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Henri Fayol and the Relevance of His Ideas in the 21st Century Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2019


Henri Fayol has always been considered as an important pioneer of business administration theory. He is known for the formulation of the main management principles (Brunsson 2008, p. 34).

Moreover, he highlighted the main functions that managers were supposed to perform (Brunsson 2008, p. 34). However, modern scholars and practitioners often debate whether his ideas can be applicable to modern day organizations.

This paper is aimed at discussing the main concepts and ideas introduced by Henri Fayol. In particular, it is necessary to evaluate them and determine the extent to which they are relevant to contemporary teaching and management practices.

Overall, it is possible to argue that despite various limitations Henri Fayol’s theories continue to shape many modern businesses; therefore they will influence education of managers.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that many people have a very simplified view of Henry Fayol, and his ideas may have more implications than it may seem at first glance.

The concept of general management

The ideas introduced by Henry Fayol have been both praised and criticized. In particular, one can speak about the concept of general management.

Fayol believed that organizations could certainly differ in terms of their size or structure; however, there were specific tasks of a manager always had to do, namely, planning, coordinating, controlling, organizing, and commanding (Fayol, as cited in Brunsson 2008, p. 34).

To some extent, the notion of general management gave rise to a great number of theoretical works describing the functions of the management that are studied in modern business schools. His idea of general management can be extended to the major activities of an organization.

The thing is that Fayol singed out the main activities of a business, namely he spoke about the following processes: 1) commercial activities such as buying or selling; 2) accounting; 3) security activities or the protection of people and property; 4) technical activities or manufacturing; 5) financial activities or use of capital; and 6) managerial activities (McLean 2011, p. 32).

He argued that to some degree, these activities were present in almost every organization (McLean 2011, p. 32).

Therefore, one can say that Henri Fayol attempted to identify common patterns or features that are present in every company. In part, his theories are based on this premise.

These ideas have been debated by many modern scholars. For instance, Karin Brunsson refers to empirical studies suggesting that managers do not always have to do the tasks outlined by Fayol (2008, p. 34).

In this regard, one can mention some visionary leaders such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who are primarily responsible for planning or developing strategies of their companies. In turn, there are many managers who have to pay more attention to coordinating and organizing the work of employees.

More importantly, the functions are often dependent on the type of organization, its structure or culture (Brunsson 2008, p. 34). This is one of the reasons why the theories of Henry Fayol have often been criticized by modern scholars.

Furthermore, scholars point out that the main activities highlighted by Fayol are not always represented in modern companies. For example, Fayol identifies technical activities such as manufacturing. There are many cases that contradict this argument.

In particular, technical activities can hardly be found in financial services industry or hospitality industry. These are service organizations that are not engaged in manufacturing. Thus, these are exceptions to the theories of Henri Fayol. Nonetheless, they do not completely disprove his ideas.

It should be taken into account that Fayol tried to apply his theories to French steel industry (Wren 2001, p. 478). He focused on organizations that were engaged in product development (Wren 2001, p. 478).

His ideas proved to be applicable to those companies. More importantly, they remain relevant to contemporary companies, for example, those one representing automotive industry (McNiff & Whitehead 2000, p. 146).

Therefore, it is possible to say that the notion of general management may have its limitations, but it is still important for modern practitioners.

The fourteen principles of management

Secondly, one should mention that Henri Fayol is often credited for formulating the main principles of management. The most important principles that he stressed was the division of work, unity of command, authority, centralization of power, order, efficient retention of employees, and so forth (Pryor & Taneja 2010, p. 499).

These principles helped Fayol achieve success in steel and iron industry. These principles have been used in many organizations; yet, some scholars and practitioners may question them.

For example, we can refer to such a principle as the unity of command; it means that an employee must follow the commands of only one manager (Pryor & Taneja 2010, p. 499).

The main issue is that in modern companies an employee can work under the command of several managers. These are the so-called matrix organizations in which people can work on two different projects at the same time (Galbraith 2008, p 10).

Moreover, these projects can be guided by different managers. Among such companies one can single out Boeing, IBM, or Proctor & Gamble (Galbraith 2008, p 50). Thus, there are exceptions showing that the rules set by Fayol do not always have to be followed.

Apart from that, Fayol attached much importance to the primacy of general interests over individual ones. Certainly, this idea is accepted by many business administrators. However, contemporary organizations tend to focus more on the needs of individuals.

Some critics of Fayol’s theories even argue that his managerial principles portray an organization as a mechanism in which every part can be substituted.

More importantly, too little attention is paid to creativity, emotions, or desires of workers (Jex 2002, p. 377). This is why many scholars may object to Fayol’s theories.

Researchers also point out that some of Fayol’s ideas are too general. For instance, he advocates such ideas as fair compensation of workers and promoting team spirit in the workplace.

Nevertheless, he does not explain how these principles have to be implemented (Jex 2002, p. 377). This is another way to critique the ideas of Henri Fayol. Overall, these examples suggest that his views can be questioned for several reasons.

First of all, they often contradict empirical findings, and his concept of general management is not applicable to every type of organization. Secondly, he does not attach too much importance on individual needs of workers. Finally, his principles lack specific details.

