The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History

Abstract

The literature on inter-war British industrial management has been extremely critical, presenting firms as bring conservative in organisational terms, with only a small number of progressive ones (Hannah 1983). Similarly, other observers have emphasized the grip of tradition on British business culture (Wilson 1995: Wilson and Thomson 2006). Despite these views, we know there was a growing core of British Management thought (Urwick 1956, Child 1969, Bech et al 2010) and a large number of firms employing management consultants (Ferguson 2002). In this context. Quaker employers led by Cadbury and Rowntree led the way with three significant innovations. These were:
i. Conferences of Quaker employers (Cadbury conferences)
ii. A series of lectures (Rowntree lectures) to enable employers and employees to explore the management challenges facing industry
iii. The establishment of Management Research Group movement by Rowntree
The initiatives led by Rowntree have received rather limited attention with mainly a focus on their structure rather than content (Bech et al 2010; Wilson and Thomson 2006). Our project aims to examine these innovations in greater depth thereby contributing to a clearer understanding of the evolution of British management theory and practice in the inter-war period. It will do so within the context of ideas of knowledge transfer and the importance of communities of practice as represented by the creation of the Management Research Groups. In addition it will create a valuable resource for other researchers in the form of a digitised version of the material.

Planned Impact

The research will inform a range of academic disciplines, including economic and business history, management and organisational studies, and will also help build capacity for early career researchers. The notion of 'looking back to see ahead' will widen the beneficiaries beyond academia into the current business and management community. Impact across these different groups will be facilitated by the following activities:

(i.) Communication and engagement. This will be though the dedicated project website, making available the indexed copies of the Rowntree lectures material. This will have portals linking to progress on the project, including access to all the initial data and working papers. It will have Twitter feed and Facebook to allow comments and discussion with interested followers. Twitter followers can be used as a basic measure of impact depending on the comments made.
(ii.) Capacity building and involvement. The project team have a range of skill sets supported by considerable previous experience. In addition to the website there will be two capacity building workshops organised in Year 1 of the project and the second during the final stages of the research. These will be one day workshops aimed at postgraduate and early career researchers drawn from Management and Organisational studies, Economic and Business History. These will be focussed on an interactive workshop sharing the experiences and information of the project.
(iii.) Wider engagement with the business community will be mainly through articles written in the more popular media. This will stress the ideas of looking at past events in British management as illustrated by the Rowntree material and lessons that can be learned. The ideas will be placed in articles written for the Financial Times, The Smart Manager amongst others of which Witzel is a regular contirbutor. These will also direct readers to our project website, Twitter and Facebook sites.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description British interwar (1918-1939) management has been criticised as overly conservative, comprising a small core of progressive firms amidst a sea of conservatively-run, family-dominated businesses. According to the dominant narrative, British firms exhibited little interest in new managerial approaches. Our initial findings from reading the Rowntree lectures and the papers of the Management Research Groups challenges this view, suggesting that British managers displayed a greater openness to innovation than is commonly recognised. We have uncovered and are analysing a significant network of British firms engaged in management education through organised peer-to-peer communication, facilitated by lectures and management research groups initiated by Seebohm Rowntree. Our research to date has uncovered dynamic knowledge networks reflexively engaged in peer-to-peer, practice-based learning designed to promote the diffusion of effective solutions to shared problems - building communities of practice, codifying management knowledge, and drawing on an ethos of 'business as service'.

Our more specific key findings are best considered against our research objectives: (i) and (ii) to audit and make available the Rowntree Lecture Conference material. This was achieved by bringing together all the external lectures in a digitised format. These form a key part of the interactive database developed by the project team. In addition, we have researched and digitised the Management Research Groups established by Rowntree from 1926 onward. These and related material are now all available on the project database.

These MRGs acted as important communities of practice developing innovative ideas on management practices across the members of these groups. These together with the Conference Lectures brought together key management practitioners of the time, and illustrated the development of management theory and practice in inter-war Britain. The fact that the Lectures were often by influential management writers of the time was significant (this material covers the objectives (iii), (iv) and (v)) to uncover the extent of which practised based learning was developed in the inter-war period. The main components of the data base cover all these aspects (v). To examine the impact such ideas of management we also investigated a series of case studies of different companies who had either attended the Conference Lectures or when members of the Management Research Groups. The following companies were researched using a range of archival material; Rowntree,The Borthwick Institute for Archives, Boots, Walgreen Boots Alliance; Lever Bros, Unilever Art, Archives and Records Management; Clarks, Alfred Gillett Trust; British Xylonite, Suffolk Record Office; Lyons, MRC University of Warwick and London Metropolitan Archives; Imperial Tobacco, Bristol Archives and Nottinghamshire Archives. The practices adopted by these companies illustrated the knowledge transfer that flowed both from the Conference Lecturers and the meetings of the Management Research Groups.

