation of scientific management, Urwick addressed both forecasting and planning. With respect to forecasting, he focussed on what he termed business forecasting and sales forecasting. For him, forecasting was an inevitable and pervasive part of both life in general and of business life (Urwick, 1947). His concept of business forecasting involved the statistical prediction of monetary values and purchasing power changes, and a range of economic factors affecting business. His was a desire to move away from what he saw to be an emotional atmosphere of optimism and pessimism generated by crowd opinion, instead considering the ‘situation in a detached way in the light of cold figures.’ (Urwick, 1929, p. 87). As a scientific management advocate, Urwick (1947, p.24) focused upon ‘the careful marshalling, measurement and presentation of statistical data.’ This he saw as providing a means of encouraging detachment in management foresight, avoiding their conclusions being ‘seriously biased by the peculiarities of temperament.’ (Urwick, 1947, p.24).
Forecasting was to be applied to appropriate factors that related to the organisation’s current position, rather than simply embracing a large range of general economic factors (Urwick, 1956a). Forecasting for him focused upon financial forecasting, sales forecasting and staff numbers/profile forecasting (Urwick, 1947). Sales forecasting he considered to be essential but ‘one of the most difficult and intricate decisions to which the industrial administrator must commit himself.’ (Urwick, 1928, p. 159). Failure to forecast sales (from months to years ahead), relying instead on haphazard production adjustments on a week by week basis, in his view lead to ‘haphazard working and excessive costs of production.’ (Urwick, 1928, p.160). Again his approach to sales forecasting was information based, including estimates of:
- general level of consumer purchasing power
- local conditions modifying general purchasing power amongst local customers
- actual past sales statistics (but recognising potential fluctuations caused by changes in fashions and consumer tastes)
- salespersons’ estimates of selling potential of each product line
- advertising support for sales of particular product lines ( resources expended, type of advertising etc.)
Urwick emphasised that past statistics cannot reveal the full future possibilities of potential sales and that reference to statistics should be reinforced by careful analysis of information supplied by salespersons actually in direct contact with customers.
Accurate sales forecasting, given the one year time horizon along with fluctuations in the general competitive environment and consumer preferences, was almost an impossibility according to Urwick, so that he envisaged a forecasting system that permitted rapid adjustments to the sales plan resulting from such forecasts. Daily monitoring of sales fluctuations would provide an early warning system for adjusting plans and actions. This appears to have echoed Fayol’s contingent approach to planning. Indeed Urwick’s whole approach to planning echoed Henri Fayol’s. He considered the organisation to be highly dependent upon effective ‘preplanning’. This he saw to be ‘the provision and arrangement of the appropriate human and material resources for a given purpose. That purpose depends on the plan.’ (Urwick, 1937a, p.77). His definition of planning was, 'Planning is essentially the analysis and measurement of materials and processes in advance of the event and the perfection of records so that we may know exactly where we are at any given moment. In short it is attempting to steer each operation and department by chart and compass and chronometer – not “by guess and by God”'. (Urwick, 1956a, p.85).
His approach to planning was philosophical and practical, but always rooted in calculation and information: ‘Planning is fundamentally an intellectual process, a mental predisposition to do things in an orderly way, to think before acting, and to act in the light of facts rather than of guesses. It is the antithesis of gambling, the speculative tendency‘. (Urwick, 1947, p.33)
This was clearly an approach to planning that was formalised and strongly based upon information systems and reports. For Urwick, planning was always to precede execution. The corporate plan, no matter how prudent, accurate and farsighted, remained only a plan until staff were set to implement it in a systematic and orderly way (Urwick, 1937b, 1956a). His was a view of planning entrenched in calculation: The effect of separating planning from performance is that you get calculation. And that is immemorial wisdom – look before you leap. (Urwick, 1956a, p.86)
Urwick (1947) did stress that a plan must be oriented towards an objective. However he chastised those who simply declared profit to be the key objective, arguing that profit simply represented one albeit crucial indicator of the extent to which the overall organisational objectives have been met. He saw vaguely specified objectives as leading to unnecessary complexity, lack of clarity about the organisation’s strategic direction and ultimately waste. He also echoed Fayol in his recognition that all plans need adjustment for unexpected circumstances from time to time. This again reflected a contingent view. Nevertheless he championed corporate planning as a logical and comprehensive approach to organisational management, based on a systematic study of relevant, if inexact knowledge, and likely to improve manager performance (Urwick,1956a). According to him, the characteristics of a good plan were:
- it is based on a clearly defined objective
- it is simple
- it establishes standards based on analysis and classification of actions
- it is flexible
- it is balanced
- it uses available resources to the utmost (before drawing on new resources)
Control for Forward Correction
Urwick (1956a, p.85) expressed the planning – control link as ‘Planning enters into process with Direction and the effect is Control’. Urwick’s (1937, p.78) concept of control draws directly upon the metaphor of the machine, defining control as ‘the gauges and records of performance’, involving the constant ‘checking up of the results of command in action.’ Again the information – based control system looms large in Urwick’s specification.
