Monday, 11 June 2007

The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and William Hopper


Peter writes ...

Founded in London in 1628, the Massachusetts Bay Company came to foreshadow a golden age of American management that, much later, between approximately 1920 and 1970, would become “…one of mankind’s greatest achievements.” This is the founding argument of ‘The Puritan Gift’, a new book by the brothers Kenneth and William Hopper. Its structure follows the dramatic template of birth, triumph, loss and renewal. Along the way, we see the irony as in the immediate post-war years, the candles of managerial excellence are passed to Japan, just as misjudgement grips America and she starts to snuff hers out. In charting this history, the brothers Hopper lead themselves open to the charge that the values ascribed to Puritan settlers are vague and easily retro-fitted to well run organisations, that the same values are perhaps no more associated with Puritans than any other Christian (or other religious) group, and even that they are being culturally partial. Nonetheless, now, at this time, amidst the seas of neophiliac management practice, of evermore arcane financial accounting practices, of increasingly dusky professions and hocus bodies of expertise, and in an age when the daily manufacture of new products is seemingly less bountiful than the acronyms needed to explain them, the brothers Hopper have created a stunning triumph. The Puritan Gift is the post-Enron book. This is the book for all those who believe that business is essentially a simple affair of spirit, industrie, commitment to customers, and the will to see common progress in whichever neighbourhood or society one happens to reside.

Led by John Winthrop, hitherto an “obscure Suffolk gentleman”, the Massachusetts Bay Company would carry 14,000 souls across the Atlantic in approximately two hundred ships between 1630 and 1640. Even today, the scale of this operation is impressive, and its speed in recruiting able hands from across the south of England, the valleys of Lancashire and beyond, is of note. The Massachusetts Bay Company was well resourced; according to the Hoppers the cost of the Massachusetts settlement was about £200,000 or “some $40 million in today’s money.” It shares were owned entirely by Winthrop and his companions who transferred the company’s charter and its headquarters to New England, leaving no copy of its charter “left behind in London.” Instead, the Massachusetts Bay Company was able to focus on developing the spores of meritocratic practices associated with Puritan England, on good financial accounting, and most of all, on using the talents of all its people towards collective ends. Winthrop himself attracted some criticism for being “soft, evasive and lenient”, but history testifies to the success of his collegial management style. The Hoppers report that during the entire seventeenth century New England received 21,000 emigrants. By contrast, 120,000 would go to Virginia and Maryland. Yet by 1700, the population of New England was 91,000, this being 6,000 more than the total for the two Chesapeake colonies. Hence it was Winthrop’s ship, the Arbella, rather than the earlier Mayflower and her “leakie” companion the Speedwell, that would carry the germs of management expertise into the New World.

This history provides insight into a quartet of characteristics that would become intimately associated with the success of great American businesses. Quoting from the first paragraph of Chapter One:

“A conviction that the purpose of life, however vaguely conceived, was to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth; an aptitude for the exercise of mechanical skills; a moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the group; and an ability to marshal financial, material and human resources to a single purpose and on a massive, or lesser, scale.”

This then is an anthropology of American management, a roots study. And it is by following these roots that a fifth characteristic is added. This is an institutional respect for technology and the technologist. These cultural values were imparted through America’s long friendship with the French and can be traced in particular to the founding work of Louis de Tousard and Sylvanus Thayer at West Point, and the foundation of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York in 1824. A side-issue for this reviewer is to note that it is the French, and not the innovative (mostly northern) English or Scots, who possessed the insight and means to institutionalise the study of technology into the fabric of society. This digression cannot be developed now, but an historical anthropology can cast light in many directions and, perhaps, many of the most stubborn problems of British industry through the 20th Century are illuminated when stood upon this unfamiliar vantage point, i.e. when appreciating the great French contribution to America.

