Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the first management consultants and the father of what we now call scientific management.

Peter Drucker described him in the following words [2, p. 181]:
“Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since – even though he has been dead all of sixty years.”

Taylor was born in 1856 in Georgetown, Pennsylvania. In 1883, while working full-time for Midvale Steel Works, he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. Ten years later, Taylor opened an independent consulting practise in Philadelphia. In 1898, Taylor joined Bethlehem Steel, where most of his famous work has been done.

Taylor is best-known for his approach to management as described in “The Principles of Scientific Management” published in 1911 [5]. This approach is often referred to as Taylorism.

In the mentioned work Taylor proposed four principles:
1.They [the managers] develop a science for each element of a man’s work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb method;
2.They scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman, whereas in the past he chose his own work and trained himself as best he could;
3.They heartily cooperate with the men so as to insure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed;
4.There is an almost equal division of the work and the responsibility between the management and the workmen. The management take over all work for which they are better fitted than the workmen, while in the past almost all of the work and the greater part of the responsibility were thrown upon the men.

Among Taylor’s work, the strongest impact on management had his concept of breaking a complex task down in to a number of small (atomic) subtasks, and optimising the performance of those atomic tasks or movements (see the 1st principle). As he observed those movements, Taylor tried to simplify every single one of them. Similarly, he looked at every step of the production process, eliminating any breakdowns or inefficiencies. By calculating how long each job should take, Taylor increased productivity but, most importantly, transferred control of the work process over to management (see the 2nd principle).

From an economic standpoint, Taylorism was an utmost success. Implementation of his methods generated significant improvements in productivity and efficiency. Improvements such as Taylor’s shovelling experiment at Bethlehem Steel Works(reducing the workers needed to shovel from 500 to 140 and the cost per ton from 8c to 4c) were typical for his work.

Following Adam Smith, Taylor also encouraged the workers to be more productive through the use of monetary incentives. He believed that increased productivity would lead to higher wages.

His determination to increase productivity produced groundbreaking results in his days, but management changed drastically and many times throughout the last century.

From Labour Management to Knowledge Management

Over the years management’s attention shifted many times, mostly because of changes in business environment (good example of this provides the concept of strategic management introduced primarily because of the rise of turbulent environment). Some of those changes did not have obvious roots in business environment and were introduced by researchers without an apparent need for a solution to organisational problems. Few turned out to be short-lived management trends, not having any real positive impact on organisations (now generally abandoned idea of re-engineering gives an excellent example).

In the end of 20th century, due to the emergence of Internet and (relatively) cheap computing, management shifted its attention to information. Initially it led to many practical actions, most of which were not economically justified, nor were they based on any body of knowledge. The end of its popularity happened at the start of 21st century with the dot-com bubble burst and the famous “IT Doesn’t Matter”article in Harvard Business Review [1]. In this article N. Carr argued (among other things) that companies should not spend enormous amounts of money on IT investments without a moment’s thought. In the next section I shall explain why similar problem is even more dangerous for companies today. Nowadays the information economics is being built mostly by academic work and is still relatively underdeveloped.

The following years brought metainfomation to management’s attention. It meant that managers were no longer interested in the information, they were interested in where to find it. Nowadays the fastest growing part of management is knowledge management. It’s also the most popular part.

Knowledge management however, similarly to many earlier management trends, has serious problems with which it struggles. In the next section I will show why those problems can be solved using an approach similar to Taylorism.

The biggest knowledge management problems are connected to knowledge sharing between employees and knowledge (also information) access (including searching possibilities). To illustrate the scale of knowledge management problems in organisations I will bring up some examples.

Susan Feldman of IDC (International Data Corporation) calculated, based on some assumptions (i.a. the enterprise employs 1000 knowledge workers, each employee costs the enterprise $80,000), that an enterprise wastes $48,000 per week, or almost $2.5 million a year in searches [3].

The crucial knowledge management problem is that the implicit knowledge can’t be shared easily and even the explicit knowledge sharing, which technically is very easy, is not executed properly in most companies. This leads to a situation in which knowledge assets in a company are not accumulating, but a piece of information must be created every time it is needed (as opposed to only the first time it’s needed). This leads not only to tremendous financial losses but also to sloppy operations.

