Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Impact of Alfred Korzybski's Work on Management Science

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Impact of Alfred Korzybski's Work on Management Science

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article discusses the influence of Alfred Korzybski, the originator of general semantics, on the field of management science and the parallels between his thought and that of H. L. Gantt and W. N. Polakov, representatives of scientific management. It shows ways in which Korzybski inspired F. J. Roethlisberger, the originator of organizational behavior, and how the elements of general semantics are reflected in the problem-solving process as used in the hoshin kanri method. The article concludes with a review of similarities between Korzybski's thought and the languagelaction perspective.


The input of a number of scientific disciplines to the development of management science is not easy to assess. At times, their impact has been heterogeneous, obliterated both by the passage of time and the growing complexity of management science. At other times, the traces of their influence remain visible, like metal intrusions in rocks, with their arrangement testifying to the actual value of the penetrations. It appears that the same is the case with the thought of Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) and its impact on the classics of management as a science. The name of the originator of general semantics appears in commentaries and references to management, which testifies to the rich background against which this science has evolved.

This article reviews examples of impacts or references to A. Korzybski's work by six representatives of different trends in management: W. Polakov, H. Gantt, F. J. Roethlisberger, T. Winograd and F. Flores, and Shoji Shiba. The first two, representing the engineering trend in scientific management, perceived certain inadequacies in the treatment of the human factor. F. J. Roethlisberger, the originator of organizational behavior, may be considered a continuator of this position. On the other hand, T. Winograd and F. Flores represent the school of linguistic analysis of business processes. The last of the individuals mentioned above, S. Shiba, is an advocate of the hoshin kanri method and the author of a problem-solving model (the so-called VW model) in which he applied Korzybski's observations.

Korzybski and Scientific Management

In 1990, the Institute of General Semantics published Collected Works of A. Korzybski, with a foreword commenting on "The Principles of Industrial Philosophy" written by W. Polakov (1879-1937), member of the most important associations of engineers--precursors of scientific management--and a close collaborator of H. L. Gantt. Korzybski highly appreciated the paper, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), December 7-10, 1920, as well as Polakov's most important work of 1921, Mastering Power Production: The Industrial, Economic, and Social Problems Involved and Their Solution. Korzybski wrote: "This book gives an engineering, scientific--in the meantime practical--analysis of all human problems. It is a deep and practical treatise on all great questions concerning modern industrialism and so-called economic problems and is a foundation for a new scientific industrial philosophy" (Korzybski 1921).

In Manhood of Humanity, published in 1921, Alfred Korzybski wrote that, among others, the activities of Walter N. Polakov--whom he addressed as Doctor of Engineering; Industrial Counselor; Chairman of Committee on Service and Information, Fuels Section, ASME--exhibit the quality of found "human engineering," which means the inclusion of both scientific and humanistic aspects in his research. Korzybski became familiar with human engineering through Polakov's mentor, H. L. Gantt, whom he greatly respected--and bore witness to it on numerous occasions.

In Korzybski's opinion, "We are the masters of our own destinies, the responsibility is ours to correct the mistakes of our ancestors and to establish a scientific philosophy, scientifically true laws, scientifically true ethics, and a scientific sociology, which will form one unified science of man and his function in the universe, a science which I propose to call 'Human Engineering. …

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