In his review of changes in approach to organisational control over time, Urwick (1947) noted business organisations’ shift from a restriction of cash expenditure approach to control (still noted by him as characteristic of the British public sector). He characterised the shift in business approach as being from treating financial figures as records designed to describe past events and uncover ‘speculation’ to treating financial data as one aspect of statistical performance measurement spanning all aspects of organisational operations and performance. This was suggestive of a feedforward style approach to control spanning an integrated suite of key performance indicators more characteristic of some contemporary organisational control approaches. Consistent with his view of planning and forecasting as properly based in statistics and calculation, Urwick (1947, p.113) considered that ‘control is coming to mean increasingly control by facts rather than control by persons.’
Urwick’s (1947) view of control was built around control reports that provided comparisons between required standards of performance and actual past performance. This he saw as demonstrating whether management’s intentions were being realised, and triggering enquiry into the causes of differences between standards and actual results. He saw budgeting as preplanning and controlling expenditure in precisely this manner. The level at which standards should be pitched, in his view, at the ideal 100% efficiency level discounted for normally expected losses due to accidents, sickness etc. forcing managers to respond to control reports and explain the reasons for deviations from these standards would then ‘quickly suggest necessary modifications’ (Urwick, 1947, p. 108). For Urwick, the usefulness of control reports was directly related to whether the period they covered was appropriate to the objectives or targets being pursued, and the elapse of time between the period they covered and their availability for decision-making use. The longer the time lapse between end of period and report availability, the less useful the report contents for forward decisions - a report is an action document. Urwick did not simply echo, but directly quoted Fayol in arguing for reports to be tailored to the level of manager receiving them, with managers preferably receiving condensed, summarised and comparative reports that highlighted favourable and unfavourable exceptions (i.e. variances from standards). In his discussion of control, Urwick (1947) particularly compared his view with Fayol’s and the relationship between control and accounting.
Making the Case
Urwick’s case for scientific management lay primarily in logical argument and practical application. His advocacy was particularly founded in an admiration for the Taylorist model of developing worker co-operation through requiring a common objective and a common method of thinking (Urwick, 1956a). The path to this end lay for Urwick (1929:32, 1933, 1956a) in the engineering inspired commitment to exact analysis and standards of measurement, and ‘the inexorable logic of facts’ in preference to traditional managers’ reliance on opinion. However, when making the case for scientific management in comparison with traditional management methods, Urwick (1929: 32) argued that: …the man who has ceased to talk about ‘my experience’ and is beginning to talk about ‘my experiments’ is at least beginning to understand the full significance of the scientific approach.
Once again, his interpretation of scientific proves to have been malleable, depending upon the audience he was addressing.
Repeatedly, Urwick retailed the message that scientific management was not a set of techniques, but a way of thinking about and managing work and organisations, an accumulated understanding of laws and causes governing the world, and in particular a solution to management problems conditioned by scientific methods (Urwick et al, 1933:41, 1937bc). The benefits of these solutions were ‘outputs, comfort in work, sales, profits, and relations with employees’. This was consistent with his professional consulting orientation and career. From this standpoint, he made efforts to publicise organisational case studies that demonstrated the successful application of scientific management principles and methods. These included applications across the private and public sectors such as in the engineering firm Hans Renold & Co. Ltd., Rowntree company’s sales office reorganisation, optical manufacturers Taylor, Taylor and Hobson Ltd., tapestries manufacturer Arthur H. Lee and Sons Ltd., machine builders Mavor and Coulson Ltd., the Dunlop Rubber Company, Lever Bros., Unilever Ltd., Imperial Chemical Industries, United Steel, the London Midland and Scottish Railway, the London Passenger Transport Board and the British Post Office (Urwick et al, 1937abc; Urwick, 1938; Urwick and Brech, 1945b).