Knowledge workers commonly re-create information because they can’t access the original work products. IDC calls this a knowledge deficit. Feldman references a study by Kit Sims Taylor, which estimates that
“one-third of productive time is spent in knowledge reworking … with only 10% of time spent in actual creation of new knowledge [6].”
IDC’s study of European companies estimates this knowledge deficit at $5,000 per worker per year in 1999, growing to $5,850 in 2003 [4].

Another cost associated with knowledge management is connected to missed business opportunities. Cost associated with those is particularly difficult to measure.

Can we draw an analogy between what Taylor perceived as a main problem in his times and the mentioned knowledge management problems?

Need for a new Taylor

I do believe such an analogy is appropriate and I do think that knowledge management problems can be solved (at least partially) using an approach similar to that of Taylorism. I will argue that today’s economy has the same basic problem, but in a different location.

Taylor [5] wrote:
“We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them.”
Similarly, inefficiencies in knowledge management usually leave nothing visible and are therefore ignored both by knowledge workers and managers. That is a serious problem for a company that is using vast quantities of knowledge.

Additionally, sociologists are telling us that people are now less willing to spend their whole career in one company. Combination of this and the problems with knowledge sharing can spell doom for companies whose main assets are knowledge-related.

Another similarity lies in the responsibility division between managers and employees. In Taylor’s description:
“As was usual then [1879] and in fact is still usual [1911] in most of the shops in this country, the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.”
Today, in knowledge management, too many decisions are made by knowledge workers (i.a. whether to, how and when to share knowledge) and not by the management.

There were tries to revive Taylorism to solve new problems. G. Hamel, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, said the following:
“When I am in a mean mood, I call re-engineering ’21st century Taylorism’.”
But this simply is not so. Re-engineering does not solve problems using scientific approach, instead it tells you that if something you do does not work you should try something completely different. However it doesn’t tell you what it might be.

I have argued why problems of knowledge management are similar to the problems Taylor encountered. It is obvious that an approach similar to Taylorism should be used to solve those problems.

The principles of scientific knowledge management should be formed similarly to the original four. They can be expressed as follows:
1.Managers develop a science for each element of knowledge management (identifying, creating, capturing, organising, accessing and using knowledge), which replaces the obsolete rule-of-thumb method of dealing with knowledge assets;
2.They scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the knowledge worker, whereas in the past knowledge workers trained themselves;
3.Managers cooperate with knowledge workers to insure all of the work regarding knowledge assets is being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed;
4.The work and the responsibility regarding knowledge assets is divided between management and knowledge workers, so that each of those groups do what is best fit for them.
Similarly to Taylorism, each task incorporated in knowledge management should be identified as well as analysed and every inefficiency of it should be removed.

Those actions should save companies lots of money as well as enhance their operations.

It sounds excellent but the real question is how do you implement it in real companies (on a global scale). As we’ve seen with information management, science is developing too slowly to do the job. We need the business consultants to do it. We need a new Taylor. In 1912, F. W. Taylor said before House committee:
“In this sense, scientific management involves a complete mental revolution.”
Employing Taylorism in knowledge management might indeed be drastic, but knowledge management is still young and flexible and can survive the radical change which the new Taylor would bring.

But there is a problem. Individuals don’t matter in business consulting anymore. We’d need to have a major strategic consulting company to implement this. Are they going to? Even if someone comes up with that idea, isn’t it going to be wrapped in red tape?


[1] Carr, N.G., 2003. IT doesn’t matter. Harvard Business Review 81, 41-49.
[2] Drucker, P., 1974. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Harper & Row, New York.
[3] Feldman, S., 2004. The high cost of not finding information. KMWorld 13.
[4] IDC, 2000. European knowledge management fact book. IDC #21511.
[5] Taylor, F.W., 1911. The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper Bros., New York.
[6] Taylor, K.S., 1998. The brief reign of the knowledge worker: Information technology and technological unemployment, in: International Conference on the Social Impact of Information Technologies, University of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri.

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