This is one of the views on Henri Fayol’s theories. Nevertheless, some of these criticisms can be addressed. Many concepts related to management may seem subjective or too general. For instance, even nowadays it may be difficult to give an exact definition of such a notion as fair compensation.

Secondly, it is not quite appropriate to argue that the theories of Fayol are inhumane. They are aimed at maximizing the overall wellbeing of different stakeholders, rather than a separate individual.

This is one of the ways in which one can justify the views of this theorist.

The complexity of Henri Fayol’s ideas and their practical applications

Some scholars argue that the criticisms of Henri Fayol’s views can be partly explained by the fact that many people have a very simplified view of this writer, practitioner and theorist.

For instance, Lee Parker and Phillip Ritson point out that Fayol can be viewed as a forerunner of modern contingency theories (2005, p. 184). The thing is that in his works, Fayol often compared an organization to a biological organism that has to adjust to various external factors.

To some degree, this argument implies that there is no universal principle that companies should always follow. He certainly believed that it was desirable for a manager to follow the 14 principles that he established.

Nonetheless, Fayol also argued that “there is nothing rigid or absolute in management affairs, it is all a question of proportion” (Fayol as cited in Parker & Ritson 2005, p. 185).

In this way, he could suggest that the behavior of a manager or a leader is determined by particular circumstances, rather than a set of rigid rules.

These examples suggest that Fayol was a more complex thinker than many people believe. Overall, he strived to create a learning organization that could be agile and flexible.

As it has been noted before, Henri Fayol has often been blamed for not paying too much attention to the needs of workers, for example, their need for empowerment. Yet, close analysis of his writings suggests that he set very high standards for managers.

On the one hand, they hand to ensure that organizational goals were achieved. Nevertheless, they had to put trust in the creative capacity of workers and their ability to take independent decisions (Parker & Ritson 2005, p. 188).

The recommendations of these people could not be disregarded because they could improve the process of production. One should assume that Fayol’s theories promote complete separation of managers and workers.

Therefore, one can argue that some criticisms of Fayol’s theories are not quite justified, especially the belief that he viewed workers only as subordinates.

Additionally, he continuously advocated workers’ right to autonomy (Parker & Ritson 2005, p. 181). Thus, people should not blame Fayol for viewing employees only as cogs in a machine. In fact, he opposed to this point of view.

He developed his theories at the time when too little attention was paid to the rights and needs of employees. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Fayol’s ideas were radical and unconventional.

It is vital to show real-life examples of how Fayol’s ideas can be applied by modern organizations. For instance, he was one of the first theorists to point out that high turnover adversely affected the performance of a company (Pryor & Taneja 2010, p. 497).

He noticed that businesses in which people regularly came and went were less likely to produce very good results. This is one of the reasons why he advocated effective retention of employees.

This idea appealed to many Japanese companies such as Toyota that tried to encourage life-long employment of their workers (Taniguchi 2006, p. 266). Later, this strategy was adopted by many other businesses and retention of employees is one of the top priorities for modern HR managers.

Additionally, we can mention such concept as just-in-time production. To some degree, it originates from Fayol’s principles of order; in other words, every peace of inventory has to be in the right place (Pryor & Taneja 2010, p. 498).

Fayol attempted to develop the methods in which one could optimize the process of production. Nowadays, these methods are studied in educational institutions; moreover, they have profoundly changed modern manufacturing companies.

Furthermore, such a quality control method as quality circles stems from Fayol’s concept of employee empowerment (Pryor & Taneja 2010, p. 498). Thus, Fayol’s ideas continue to influence modern companies.


Overall, despite various limitations and criticisms, Henri Fayol’s ideas have significant implications for the education of future managers and business practices.

This analysis demonstrates that this theorist had very complex views of organizations, and his contribution cannot be reduced only to the functions and principles of management.

He attempted to create a very flexible company that could react to the changes in its environment. Its success had to be based on effective cooperation of both managers and workers.

Moreover, the relevance of his ideas to modern companies can be best illustrated by the practical applications such as just-in-time-production or quality circles.

Therefore, Henri Fayol’s ideas will be relevant to educators and practitioners. Yet, it is quite possible that these theories will be modified so that they could better fit the needs of changing workplace.


Brunsson, K 2008, ‘Some Effects of Fayolism’, International Studies of Management and Organizations, vol. 38 no 1, pp. 30-47.

Galbraith, J 2008, Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work: How IBM, Proctor & Gamble and Others Design for Success, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Jex, S 2002, Organizational Psychology: A Scientist-Practitioner Approach, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

McLean, J 2011, ‘Fayol – standing the test of time’, British Journal of Administrative Management, vol. 10 no. 74, pp 32-33.

McNiff, J & Whitehead, J 2000, Action Research in Organisations, Routledge, London.

Parker, L. & Ritson, P 2005. ‘Revisiting Fayol: Anticipating Contemporary Management’, British Journal of Management, vol. 16 no. 10, pp. 175-194

Pryor, M & Taneja, S 2010, ‘Henri Fayol, practitioner and theoretician – revered and reviled’, Journal of Management History, vol. 16 no. 4, pp. 489-503.

Taniguchi, M 2006, Careers in Japan, Emerald Group Publishing, London.

Wren, D 2001, ‘Henri Fayol as strategist: a nineteenth century corporate turnaround’, Management Decision, vol. 39 no. 6, pp 475-487.

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