DENNISON, Henry Sturgis

Type

Person

4th March 1877 to 29th February 1952

Biographical Text

Dennison was a progressive American business owner and leader. He was variously a social reformer, a theorist on management and business ownership, and an innovator who used his own firm as an experimental laboratory for new management methods. He was a synthesiser of ideas who has been identified with both scientific management and the human relations movement. 

Dennison was born in Boston on 4 March 1877, the son of a businessman. He was educated at Roxbury Latin School and then Harvard, from whence he graduated in 1899. He then joined the family business, Dennison Manufacturing, a maker of jewellery boxes and other paper products. He married Mary Tyler Thurber in 1901; after her death in 1936, he married Gertrude Peltri in 1944. Within Dennison Manufacturing, Dennison held a number of posts in rotation, gaining experience of the firm and of management before being appointed a director in 1909. In 1917 he succeeded his father as president of the firm. Following a second heart attack in 1941 Dennison began to hand over control of the business to others, though he remained in post as president until his death at Framingham, Massachusetts on 29 February 1952. 

As well as running Dennison Manufacturing, Dennison also gave much of his time to public service. In 1917-18 he served as assistant director of the Central Bureau of Planning and Statistics, and as advisor to Edwin Gay, chairman of the planning and statistics section of the War Industries Board (and also the founding dean of Harvard Business School). He was a delegate at the Industrial Conference of 1919, convened by President Woodrow Wilson, and again at the Unemployment Conference of 1921. In 1934 he was appointed chairman of the industrial advisory board at the US Department of Commerce. From 1937-45 he was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. He was an admirer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a supporter of the latter’s New Deal, and served on several government committees in the 1930s. 

Dennison experimented with many progressive ideas in management. He introduced a wide range of employee benefits, including a curious unemployment insurance scheme which paid out to his employees if he made them redundant; this, said Dennison, put pressure on himself not to make redundancies unless he absolutely had to. He was interested in profit-sharing, and wrote a book on the subject in 1926, but the prevailing attitude in the USA was largely hostile to profit-sharing, and Dennison opted instead for a conversion to self-ownership, in effect buying back the shares in his company and distributing them to his staff. The scheme originally only included his senior managers but was gradually broadened to include some lower-ranking managers as well; Dennison did not follow the model of John Lewis and distribute shares to all employees. 

Dennison was also interested in industrial reform, and often worked closely with fellow reformers Edward and Lincoln Filene, owners of Filene’s department store in Boston. John Kenneth Galbraith came into contact with Filene in the 1930s and together they wrote one of Dennison’s most important books, Modern Competition and Business Policy (1938).  

Progressive management methods were also among Dennison’s many interests. He chaired the Taylor Society for many years, for which reason he is often taken to be a proponent of Taylorism; but although Dennison approved of much about scientific management, he was never a whole-hearted apostle. He was passionately interested in the human aspects of management and organisation, so much so that Bruce (2006) credits him with developing many of the ideas of the human relations school before Elton Mayo.  

Dennison was also active in the American Management Association, established in 1923. One of his most significant achievements, at least in the context of the Rowntree lectures, was the foundation of the Manufacturers’ Research Association (MRA) in Boston in 1924. Urwick (1956: 197) describes this as ‘a group of non-competing firms who established conjointly a small research staff as a centre on which to base the exchange of detailed information on their respective management methods. The Association represented a new conception of frankness of co-operation between businesses which was of lasting importance.’ The MRA did not survive the financial crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, but as Urwick notes, it had a lasting legacy in the form of the Management Research Groups in Britain, which were directly modelled on it. 

Dennison had met Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree when the latter visited Boston in 1919, and it is clear that they shared many interests. Dennison was also an admirer of Mary Parker Follett, another leading figure in the human relations movement and a fellow Rowntree lecturer. Dennison supported the foundation of the Social Science Research Council and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and in the 1920s he and Edward Filene worked with Rowntree to establish the International Management Institute (IMI) in Geneva. Dennison served as vice-chairman through from 1927-33, when the IMI was dissolved. 

In 1927 Dennison came to Europe to witness the launch of the IMI, and also visited Britain where he gave two lectures at the Rowntree conference in April that year. (Percy S. Brown, who represented Filene’s interests at the IMI and served as its deputy director, also gave a lecture at the same conference.) 

Dennison’s first lecture, on co-operation among manufacturers, may have been something of a set-up. He begins the lecture by chiding his audience; he has been on a tour of British companies, he says, and he has seen some examples of excellent practice, but not enough. ‘Good management is too haphazard, too fortuitous; it is like a number of oases scattered over an industrial desert’. What is needed, says Dennison, is for companies to get together and share best practice and learn from each other. Small groups of non-competing firms can do exactly this, he says, and he refers to three such associations he has seen in the UK (the first Management Research Groups, established in 1926). He urges his listeners to form more groups, and if they do, then ‘Major Urwick’ (Lyndall Fownes Urwick, chairman of the MRG Council) was ready and waiting to help them do so. Urwick was present in the audience at the time. 