One of the central themes running through Frederick Taylor’s writings is a commitment to the value of knowledge, as opposed to mere tradition and personal opinion, and this commitment ensures that, even today, The Principles of Scientific Management remains one of the most, if not the most, influential management books of the twentieth century (Bedeian and Wren, 2001, p.222). Many early management theorists shared Taylor’s commitment to the primacy of systematically derived knowledge; for example, Fayol cites the precisely same commitment as one his prime motivators for having written General and Industrial Management (Fayol, 1949, p.15). What marks Urwick out, as being unusual amongst his contemporaries, was his ability to ally himself to Taylor’s call for the rule of knowledge, whilst seeing value in any contribution that, to his mind, increased our understanding of the practice of management. In so doing, Urwick appears to have applied a degree of intellectual flexibility that marks him out as unique amongst his management contemporaries in his multifaceted approach to management theorising and practice, and by implication in the accounting domain as well. While sharing a principles and methods orientation with Taylor, and also drawing from the writings of Fayol, and Mooney and Reiley (Bedeian, 1972), he developed a philosophy and language that emerged and metamorphosed in response to his changing environment and critical pressures. In addition, he straddled both the worlds of management consulting practice and management lecturing and writing. His was an advocacy based upon an unshakeable conviction that Taylor’s fundamental principles could stand the test of time and offer tangible practical outcomes to professional managers and accountants.
Though little read today, Lyndall Urwick arguably exercised a profound influence over the practice and study of management, particularly in the United Kingdom, during the middle decades of the twentieth century. This advocacy and influence also extended to crucial dimensions of accounting thought and practice. Contemporary accounting theorists, text writers and practitioners promulgate and utilise concepts and practices that in many cases have long histories of prior development and historical antecedents. Among them sits Urwick’s extended articulation of information base planning and control. Rather than being confined to operational management, this paper reveals Urwick’s larger reach, extending into financial management, financial accounting and management accounting. The influence of his ideas, albeit indirect and unacknowledged in the accounting realm, deserves greater acknowledgement.
Today’s management and accounting textbooks pay the briefest lip service, if at all, to the scientific management school of thought. Not unreasonably, causes of this omission can include some of the justifiable criticisms levelled at the school’s philosophies and impacts on organisations and their workers. Most books, conference papers and journal articles in the accounting discipline make no reference at all to these founders of contemporary management and accounting thought and practice. Any acknowledgement is usually confined to Taylor and Fayol. Our neglect of Urwick’s contribution to accounting is even more pronounced. Yet the role assigned to accounting by Taylor, Fayol and subsequently Urwick was significant and persuasive. Given the dominance of scientific management in early 20th century business and government and its influence upon management and accounting thinking long after its initial dominance had waned, a strong case can be made that the above approaches to financial management, planning, and control can still be found in contemporary accounting today and reflects particularly the extended period of Urwick’s advocacy (Parker 1986ab; Parker and Lewis, 1995).
Our contemporary broadening of approaches to financial and management planning and control again almost unwittingly reflect elements of what scientific management pioneers such as Urwick propounded. It is an unwitting reflection for two main reasons. First it is borne of an ignorance of the history of accounting and scientific management. However second, it is borne of a simplistic understanding of what Urwick originally advocated. His was a view of planning and control that differs from the way in which it has been conventionally stereotyped. Instead it was a longer time framed, more flexible, environmentally sensitive and contextualised approach to planning than contemporary accounting researchers and practitioners recognise. His business and budgetary planning approaches were both comprehensive and contingent with planning and control having equal importance and being indissolubly linked. Arguably, contemporary accounting researchers and practitioners have rediscovered and reinvigorated this emphasis and pursuit.
Accounting today is replete with latent scientism. It surfaces and resurfaces as outcroppings of philosophical layers built up over the last 150 years of scientific management development and advocacy. Yet for most of the contemporary accounting community, scientific management remains a distantly vague memory whose continuing influence remains a mystery. To better understand our contemporary accounting issues and practices, and to better inform our attempts at managing organisational and global change, we need to rediscover and reinterpret the original writings of such significant pioneers. Amongst those whose ideas are still reflected in our thinking today, Lyndall Urwick deserves our serious attention.