The Ideas of the Classical Theorists

This essay will discuss the relevance of the ideas of classical theorists in today’s work and organisations. I will evaluate why these ideas gained popularity when they were published by looking at the influences that classical theorists were surrounded by at the time of their development. I will then focus on bureaucracy and scientific theories, by looking at the organisations and countries that have adopted this style and how a negative reputation has been developed, after this I will discuss the advantages of these theories.

After covering the basics of classical theories I will then discuss if these theories are still relevant in modern day organisation and work, this involves looking at the changes which have occurred since the time of classical theories, specifically looking at the change in the market, then moving onto new laws which have been passed, in particular how these changes have affected how businesses are managed particularly when dealing with employees, how globalisation has changed the day to day running of businesses and the different factors necessary for consideration and then speak about my personal experience in modern work and organisation.

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Finally, I will evaluate how modern work and organisations have changed contextually since the period that the classical theories were developed in. The classical theorists that I am going to focus on are, Henri Fayol and his theory of management, Max Weber and his theory of bureaucracy and Fredrick Taylor and his theory of scientific management. All of these theorists proposed a “one best way” to manage; moreover all of their theories were ublished in the early 20th century. Henri Fayol (1841 -1925) published his theory in 1916 which was based upon his experience in business. However this experience is only based on the mining industry which he worked in his whole life. He distinguished management from other organisational activities achieved by defining 5 obligations of a manager: planning and forecasting, organising, coordinating, commanding and controlling.

Max Weber (1864 – 1920) was a German philosopher and sociologist, he introduced the term bureaucracy into organisations; he suggested that people in organisations have their own well-defined tasks and responsibilities, a good hierarchical structure, organisation develop their own rules and procedures to their tasks, employees occupy positions that on the basis of judgement by others and employees motivation is the achievement of organisational goals. Fredrick Taylor (1856- 1915) was an American mechanical engineer and was arguably the biggest influence on scientific management.

He believed that efficiency, standardisation and discipline would come off a result of such as a clear distinction of roles. He also advocated scientific selection to identify the correct person for a job, jobs should be simplified so that jobs should involve the minimum amount of actions and it was management’s responsibility to find out the ‘one best way’ of completing every job. As mentioned before, all of these theories were developed early in the 20th Century, shortly after the industrial revolution.

I believe this had a major influence on the ideas of classical theorists (Brooks, 17) “Much of the early work on organisational theory comprised a distillation of managerial experience”. This demonstrates how there were no previous theories on management they had to use their experience and research from industry. As the industrial revolution had just come to an end the secondary sector had the highest market share (1)”The economy was more notably based upon trade and manufacturing: manufacturing represented 28 per cent of output. ” As the three theorists I have focused on developed their theories in the time of he revolution they could easily relate it to the current businesses. These theories were proven relevant by their popularity (Brooks, 20) “Taylor’s thinking preceded the widespread adoption of mass production techniques, possibly best demonstrated by the early 1920’s motor manufacturers, most significantly Henry Ford in the USA. ” Production lines were sequential and followed a strict rule of the “one best way” which may be because the new industry and workers did not have a large amount of knowledge or expertise on how their jobs should be done.

Bureaucracy was one of the most popular theories developed and is used in some modern organisations such as the NHS and the Police. Through the years bureaucracy has developed a bad reputation for de-humanizing jobs (Grey, 30) “In the ideal-type, people are no more than parts in a well-oiled machine –devoid of passion, prejudice and personality”, although some people prefer this structure (Handy, 22) “No one, it seems, approves of bureaucracy except, interestingly, lots of people in organisations who like to know where they stand. Scientific management has also been criticised for not accounting for the employees in the organisation (Handy, 20) “but people had been left out of the equation – they were not so easily regimented. ”, moreover this the management style also received a bad reputation (Brooks, 19) “Similarly, in Germany in 1912 they were greeted with considerable hostility, and in France (Renault) they resulted in strike action and violent protest. ”, considering this the structure does have its benefits.

A lot has changed since the time of these classical ideas; new laws have been passed, globalisation has changed the scale of business and created new barriers for them to work around, new theories have been developed and the economy that these ideas were based on has revolutionised. All of these factors may have changed the relevance of the classical theories in modern work and organisation Since the publishing of the classical works, there have been many new laws introduced, in particular laws which protect employees in the workplace.

These laws have placed more emphasis on the conditions of employees, a factor that the classical thinking did not detail enough (Grey, 39) “That workers were regarded as no more than components in the organizational machine is important. ” When considering Taylor’s theory and his practise of the ‘one best way’, in particular the minimum number of actions that required for a job, I don’t think that his theory accounted for employees with disabilities.

This is vital because organisations cannot discriminate against people with disabilities thanks to the “Employers and the Equality Act 2010” Therefore in modern organisations the theory would have to adapt to allow more time and an alternative to the ‘one best way’ for people with disabilities which affected their job. Globalisation has been benefited businesses by being able to trade internationally, which has increased business growth through the access to new markets.