The Hopper brothers build their thesis by tracing the development of American management through the work of Colonel Roswell Lee at Springfield Armory, the impact of the American technology at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, the corporation-building exploits of the Scottish born Daniel McCallum, and those of the French descent du Pont family. From these talents and others arose the “Golden Age of American Management” between 1920 and 1970, an era within which great companies “possessed and enjoyed one common corporate culture embracing all divisions and disciplines.” Strangely, the Hoppers do not provide even a partial list of names of those they consider as “Great Engine” companies, but anecdotes are taken from Boeing, du Pont, Merck & Company, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, American Brake Shoe, Standard Oil, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Kodak and others. For the management world these names, these corporations in their pomp, are as stellar, as magnificent, as any names that could be plucked from Hollywood’s golden era over the same decades. For the Hoppers, “Collectively, the Great Engine companies represented one of mankind’s greatest achievements.”

Just a little more than half-way through this golden era, America found itself with the task of rebuilding its wartime enemy, Japan. The Hoppers’ detailed and respectful account of the work of the Civil Communications Section (CCS) led by Homer M. Sarasohn, Charles W. Protzman and Frank A. Polkinghorn is, in itself, an important new contribution to the academic study of management. It might even be inspiration to the dramatist, a playwright or film-maker perhaps, looking to explore the process of rapprochement between peoples and the marvellous ideal that a former enemy is worthy of the best ideas of the victor. However, as the Hoppers’ book turns, the irony is that just as the CCS undertakes its work, America itself is losing its appreciation of its own managerial tenets.

It is when confronting this loss that The Puritan Gift crackles most intensely. Hopper and Hopper, so earnest in their historical anthropology, are more inclined to scatter fire when confronting the idols of new management. There are many acidic points to be made, and seemingly some scores to be settled. In building their analysis of failure, big names, even respected names, like Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, Michael Porter, IBM, General Electric, Roberto Goizueta, Stuart Saunders, McKinsey, Robert McNamara, Ray Gilmartin, Michael Jensen, and NASA are asked to file down the same corridors as Enron. Like it or not, agree with it or not, Part IV of this book, Collapse – The Cult of the (So-called) Expert – is a vivid, withering attack on what today passes as management and managerial excellence. Hauled centre stage at the outset is Frederick Winslow Taylor and the vines of “Scientific Management”. This is repeatedly associated with the widespread managerial nostrum, “if it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed”; glaringly, an admission not only of partial blindness but also of being intellectually lopsided. Later, the loss of generalist management training, the rise of the imperious Chief Executive, the specialization of functions and the invention of new areas of expertise, the Human Resource movement, top-down management and the rise of financial engineering, are all cited as ingredients in the loss. It is a startling series of broadsides. However, if so much of today’s managerial practice is asked to take it on the chin, the most vituperative comments are reserved for business schools themselves. Business schools are asked to take it not only on the chin, but also in the belly, on the shins and in the balls.

I find myself wanting to speak up for Manchester and its long, novel, incomplete but persisting attempts to bring learning to the point of insight, to practice. I find myself wanting to utter a few kind words about other business and management schools, and to highlight some of the distinguished minds that work within. As she finds herself under some fire, I want to say some nice things about some of the ideas of Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, and to mention Michael Porter’s elegant analysis of market forces. I want to say something about the many talented MBA and PhD students I have met. I want to talk of their heterogeneity and, increasingly, their social passion.

But for me to defend in the detail would distract from the fact that I agree with the thrust of what is expressed by the Hopper brothers. Fundamentally they are right. Systemically, management learning is too far removed from management practice. It is often too insecure on anything qualitative. Conceptually, business schools are too often too faddish, too cultish, even to the extent where significant new developments do arise, they have to compete for attention with what is merely imagined and fake. Hopper and Hopper ask the right questions and step out of line repeatedly, with utter regularity, at what seems to be a whole procession of naked emperors parading before them. But, as its fame grows, I can imagine that others will want to mire The Puritan Gift in detail. They might, for example, question the chronology of the fall as it is depicted by the Hoppers and, in particular, the place of Frederick Winslow Taylor within it. The might question the idea of a Golden Age or, more boringly, dispute its boundaries. Alternatively, they might look back at the historical anthropology and ask of the place of the peoples of Catholic Europe, or of Jewish Europe, or any other identifiable ethnic group. I too would be interested in this latter line of questioning, though I would hazard that the best answer is simply in the sequencing of the migrations that took place. In this light the vagueness of the principles associated with the Puritans is actually a strength, enabling them to become a common, tacit umbrella for management thought, under the shelter of which many peoples provided the details.