Finally, the provision of a key research resource in the form of an open-access interactive database is a major step forward that will aid further research on Management history.
Exploitation Route We would argue that our findings on the ways in which firms responded to the severe economic problems of the early post-1918 years, and the failure of depression to lift over the following decade will resonate with contemporary firms. However, we are not blindly optimistic. We know that the current culture of business is now deeply liberal, with firms seen by their managements and owners as autonomous entities in a competitive environment. The message from the findings of our research is that collaboration between firms, as evidenced by the Management Research Groups, can be valuable in addressing severe and seemingly intractable problems. Whether this fundamental cultural divide is bridgeable is open to question, but we hope our research helps strengthen the case for collaborative learning and diffusion beyond the boundaries of the individual firm.
Sectors Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/
 
Description Yes, the database has been increasingly used by a range of interested parties as evidenced by date collected by Exeter's Digital Humanities Lab this included over 10 countries. Interestingly, many of these were not casual browsers but people looking for specific searches and queries. In addition, our survey information to date shows that 69% were returning users to the database.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
 
Description Wellcome Boots Advisory Panel
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Title Database 
Description The project database can be considered as a new research tool for researchers interested in Management and Business History. This research tool is an open access, interactive database that comprises 3 main collections: Researchers can access digitised documents of: i) Rowntree Conference Lectures from 1919 to 1939 these contain details of firms attending, full text of all the Lectures presented; ii) Management Research Groups which contain a further 5 subsections providing digitised versions of the Annual Reports, Bulletins, Directors Dinner Discussions, Governing Body and Membership Maps; iii) The biographies of the people who either: gave lectures, were members of the various Management Research Groups or who gave talks at the Directors' Dinners Discussions. In addition, a further section contains details of a series of Case study firms researched by the project team, these demonstrate the relationships between the companies and the Conference Lectures and the Management Research Groups. This material represents detailed work undertaken in a series of company archives. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This is too early to measure as the database has only been active for a very short time. It will be publicised more generally in the next few months 
 
Title The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement 
Description The project has developed a major open-access, interactive database in conjunction with the University of Exeter's Digital Humanities Lab. This currently contains some 677 digitised items covering 7 collections that are key to the research project. These are as follows: Conference Lectures, 33 Conferences were held between 1919 and 1940, each having an average of 7 Lectures and normally held twice every year. They contain the details of the companies attending and full text of all the Lectures presented. Management Research Groups which include: Annual Reports of Management Research Groups (MRG), the Annual Reports are the main summaries of the various Management Research Groups. The first Annual Reports were published in 1927. The reports give a broad insight into the activities of the various groups and also provide a list of attendance at various meetings; The MRG Directors Dinners Discussions, the Director Dinner Discussions started in 1931 when the Management Research Group 1 held Dinner Discussions with attendance limited to Directors and Heads of Businesses. Their popularity was such that they were quickly made available to other groups in 1933. The format was usually: Lecture and Discussion and were often held in The Waldorf Hotel nearby to the offices of The Management Research Groups; MRG Bulletins, the Bulletins were issued in 1932 for the first time, the Bulletins came from the central office of the Management Research Groups and they gave information on activities across the groups as well as information on related issues in other organisations. They also report on publications available to members in the central office; Governing Body, this set of documents represents the Minutes of the Governing Body that was charged with controlling the running of the Management Research Groups and the central office; Membership Maps, these show the spread of firms and MRG group membership across the UK. Biographies, the biographies represent those people who either: gave lectures, were members of the various Management Research Groups or gave talks at the Directors Dinners organised by the Management Research Groups. The people they cover are drawn from the areas of politics, business leaders and academics. Company Case studies, this sections contains details of a series of Case Study firms researched by the project team, these demonstrate the relationships between the companies, the Conference Lectures and the Management Research Groups. The material represents detailed work undertaken in a series of company archives, including: Boots, Clarks, Rowntee, Unilever, Lyons, Reckitts, Colman and British Xylonite. Finally, there are a number of sound files. These represent recordings of Harry Ward who was the Secretary of the MRG for a number of years and was interviewed in 1979. these were found in the LSE Special Collections but were unusable by members of the public. The project team have reproduced this in a digital format and thee have also been transcribed. They reflect the personal views of Harry Ward himself about ideas of British Management. There is also a Bibliography, location maps of where key meetings were held along with a timeline. The database is still being developed in some of the above areas. However, it is a usable tool for researchers 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The database has not been fully launched as yet, it was piloted at the Workshop and has been adapted following user comments. The full launch is intended within the next few months. 
URL http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk
 
Description Researcher Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The workshop was held on 18 January 2018 at the University of Bath's London centre for research postgraduates in business history and related disciplines. The day was divided into two broad segments. In the morning the team demonstrated practical skills in archival research concentrating on the use of digital cameras, the transcription of archival images through OCR software, an appraisal of various OCR solutions to the problems of 'reading' documents captured in the archive, and the methods of searching through and retrieving this material using proprietary database options. The afternoon session was given over to preliminary results of the research. Four papers were given and concentrated on the scope of the material, how the research projects fits into the historical context of British business history, the conclusions that are suggested from a 'management learning' perspective, and the broad headlines of the contribution to the development of British management thought.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Wellcome Boots Advisory Panel 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This consisted of a short presentation of the Rowntree research project with a particular emphasis on potential links with Boots the Chemists, Management Research Groups and Conference Lectures. This was presented to a group of Advisory Board panel members drawn from a range of professional backgrounds. The presentation led to further engagement with Boots and an invitation to join as an Advisory Board member for the Wellcome Boots panel.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Workshop on Business Archives and the Rowntree Inter-War Management Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Presentations were made by the PI, giving an overview of the project and by the Co-I Professor Mairi Maclean entitled: Business as Service: Rediscovering Rowntree and the Interwar British Management Movement. In addition, we had presentations from archivists from The Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York; Walgreen Boots Archives on Boots Archives: An academic research resource and Unilever Art, Archives and Records Management on Business Archives as a Research Resource. The Archives and Special Collections Manager at the LSE Library provided an exhibition of material covering the Management Research Groups and related archive material. The project database was demonstrated at the workshop by The Head of Digital Humanities, from the University of Exeter's Library and Culture Services Digital Humanities Lab entitled 'Bringing archives into the open: the use of open platforms to host digital archival content'. The attendees were encouraged to use the database and provide feedback on its user friendliness. We also collected overall feedback of the end of the workshop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019