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Helmuth von Moltke and the Management Revolution

Early management thought had roots in the study of warfare

On 4 August 1870, the armies of Prussia disembarked from their trains along the river Rhine, formed into marching columns, and moved swiftly across the border into France. Brushing aside the French forces along the frontier in a series of battles, they quickly occupied the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and bottled up the main French field army in the fortress of Metz, where it was later forced to surrender. Marching west into Champagne, the Prussians encountered the French reserve army led by the Emperor Napoleon III in person. This army was defeated in two days of fighting at the Battle of Gravelotte and driven northward; at Sedan, it too surrendered and the Emperor of France was led away into captivity. With few French troops left in the field to oppose them, the victorious Prussians turned southwest, marching in their long blue columns down into the valley of the river Seine to surround Paris with a ring of steel.

In just four weeks, the finest army in the world had been destroyed and France had been driven to her knees; Prussian uhlans watered their horses in the fountains at Versailles. The management revolution had begun.

An unlikely hero

The architect of the Prussian victory was Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke; an unlikely hero of management. A career officer in the Prussian army, he had spent most of his career with the general staff. He was not the classic Prussian junker, jackbooted and militaristic; rather, he was a sensitive man who enjoyed translating the poems of Byron into German, liked discussing philosophy and music, and once wrote a novel; possibly the only field marshal in history to have done so.

How did this mild-mannered officer bring down the world's foremost military power? The Prussian army was in no way superior to the French. Observers who studied the war after it was over concluded that Moltke had only one competitive advantage: he had a system. Superior Prussian military organisation had won the day.

Line and staff

One of the observers of the conflict was a seventeen-year-old American student, Harrington Emerson. He saw both sides of the conflict, and later commented that he admired the Germans for their efficiency and the French for their character in equal proportions. In later years, working as consulting engineer for American railways, Emerson looked back on his experience and considered the roots of the Prussian success. Moltke, Emerson believed, had been successful because he had managed to fully integrate the 'line' -- the fighting units with the field -- with the 'staff' -- the controlling and coordinating body immediately around the leader. The 'line and staff principle' used by Moltke to control armies could, said Emerson, be used to control business Organizations as well.

In this combination of effective line units and flexible staff, Emerson thought he saw the answer to a dilemma. In the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the United States put on one of the most astonishing spurts of growth seen in human history. Population, fed by a steady stream of immigrants from Europe, multiplied severalfold. Some of the new arrivals settled in cities, leading to rapid urban growth; others moved out to colonise the American West, leading to geographical dispersal. All these 'teeming millions', as one writer of the time put it, had to be fed and their material and social needs attended to.

The response in America was the rapid growth of large corporations, first in railways and transportation, then in steel and raw materials, and finally in machinery and manufactured goods. But American business was not used to large-scale business operations, particularly not ones that were dispersed over a wide geographical area; before the Civil War, most US businesses had been small in scale and scope, easily controlled by an owner-manager. With rapid growth came serious problems of control and management. If corporations were to meet the social needs for which they had been formed, they had to be capable of delivering products of adequate quality at the time and place where they were needed. They had, in other words, to be efficient.

Co-ordination and control

It was this problem of co-ordination and control in large Organizations that Emerson sought to solve. He saw the achievement of efficiency as being reached through a circular process involving both the line and the staff. Could wastages be eliminated? Could work be rescheduled so as to cut down times? Were the right tools being used and did workers have the right skills? Were workers happy and motivated, and could they be encouraged to produce better results? When these questions had been answered and improvements to work routines decided upon, these could be communicated back through the staff to foremen and workers, who would make the necessary adjustments.

It sounds fairly simple, and it was intended to be. Emerson, like most men and women of his age, was looking to science for answers. Science was governed by a set of principles or natural laws; it was possible to treat management, like any other human activity, in a scientific way; and so ipso facto there must be scientific principles by which management could be governed. Although Frederick Winslow Taylor is usually given credit for originating the concept of scientific management, the notion of scientific principles of management was Emerson's. And so it was that modern management came to American thanks to the remarkable career of an Anglophile Prussian field-marshal.

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