A more humane philosophy of management is spreading rapidly through American business. ''It has got its own force,'' says Richard E. Walton, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. ''There is nothing that anybody can do that is going to change the playing out of this transformation. It makes too much sense.''
The change Professor Walton refers to is from the old-style, dictatorial management to a more participative, information-sharing, sensitive, and caring style of management.
Under the old style, a company was organized like a pyramid, with the boss at the top sending orders down through the layers of management and supervisors below to the production line and maintenance workers at the bottom. There was a bureaucratic conformity. The boss depended on discipline, fear, and rules to enforce his authority and a high degree of control. He could consider himself dutiful when snapping at employees. A firm with ''competent'' management, like General Motors a couple of decades ago, did a skillful job of whipping employees into high production rates. Jobs often were highly fragmented into simple, mind-numbing tasks.
Under the ''new'' style, management aims to win the commitment of its employees to the goals of the company. The structure of the company permits the flow of information up and down the corporate ladder. Structure is more flexible. There is less emphasis on rank, more on goal sharing. Management shows , as Professor Walton puts it, ''that employees count'' - that they are considered important as individuals. Management encourages its employees to develop and utilize their skills. This often involves shaping jobs so that they use more of a person's abilities - so that jobs are less mindless, routine, and dull. Employees are given an area of discretion to work toward corporate goals.
The switch in management styles, Professor Walton noted in an interview, involves different concepts of man.
Under the old concept, man was a sinner, inclined to dodge work as much as possible, not interested much in being of service to his fellow man, needing a kick in the pants on occasion.
Contrariwise, modern managers have what Mr. Walton calls ''a more optimistic view of human behavior.'' They assume that typical employees would prefer to produce high-quality products, would prefer to have their skills and efforts productively employed, and would prefer to work for a successful enterprise. Most people don't like to turn out shoddy products. They get satisfaction from constructive activity, from contributing to success.
Professor Walton noted that the new style of management has always been ''embraced and articulated'' by some unusually sensitive, individual managers through ''spontaneous combustion'' - that is, the style comes naturally to them.
Then, in the 1960s, academics began to spell out these new ideas on management in books and articles. Prof. Frederick Herzberg, for instance, wrote what has become a Harvard Business Review classic article in 1968: ''One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?'' In an earlier book, ''Work and the Nature of Man'' (World Publishing Company), he compared the Adam idea of ''man's sinfulness'' and incompetence that has been taught for ''two millennia'' with the idea of man ''created in the image of God,'' given divine abilities, and epitomized, he wrote, in Abraham. In later chapters, he links this higher concept of man with his new philosophies of management.
Various companies experimented in the '60s and '70s with the new style of management. Academics guided and analyzed these experiments, noting where they succeeded in boosting productivity, corporate success, and employee satisfaction - or where they failed. But the ideas didn't catch on quickly in the United States.
Curiously, they did become popular in Japanese companies. Experts like Professor Herzberg were frequently invited to Tokyo. The success of Japanese firms is often attributed to the commitment of their employees to the goals of their employers - a commitment perhaps partially cultural, but also due to these modern management techniques adapted from America.
''American industry has had to limp along with a much-lower to middle-level of employee commitment to the organization,'' Professor Walton says.
Now, given the Japanese challenge and example, given the gradual percolation of the new concepts of man and management through American corporate society, the new-style management is at last becoming more popular here.
Professor Walton believes the more optimistic concept of man now prevails, but behavior lags. Companies are struggling to implement the resulting new ideas of good management. With a more highly educated population, old styles result in employee alienation. The new style can be more productive in quality and quantity of output.
''Companies realize they need an internal strategy for energizing and mobilizing resources, a personnel strategy,'' the professor says. This must be harmonized with the company's external strategy to meet its competition and expand.
High-technology companies have, in general, done the most to maintain or introduce modern management techniques. Professor Walton says they have had to do so in order to create the innovative, dynamic workplace that attracts the engineers needed to compete in their various technological niches. He cited Hewlett-Packard Company as an example of progressive management. But it is now also being implemented in old-line companies like General Motors through ''quality circles,'' better job designs, and other techniques. Professor Walton himself was the ''social architect'' of a well-known new management program at Pet Foods in Topeka, Kan., in the late '60s.
By now, the academics and executives themselves have learned some effective, systematic methods for introducing the new management styles into old-style companies and for persuading the cynics among the employees that management is really sincere in its new sensitivity and care for human development. (If management is not sincere, these changes don't work.) It helps, the professor says, for management to think through and outline its new corporate philosophy in print. The employee must be informed, given an understandable rationale for management actions. Management must give employees more discretion, autonomy, and voice in their jobs. The company must show some commitment to job security - ''it must at the minimum treat it as a serious issue and make some sacrifices for it,'' Professor Walton says. Lifetime employment, as in Japan, need not be offered. Management must show concern about the nature of the work assigned, whether it uses sufficient skills of the individual and offers a chance for development.
Mr. Walton cautioned that the change requires management patience. Employees will have to test management commitment to them before they in turn become committed to management.
But if this Harvard professor is right that an idea with ''its own force'' is now pushing a large ''leading edge'' of US corporations into employing these modern management methods, the workplace will more often be a source of satisfaction for employees - not a place of boredom, discomfort, or even fear.