13th July 1894 to 7th August 1951
Sheldon was a manager, later director of Rowntree. Along with his colleague Lyndall Urwick, he was one of the principal organisers of the Rowntree conferences.
Sheldon was born 13 July 1894 in Congleton, Cheshire, the son of a town clerk. He was educated at Burnley Grammar School, then King's College School in Wimbledon and finally Merton College, Oxford, where he graduated with a B.A. During the First World War her served as an officer in the East Surrey Regiment on the Western Front. Demobilized after the war, he found a job in York with the chocolate maker Rowntree where he served out the rest of his career, first as personal assistant to the chairman, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, then as manager of the Associated Companies, and from 1931 as a director.
Sheldon was an important member of the group around Rowntree who pursued better and more efficient management methods, and also sought to reshape management in a more human form. Along with Lyndall Urwick, he was one of the organisers of the Rowntree conference series (whether he was also involved in the Management Research Groups is not clear). Urwick (1956) also says that he was one of the founders of the Institute of Industrial Administration in the UK, and one of the leading promoters of increased professionalization, higher standards and more organization within the management movement.
Sheldon was also active in civic society in York, serving a term as governor of the Merchant Adventurers of that city. He also joined the board of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. He died in York on 7 August 1951.
Sheldon wrote a number of articles and chapters on management for various publications, but only one full-length book. The Philosophy of Management, published in 1923, was much admired in its day, though it has largely lapsed into obscurity today. On one level this is a pioneering work in organisation theory, but Sheldon also goes much deeper than mere organisation. Witzel (2017) calls The Philosophy of Management one of the more profound books on management ever written.
Like Urwick and Mary Parker Follett, whose work he admired, Sheldon was concerned not with the mechanical aspects of efficiency, as the Taylorists were, but with the higher purpose of management. Unlike John Lee, who overtly mixed religious and spiritual themes with management, Sheldon’s work is, as the title suggests, more philosophical. His book is an attempt to create an overall vision or concept of management that would serve to tie all the various elements of theory and practice together: ‘Philosophy...demands of us whether we are conducting our practice according to any principles or laws, or merely snatching at the floating straws that pass. Whilst busying ourselves with the details of this expansion of management, it would be fatal were none to query its purpose and inwardness’ (Sheldon 1923: x).
Management, like organisation, is a continuous theme in human society. Formerly, when the owners of capital also directed enterprises, management could be seen as an inherent part of capital, in effect a hidden dimension of the ownership, use and employment of capital. The rise of joint stock companies, however, was beginning to create a separation between capital and management, with not all owners of capital necessarily being involved in its management and a greater delegation of power to non-capital owning managers. This separation Sheldon saw as leading to the rise of professional management; this rise in turn made it all the more important to define what management was and create professional standards based on science.
Sheldon argues industry exists only for the service of the community. This, he says, is obvious: both production and consumption are ultimately guided by the community’s needs. Goods cannot be produced or sold for which there is no demand from society. There is thus an inbuilt ethical dimension at the very heart of every business; each business exists primarily, if not solely, to fulfil human and social needs. He refers to this as the ‘doctrine of service’, meaning that businesses exist primarily to serve their community. Ethics and social responsibility, in Sheldon's view, are not an add-on to business and management, they are part of the core philosophy.
Sheldon’s first lecture on ‘Administrative wastes’ was given in April 1923 at a conference themed around the reduction of waste. His central point is one that is common to many pioneers of management science, namely that management science has developed – over quite a short space of time – a large body of knowledge about management, but very little of this management is being put into practice. ‘Between the science of management and its application, there is a wide gulf which may be called the “Slough of Administrative Despond”. That is where the waste exists.’ Sheldon argues that the lack of knowledge on the part of management is one reason why labour has largely lost confidence in management.
He goes on to describe the same threefold division of managerial labour that he uses in The Philosophy of Management, namely administration, management and organisation. ‘Administration says what is to be done. Management does it. Organisation designs the means of doing it.’ His term ‘administration’ broadly corresponds to the role of leadership, and like many later writers, Sheldon draws a clear distinction between the two:
About a month ago I was visiting one of the largest firms in this country, and talking to two of the directors. They said, ‘The real trouble here is that we have not enough time to think.’ But, you may say, what is there for a highly-placed official in a business to think about except the carrying out of the work of the factory? That is the reason why I draw a rather strong distinction between administration and management. If you are going to manage, manage, but if you are going to think, think.
The problem with many businesses, says Sheldon, is that a lack of organisation means that top management, instead of concentrating on the business environment and business policy, are forced to spend most of their time on day-to-day management. This is wasteful, because the business itself then lacks direction and is inclined to strategic drift. He calls for businesses to be organised along functional lines and for more distinct roles for ‘administrators’ and ‘managers’. Efficiency of organisation, says Sheldon, is the key to controlling and eliminating waste.
The second lecture, on ‘Management as a profession’, makes the case for recognising management as a ‘third force’ in industry interposed between capital and labour. After again making his case for a triple structure of administration, management and organisation, Sheldon points out how both capital and labour now depend on management in toto. Capital requires the skills and wisdom of management to be employed effectively; the days when a capitalist could run his or her own business are long gone. Labour too requires the direction the management provides if it is to be productive and fruitful.
Sheldon then describes the characteristics of a profession before analysing management to see if it qualifies for such status. He concludes that it does, and in particular, calls on managers to recognise that one of the key duties of a profession is service to the community. ‘We are oppressed with a sense of our own responsibility’, he said, ‘we are beginning to realise that in our hands rests more than our own fortune. On this body we have called management rests the major responsibility for steering British industry towards the sun – the sun of a newborn prosperity for our country.’ In this paper, Sheldon is effectively challenging managers to step up and take responsibility not just for their own businesses but for the welfare and happiness of the country.
This paper needs to be seen in the context of a broader debate that was going on during the 1920s, in Germany and America as well as Britain, concerning the separation of ownership and control. The German engineer and politician Walther Rathenau had argued that this separation was necessary, as only managers had the impartiality, skills and wisdom to guide a company in the right direction. This view was challenged in America, particularly by the Harvard economist William Ripley, and also to some extent by Adolph Berle and Gardiner Means; James Burnham would later equate ‘managerialism’ with fascism. The debate about the respective roles of capital and management continues to rumble on today.
The Philosophy of Management, 1923.
Urwick, L.F., The Golden Book of Management, London: Newman Neame, 1956.
Witzel, M. ‘Sheldon, Oliver’, in M. Witzel (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Management, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2001.
Witzel, M., A History of Management Thought, London: Routledge, 2nd edn, 2017.
‘Administrative wastes’, 20 April 1923, Balliol College
‘Management as a profession’, 3 October 1925, Balliol College