Friday, 22 June 2007

A Short History of Pianos and Pianists

Born in the village of Żelazowa Wola, Poland, in 1810, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin died thirty-nine years later after a turbulent life of great acclaim, passion and ill-health. Today his reputation remains: Chopin, more readily than anyone else, is understood to be the greatest composer for the piano.

An important social detail is that the piano itself was a relatively new and rare instrument during the period of Chopin's life. Its invention is normally traced to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy, with the earliest recognisable piano being created in about 1700. Just over a century later when the prodigy Chopin left Poland for Paris, the piano was still restricted to the finest of houses and establishments. Today's world, where every aspiring family has a piano, and electronic piano keyboards of multiple sorts sprout from teenage bedrooms, was unknowable to Chopin.

Yet, Chopin's reputation remains. Frédéric is still Frédéric. We have not, as a society, decided that Frédéric can, somehow, be discarded simply because Kevin and Sharon can now also rumble up a bit of a tune. Nor have we decided the converse, that Kevin and Sharon should be prevented access to the instrument simply because they are unlikely to ever be Frédéric. Instead, we persist with a liberal attitude on the social question of who has the right to access pianos. Frequently, our liberal stance rewards us. It serves us up a treat when a new, great concert pianist is discovered, when a young niece masters 'Au Clair de la Lune', when the unexpectedly good pub-pianist embarks on 'The Long and Winding Road.'

It is indeed the liberal road that serves us best. Though there is no regulation to prevent access to pianos, and no rule that states that the instrument must be played in any particular manner, new generations of players tend to impersonate each other. Accreditation standards remain. Examinations are taken. Recognition of many sorts is sought. We humans remain distinctly social and contemporaneously competitive. To the best of my knowledge there is no serious group, other than The Taleban, campaigning for the restriction of access to pianos.

I have used this argument with two distinguished journalist friends of mine. Today, when we can all play the role of reporter and columnist, we should expect no corruption of excellence. The great journalist is still the great journalist. We will not be blinded into equating Kevin and Sharon with Truman Capote. Our liberal stance will reward us.

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.