Dennison then goes on to describe in detail the workings of the MRA, the organisation which served as the model for the MRGs. Dennison describes in great detail the workings and function of the MRA, how many meetings it and its committees have held, subjects for discussion and debate, and outcomes, positive as well as negative. One of the keys to success, he says, is building up trust among the members so that they will share information honestly and openly; implicit in his comments is an exhortation to his British audience to do the same. 

Having served as recruiting sergeant for the Rowntree and Urwick and the MRGs, Dennison then went very much his own way in his second lecture, entitled ‘Scientific management in the factory’. In fact, the first three-quarters of the lecture is spent describing scientific management with relation to sales, purchasing, merchandising (or marketing) and finance. Finally, Dennison gets around to the suggested topic: 

I should, I suppose, in due courtesy, fall in with your chairman’s suggestion, and to maintain my own high reputation, refer to scientific management in manufacturing. 

Dennison’s definition of scientific management is extremely loose, and is probably closer to that of Urwick than of Taylor himself. The ‘scientific management’ he applies to purchasing, marketing and finance starts with an analysis of each field and then procedures based on fact rather than supposition or previously held belief. There is a strong element of quantification – Dennison was very interested in statistics – and a clear focus on precise figures and targets, which comes out particularly clearly in his approach to budgeting. 

When it comes to scientific management in the factory, however, Dennison makes no reference to time-and-motion or any of the other classic Taylorist techniques. The ‘science’ he refers to here is psychology, the study of the worker as a human being. There are as Bruce suggests strong foreshadowings of Mayo, and also echoes of Harrington Emerson, the American consulting engineer and rival to Taylor. The Emerson influence shows itself in this passage: 

If a mechanical engineer went into a room where there was trouble with the engine and merely cursed the machine, we should call him senseless. But he would not be one whit more senseless than a factory manager who goes into a room where there is trouble with the men, and curses them, and tells them how unfair and unreasonable they are, and lets it go at that. A manager, if he is to be called a manager, must find out exactly what and why and how his workers are feeling… 

Treating people simply as economic actors without taking into account their feelings is nonsense, says Dennison. He denies the existence of ‘economic man’ (did this influence perhaps rub off on John Kenneth Galbraith?). ‘We must know the whole mannot merely his economic sector. Because we have only known that sector, we have given him partial work, and we have made him live a partial life.’ Dennison goes on to issue a challenge to industry: 

I, personally, believe that all the wonderful advance in mechanical equipment which has been made in the last 75 years is insignificant compared with the progress we shall make when we learn to harness that greatest force of all – a resolute worker whose heart is in his work… If we devote to the task of making men a fraction of the ingenuity we have devoted to our mechanical development, we are sure to win out. 

Major works 

‘Production and Profits’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 1920. 

(with J. Garrow) Profit Sharing and Stock Ownership for Employees, 1926. 

Organization Engineering, 1931. 

(with J.K. Galbraith) Modern Competition and Business Policy, 1938. 

(with M.E. Leeds, R.E. Flanders and L. FileneTowards Full Employment, 1938. 

Bibliography

Bruce, K., ‘Henry S. Dennison, Elton Mayo and Human Relations Historiography’, Management and Organizational History 1(2), 2006, pp. 177-99.  

Duncan, W.J., ‘Dennison, Henry Sturgis’, in M. Witzel (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Management, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2001. 

Duncan, W.J. and Gullett, C.R., ‘Henry Sturgis Dennison: The Manager and the Social Critic’, Journal of Business Research 2(2), 1974, pp. 133-46. 

Galbraith, J.K., A Life in Our Times: Memoirs, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. 

McQuaid, K. ‘Henry S. Dennison and the Science of Industrial Reform 1900-1950’, American Journal of Economics and Sociology 36(4), 1977, pp. 79-98. 

Nelson, D., ‘Dennison, Henry Sturgis’, in American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Urwick, L.F., The Golden Book of Management, London: Newman Neame, 1956. 

Vollmers, G., ‘Industrial Home Work of the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts, 1912-1935’, Business History Review 71(3), 1997, pp. 444-70. 

Original Source

Lectures:
‘How manufacturers can co-operate with each other to secure maximum efficiency in industry’, 1 April 1927, Balliol College
‘Scientific management in the factory’, 1 April 1927, Balliol College

Citation

“DENNISON, Henry Sturgis,” The Rowntree Business Lectures and the Interwar British Management Movement, accessed August 5, 2020, http://rowntree.exeter.ac.uk/items/show/602.