Mary Parker Follett – Pioneer of Modern Management and Negotiation theory

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Mary Parker Follett was referred to by Peter Drucker as the prophet of management – Follett viewed bureaucratic organisations with their hierarchical forms as basically being unfit for purpose and preferred the concepts of network organisational forms, collaboration, and integrative bargaining – essentially the idea of people working together to achieve more than they could do alone. The same concepts are now forming the recipe for success in our relational and knowledge economy, so it comes as no surprise that in the book ‘Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management – A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s’, the editor, Pauline Graham observed that Follett was ahead of her time and is still ahead of our time. And here is the catch – Mary Parker Follett died in 1933 and most of her cited work was produced during the 1920s or earlier.

This then raises a number of questions as to why MP Follett’s work has generally been overlooked in the interim while credit has been given to others in recent times for introducing similar concepts. Could it be that Follett lived and worked during an era of industrial and scientific management that did not resonate with her teaching? Could it have been that the male gender oriented (dominated) organisational environment at the time perpetuated the bureaucratic form of command, control and competition, limiting the influence, recognition and opportunities for women who made up a small minority of organisational membership? Could it be that the organisational environment at the time of Follett’s work was just not ripe for her ideas to germinate and take hold?

What appears obvious however, is that our present environment is now ripe for embracing Follett’s concepts of management and leaders, integrative negotiation and influence, constructive conflict and power with (to name a few). If this proposal is accepted, then we need to review our state of preparedness and capability to succeed in the new relational, knowledge economy – are we still locked into outdated bureaucratic, hierarchical, scientific management principles or has our mindset shifted into the more collaborative network way of organising? Has our organisational mindset, competencies, structures and systems evolved beyond the influences of a male dominated culture to embrace diversity, collaboration and integration as the foundation for success in the new world order? Are we still locked into the limitations of traditional positional, distributional (sum/lose) bargaining or have we caught onto the potential innovation and creativity that mutual gains or collaborative (win/win) negotiation delivers? What are the risks and costs to those organisations that maintain the status quo in the face of the shift in our economy and environment?

I am sure that you have your own theories as to why the work of Mary Parker Follett has languished in the backwater of management and negotiation theory, and whether now is truly the time for Follett’s concepts to come of age. What do you think they may be?

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