The Puritan Gift ends with George W Bush (MBA, Harvard) and Donald Rumsfeld reversing Clausewitz’s First Principle of War and attempting to win the Iraq War using minimum force. Hopper and Hopper write:
“Mindless cost-cutting is ever the banner and insignia of the (so-called) Expert. Rumsfeld has been the public sector’s equivalent of the ‘imperial’ chief-executive, a ‘top-down’, ‘professional’ manager who refused to listen to his senior military advisors.”

It is a doom-laden opening to the final chapter of the book that also visits the terrible spectre of George W Bush’s “absurdly profligate” spending. Yet, for Hopper and Hopper, this is not actually a final chapter to American greatness in management. They instead proceed to find evidence of a “True Dawn” in the work of Jeff Immelt at General Electric, in A.G. Lafley at Procter and Gamble and the ‘company lifer’ Rex Tillerson at Exxon. Other positive evidence is cited. One neat passage likens the IBM’s new collaboration with the Linux open-source community to the Springfield Armory’s collaboration with the ‘confraternity of New England gunsmiths’. To me, open-source is a hugely significant business phenomenon precisely because it arises from the age-old, proven, human aspirations to come together, to be creative and to share. The sheer wisdom of Hopper and Hopper looking back to go forward is nicely encapsulated in this example. But will America go forward?

Many foreseeable delays affected the journey of the Mayflower and the Speedwell across from England to the New World. The delays were inevitably costly. The two ships set sail in August 1619 with funds already depleted and too late to plant and harvest crops. Nonetheless, further delays followed. A few days into the Atlantic, the newly repaired Speedwell was found to be ‘open and leakie as a sieve.’ As a consequence, both ships returned to Dartmouth. Only later still, on September 6, did the Mayflower finally set out to make the journey on her own. Winthrop had all this experience at his disposal and he learned from it, when the later, well-funded Arbella carried its set of managerial ideas across the Atlantic. It will be a very sad irony indeed if the robustness of these principles were finally obliterated by newer ideas without history, without notable track-record, and without a grounding in the noble adventure that is industrie. It will be ironic indeed if further investment is made in ideas that are themselves as leakie as a sieve.

10 comments:

Tudor said...

Thanks Peter. You have encouraged me to look more carefully at The Puritan Gift. A too superficial examination (mine) had led me to judge the book as an elegant reworking of much of what critical theorists have been banging on about for some while.

As I've been muttering in another place, a historical perspective suggests that for a century there has been a complex ebb and flow of dominant ideas over time and space. The ‘big idea’ of rational management was embodied in the Fordist production lines, which became transferred to great effect into Japanese practices. The more disregarded ideas of incremental improvements required the well-known pattern of diffusion from the USA to Japan, and then back to the United States via Japanese production systems (e.g. Toyota). The humanistic ideas tested in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe had limited organizational success in changing the mid-twentieth century, despite subsequent promising evidence in the design of new production facilities, following socio-technical systems principles. As the industrial world encountered the informational age, theorizing became sensitized to the potential significance of knowledge transfer as essential for innovation and change, with diffusion from Japan to wider international acceptance. These patterns of change are more complex than a progression from one stage to another more advanced one.

Best wishes

TR

Peter said...

Thank you Tudor,
1. When talking to people about this book, I have always emphasised its narrative power. It has that classic dramatic template. It is an epic, if you like. "Whether you agree with it or not," I say, "It makes you think ... it provokes some deep questions."
It might be described as a deep, thoughtful political narrative. A rumination on values lost, dreams sometimes squandered. But as a political narrative it is scholarly throughout. This is not a book for our sound-bite times.
2. I am not sure that the Hoppers would accept that we can clearly demarcate ideas (or eras) of rational management and standardization, incrementalism and humanism. I think they would probably say that these concerns have always been present but that the mix changes for various reasons. I think the Hoppers would say that the application of these ideas/eras is just another narrative imposed on the complex events of the past. But I will let Ken and Will speak for themselves, we might be lucky enough to have them post here.
3. That said, you remind me of one point that occurred to me when reading the book. Ford features relatively little and, if my memory serves me correctly, there is little or no mention of the social problems of mass-production that were sometimes manifest at River Rouge and elsewhere. This could lead to the charge that this is a rose-tinted view of the past ... though anyone who has read the book will probably quickly appreciate that les freres Hopper do not do "rose tinted."
4. Overall, for Manchester, when one combines this with Mintzberg and other writers, I think we have been in roughly the right place but have not yet been bold enough. There are reasons - like RAE - but the next few years might be some of our most exciting, if we can get it right. We will see ... Chinese and Indian Business Schools will not be made in the image of the West, I think, and that will change our context.

alain said...

