Andrew Thomson: Economist and author who published definitive works on management practice and history

Thomson believed that while management was now widely studied, little research had been undertaken into the evolution of its practice

Christen Thomson
Sunday 22 February 2015 17:33
AWJ Thomson believed that while management was now widely studied, comparatively little research had been undertaken into the evolution of its practice
AWJ Thomson believed that while management was now widely studied, comparatively little research had been undertaken into the evolution of its practice

Andrew Thomson was a pioneer in British management education whose aim was to open up educational opportunities to a wide range of junior and middle managers. He believed that management was the central driver of economic activity, and argued that while corporate management structures had developed impressively in the US, Germany and Japan, little progress had been made in this respect in the UK. He sought to create institutions and structures to facilitate the development of British management – and one of his key achievements was to launch an MBA at the Open University. His contribution was recognised in 1993 when he was awarded the OBE for services to education.

Thomson also believed that while management was now widely studied, comparatively little research had been undertaken into the evolution of its practice. He helped to set up the Management History Research Group with Edward Brech in 1994 to rectify this, and he was secretary of the organisation until he retired.

He went on to become a leading historian of management. His 2001 work, Changing Patterns of Management Development, with various co-authors, was considered the definitive treatise on the subject. The Making of Modern Management (2006), with John Wilson, was the first book to examine British management in a historical perspective. He also authored biographies of greats in the field, like Lyndall Urwick (2010) and John Bolton, the latter book due for publication this summer.

In his biography of Urwick, Thomson described him as a man of many parts. He would have been too modest to say so, but that was surely true of him, too. Born in 1936, the son of an ICI engineer, he was educated at St Bees School. He served in the Royal Artillery during his National Service and he would later also serve as a Lieutenant in the Parachute Regiment in the Territorial Army.

After reading PPE at Oxford from 1956-59 and doing a Masters in Industrial Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, he worked as a brand manager for Lever Brothers, where he launched the wildly popular fad of giving away plastic flowers with packets of washing powder. He then made the decision to become an academic, returning to Cornell to do his PhD between 1965 and 1968 at the Industrial and Labor Relations School.

Thomson was a committed member of the Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s and met his first wife, Joan, while canvassing in Hampstead. While working at Glasgow University in the 1970s he was friends with many of the leading lights of the Scottish Labour Party, including Donald Dewar, who would become the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament after devolution. He also got George Robertson, later Lord Robertson and NATO Secretary-General, to join the Labour Party. He was one of the 364 economists who signed a letter to The Times in March 1981, warning Mrs Thatcher that her economic policies would lead to disaster.

Thomson’s academic career developed rapidly at Glasgow, with promotions from lecturer to senior lecturer and then reader, before he was appointed Professor of Business Policy at the recently formed Department of Management Studies in 1978. He published widely during this period and his works, with a range of co-authors, included The Nationalised Transport Industries (1973); The Industrial Relations Act (1975); Grievance Procedures (1976) and Collective Bargaining in the Public Sector (1978).

He held various posts in the research councils, including vice-chairman of the Industry and Employment Committee of the Economic and Social Research Council from 1983 to 1985, and chairman of the Joint Committee of the ESRC and the Science and Engineering Research Council. He also became a founder member of the British Academy of Management in 1987, and its chairman from 1990 to 1993. In a non-academic capacity, he was a director of the Scottish Transport Group from 1977 until 1984 and a member of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board from 1985 until 1999, taking a keen interest in Scottish agricultural and transport issues.

He then joined the School of Management at The Open University in 1988 as its first Dean. There he launched the MBA and expanded the activities of the school internationally. While at the OU, Thomson also published, with his second wife, Rosie, one of the definitive works on management education, Managing People (1993). He suffered a personal tragedy when Rosie died of an asthma attack in 1998.

When he retired in 2001 he moved to New Zealand to be with his third wife, Angela. He devoted himself to the community in the small town of Paihia in the Bay of Islands, having been president of the Bay of Islands Rotary Club. He played an instrumental role in setting up the local community organisation Focus Paihia Community Trust, which proved to be very effective in representing local interests.

As a Scot, Thomson took a keen interest in the recent Scottish referendum, and regretted that the No campaign had not been making the emotional and historical case for the Union, instead concentrating almost exclusively on economic arguments. He felt himself to be both Scottish and British, but primarily Scottish – not least because the class system was not so important in Scotland as in England. “Scotland is more about Burns,” he would explain: “‘The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, the man’s the gowd for a’ that’.”

He took great pride in his adopted homeland of New Zealand and was delighted when it was recently declared best country in the world in a new international social-progress index. There he was able to find expression for his passionate interest in other people and their welfare and could display the deep kindness and goodness which was the essence of the man.

Andrew William John Thomson, academic and author: born Stockton-on-Tees 26 January 1936; OBE 1993; married 1966 Joan Hughes (divorced 1980; two sons), 1992 Rosemary Smith (died 1998), 2001 Angela Bowey; died Paihia, New Zealand 26 December 2014.

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