Along with these benefits there are also new barriers that organisation have to overcome, one of these barriers is the differences in culture; when expanding into new countries the organisation has to respect the cultural differences of the country and their citizens , another difference I believe the point where classical theorists started to become irrelevant was during the time that Margret Thatcher was in office. During her time in office Thatcher believed that the government had too much influence in the economy and decided to sell off the privatised industries.

As a result this lead to the (2) “manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom has been experiencing both the worst world recession for forty years” this decline the tertiary service has dominated the UK economy since (3) “Shows the monthly movements in gross value added for the service industries, which overall account for around 74 per cent of UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” because of this change the ideas of the classical theorists have become increasingly irrelevant.

The surge of service sector businesses, I believe, has made the classical theories irrelevant as their theories were based upon the manufacturing and production industries in which they lived and worked in. As this had declined (1) “One major change was the shift in industrial composition. In the UK, manufacturing’s share fell from 28 to 14 per cent of employment” these theories have become more irrelevant in the shift of the dominating sector. Manufacturing and production were once at the heart of British industry, but now the service sector as adopted that position.

So are the classical theories still relevant in today’s work and organisation? To answer the question I am going to look at one of the world’s biggest organisations, McDonalds. The reason why I using McDonalds is because it has successfully developed while the manufacturing and production industry has declined, also because of the size of the business and its relevance to the service sector in the modern economy. McDonalds’s structure is very similar to that of classic theorists in the way that there is a ‘one best way’ for all of the jobs that are involved.

In particular Ritzer recognized that (Ritzer, 27) “McDonalization is an amplification and extension of Weber’s theory of rationalization. ” This modification of the classic theory could co-inside with the time that McDonalds was beginning to be franchised in the 1940 by Ray Kroc who lived in the time when manufacture and production was at its peak. I have previously worked at McDonalds, my experience there has l left me disillusioned with McDonalds as a company.

Initially I was employed as a chef, the training that I had to complete was consisted of on the job work and health and safety. All of this training was irrelevant to any scoring system and all the answers were provided to me from the manager who gave me the tests. In my opinion this training was pointless as I had learnt nothing from reading the guide books and completed tests that I could not fail. When learning how to make the components on the McDonalds menu I was given a strict set of rules and procedures on which to order all of the ingredients.

For example to make a cheese burger I would toast one half of the bun, after the buzzer had sounded to indicate that the toasting was done. Another employee would lay the meat on the grill, the other half of the buns would be toasted and another employee would dress the buns. The order of the dressing was mustard, ketchup, onions, pickles and cheese, the employee who dressed the buns had to dress all of the buns in the time it took or the meat to cook. Finally the meat would be placed on the buns and the other half of the buns would be placed on top.

Looking back at this job I can distinctly recognise it as being a strictly bureaucratic organisation, although in actual working conditions a lot of the employees did not follow these guidelines, including me. Through experience everyone had their own preferable way of doing each job either by using different techniques or by using the equipment available for multiple jobs, such as using the vertical toaster to toast cheeseburger buns as well as toasting chicken buns.

By the end of my time at working at McDonalds I had exhausted all of my patience waiting for appreciation from the managers in the company. I was mentioned for promotion from some managers on three different occasions as I was seen as a hard worker, although other mangers did not agree with this opinion. All of these managers had more authority over the managers which supported my promotion. Another reason for leaving was anticipating the content of my day and who I was working with.

I decided I couldn’t work there anymore because of this constant cycle of work. I am currently working for Marks and Spencer in Newcastle, the training on the first day was called the ‘one best way’, so this gave me the impression that my job would be defined by a strict set of rules and procedures, but through the weeks that have followed I have observed there is no ‘one best way’ of doing my job such as stacking the products that the organisation sells into cages and a lot of the job calls for your own initiative to be used when making decisions.

To conclude, there have been various significant changes to organisations and work such as new laws being created, the introduction of globalisation and a change in the economy in which the classical theories were created. These theories have had to adapt and change in order to keep up with the current majority market in order to be relevant. McDonalds has done this very successfully by converting the ideas of Taylor and Weber into food preparation and customer interaction, although this style of organisation is till not perfect as proven by the employees who work within, which was the same problem that classical theorists had when then introduced their ideas. Yes I can say that Weber’s and Taylor’s ideas are still relevant, but only through companies adopting and adapting these methods. These leaves me with one last thought that if the classical theorists were still alive today would they change their theories?

Electronic sources

1) Office for national statistics, (2009) Index of services,, 16/12/2010

2) Craig Lindsay, (2003) A century of labour market change: 1900 to 2000,, 16/12/2010

3) Office for national statistics, (2008) Index of services,, 16/12/2010


Grey, C (2009) 2nd Edition; A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organizations, London, Sage Publications.

Ritzer, G, (2004) 3rd Edition; McDonalidization, London, Sage Publications.

Brooks I, (2009) 4th Edition, Organisational Behaviour, Harlow, Pearson Education limited.

HANDY, C (1993) 4th Edition, Understanding Organizations, London, Penguin Books.

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The Ideas of the Classical Theorists. (2017, Feb 28). Retrieved from