I have glanced briefly at this book. I will read it!

Lisa said...

I appreciate your point regarding "the place of the peoples of Catholic Europe, or of Jewish Europe, or any other identifiable ethnic group."

I believe my father, Homer Sarasohn, made his contributions to Japanese industrial development and management practices drawing upon the ethics of his Jewish and German heritage. I doubt he'd identify himself with the Puritans.

And I agree: The CCS story would make a great film. My father's confrontation with General MacArthur was dramatic. The trust and respect that eventually developed among the Japanese and the Americans continues to be inspiring.

I'm a writer myself; if any screenwriters are interested in collaborating on such a project, you can contact me at lisasarasohn@earthlink.net

More information on CCS is posted at http://www.honoringhomer.net

Peter said...

Lisa, it is a pleasure to have you comment here. I think the book is arguing that the tacit adoption of some (admittedly vague) norms were hugely influential in the subsequent flowering of American excellence.

I could probably express this better; it is late as I write, but a keyword is 'tacit.'

Ultimately culture is a collage, so I don't read the book as being exclusive in its intent. Maybe, as I say, the sequencing is the key. Many can contribute to a collage, but it is then, perhaps, historical fact that the Puritans were the first to wet the canvas. Anyway, the main point is that the culture thus created was then lost in the face of an alternative culture invented within.

There's an important point made on p.12 (from memory) that supports the interpretation I am describing here. However, it is still important to be upfront about this aspect of the book though, otherwise its message will be lost under a relentless questioning around this issue of alternative cultural influences.

I will talk to you separately by email about your father's story and its potential as a movie (or other dramatic device). I agree with you about it being inspiring. I very, very much agree. It is a great story.

Peter said...

Stefan Stern's article in today's FT (10 July), references The Puritan Gift. The article is called "In Praise of the Craftsmen Whose Work is Never Done" for FT subscribers only.

Kenneth said...

Hi. Peter:
You say: "it is the French, and not the innovative (mostly northern) English or Scots, who possessed the insight and means to institutionalise the study of technology into the fabric of society."
I recently discovered that when James Watt wanted to read a book about the steam engine he had invented, he had to be able to read French! See Arnold Pacey's, "The Maze of Ingenuity" (pg 225). My first contact with the strange, to Brits, respect for engineers came when Wlll and I went hitchhiking in France in 1947. We stayed with our sister's penfriend's family. When one of the daughters discovered I could play "Les Feuilles d'Automn" on the piano, that attracted a little attention but the discovery that I was an engineer sent her running to mother shouting, "Kenneth est enginieur!". No attractive female, before or since has shown excitement at my engineering degree.
Ken Hopper

Alex said...

Peter, a great review of a very good book.

I've found the book highlights perhaps some of the root causes of issues in my own area of business, contact centres and call centres. I've cited your review on my blog (http://europeancontactcentre.blogspot.com/2008/01/does-lack-of-management-experience.html)as one of the best summaries of the book I've seen.

David Roberts said...

Peter recommended this book to me on a chance encounter at a meeting of the Tameside Strategic Partnership

In his blog he described the book as an epic , indeed it is and even more it details the background and reasons behind of all my personal triumphs and indeed all my many faliures.

The words "management consultant" are being struck from my business cards as we speak.

Looking back at the championship seasons of our business the four characteristics of cristal clear desire and unshakable vision,the team is greater and more valuable than the individual (Ronaldo are you listening?),hands on willingness experience and ability of the senior leaders and brilliant organisation were always in place.

I bet you your bottom dollar that there were no well read copies of the puritan gift languishing on the desks of terminal 5 earlier this year.

The book gets better- Thanks to the Hoppers I now know about the lady from Toad Lane Manchester.Now she was a Mover and Shaker!

teamfaisal said...

Really nice post !

business IT Manchester