How management research came to Aston

Aston Business School, 60th Anniversary Celebrations Open Day: 
"Then and Now" on 17 June 2008

I'd like to tell you about 3 outstanding men whose contributions brought management research to what is now the Aston Business School. Of course 51 years ago when I came here, business schools meant secretarial colleges, and we were called the Department of Industrial Administration of the Birmingham College of Technology.

The first of these outstanding men was Joe Hunt. He was the Managing Director of a very successful high-tech automation company, Hymatic Engineering in Redditch. He was a governor of the College and became Sir Joseph Hunt for services to industry and education. When David Bramley, the founding Head of the Department, left to return to industry, the post was advertised and we in the department were all agog to see who would be appointed. It could be a production manager like David Bramley - that was what nowadays would be called the default option. But maybe it would be somebody from Personnel Management or Industrial Relations: that would be different. Then we heard that a management consultant had applied for the job - interesting.

When the selection committee, chaired by Joe Hunt, announced that it had appointed as Head of Department Dr Tom Lupton, an academic researcher in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester, the members of the department were completely non-plussed and in shock. In that announcement the words Dr, academic, researcher, Social Anthropology, University, were all terms that provoked bewilderment and some trepidation.

But Joe Hunt carried through the appointment because he realised that, not only had the College to change to become more academic, accepting research as a normal part of its activities, but it had to be demonstrated that this was actually going to happen. We'd had various name changes: from Birmingham Technical College to College of Technology, to designation as College of Advanced Technology. And the general feeling was that these changes were, to use a term of contempt from the motor industry, 'badge engineering', and that the real workers on the ground would carry on doing what they had always done. Shrewd manager that he was, Joe Hunt ensured that through this innovative appointment we all understood that things were going to change. This was the first foundation pillar for Aston management research.

The second outstanding man was Tom Lupton. He was a rather special sort of social anthropologist. Social anthropologists each have their own particular tribe, whom they have lived among and whom they have studied in detail. But Tom Lupton's tribe was not in Western Melanesia or Matabeleland. His tribe were factory shop floor workers in Lancashire, England. He lived among them, he studied their social interactions, status systems, mores, rituals, rites of passage, and wrote them up - just like any other social anthropologist. So you can understand why he was interested in this job in a heavily industrial area like Birmingham.

Tom Lupton had obtained a Government grant to study factors affecting shop floor behaviour - quite a considerable one. He brought the grant with him; but none of his Manchester research associates transferred with him to take a post in Birmingham. So he had a large grant and no one to work on the research. He accepted me on internal transfer to join the group, and he recruited David Hickson. David and I recruited Bob Hinings and Graham Harding. This group of 4 then hammered out what we wanted to study, and, inevitably, this deviated quite a lot from the original proposal. As we were in a management department, it naturally focused on management of the organization. As Tom Lupton was the grant-holder we needed his approval and we presented our ideas to him at a seminar and waited with bated breath. After a pause, he said 'yes'. (What he actually said was: "If that's what you buggers wanna do, you'd better get on with it!") This remains the most munificent act of academic generosity that I've ever encountered.

So there we were: a group of full-time researchers actually being paid to do research and nothing else. That caused some waves. There were many who thought that research into management was some sort of elaborate scam and that one day we would be rumbled - and didn't hesitate to tell us so. But Tom Lupton had ensured that management research was regarded as an essential part of the job that had to be done in our developing department. This was the second foundation pillar for Aston management research.

The third outstanding man was Dr Venables, the formidable Principal of the College, who was a leading national player in the re-organization of higher technological education, and became Sir Peter Venables and the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aston. Tom Lupton's Government grant came from the DSIR (one of the earlier incarnations of the ESRC). It was the policy of the DSIR to fund the starting-up of new research activities - seed corn money. It was not intended that once the grant had come to an end the research would stop, but that it should take root and be supported by the receiving institution. So the contract that Dr Venables signed on behalf of the College on receiving the grant contained a sentence to the effect that if, at the end of the grant period, the research was considered "important and timely" the institution would continue to support it.

In the early part of the final year of the DSIR grant, we put up a proposal for further development of the research. As you know, the mills of bureaucracy grind exceeding slow when faced with a possibly innovative decision, and so it was not until 2 weeks before the date of expiry of the external grant, that we heard the answer. But it was 'yes' and the college took over the support of the research posts. This was Sir Peter Venables honouring his commitment. Because he understood that research had to be a permanent part of the work of the soon-to-be university, he negotiated with our then paymasters, the City of Birmingham Education Department, to include research posts in the establishment of the Industrial Administration Department. So now we had research accepted as an ongoing activity supported financially by the institution. This was the third foundation pillar for Aston management research.

Through the framework created in turn by Joe Hunt, Tom Lupton and Peter Venables, management research came to Aston - and stayed. They were great men and I salute them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.