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Conceptualising the nature of work: revisiting Luther Gulick's theories of organisation

Richard Breese (Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 5 April 2013




The aim of this paper is to evaluate the coherence of Gulick's ideas on the nature of work roles and the implications for organisational theory.


An analysis is undertaken of Gulick's writings in the “Papers on the Science of Administration”, on different ways of organising (for which the author has used the term “systems of organisation”) and similar work by his contemporaries, including Chester Barnard. The subsequent critique of Gulick's ideas by Herbert Simon is evaluated. Gulick's ideas are then compared with a theoretical framework developed by the author, which covers similar ground to the systems of organisation.


The paper argues that Gulick's ideas on the nature of work roles in his systems of organisation were an important, but flawed contribution to organisational theory. Shortcomings in Gulick's theories on systems of organisation are identified, which, when rectified, improve the coherence of the theories and address legitimate criticisms made by Herbert Simon.

Research limitations/implications

The article has important implications for contemporary interpretations of the intellectual clash between Gulick and Simon, and the relevance of Gulick's ideas for contemporary management research.

Practical implications

The article has implications for the theoretical perspectives which are brought to bear on how organisations conceptualise their work tasks and organise themselves accordingly.


The paper subjects one of the central elements of Gulick's principles of administration to in‐depth critique at a conceptual level in order to re‐evaluate its worth and contemporary relevance.



Breese, R. (2013), "Conceptualising the nature of work: revisiting Luther Gulick's theories of organisation", Journal of Management History, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 279-294.



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Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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