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GP 22 August 2007: O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

                                  - Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!”

The Hunt for Red October.  In 1986, one of our colleagues gave a speech analyzing what businessmen could learn from The Hunt for the Red October.  For him the novel offered lessons aplenty that could guide the wayfarer through the last quarter of the 20th century.  The heroes were  Soviet submarine captain Marko Aleksandrovich Ramius and CIA analyst Jack (John Patrick) Ryan.  That was key.  It was they who conspired to secure a successful outcome that would have eluded any of their masters.  No surprise.  It is not admirals, or generals, or directors of intelligence who really struggle through wars or really win the peace.  It’s captains—and sometimes a colonel.  It’s a middle manager somewhere who always gets the job done.  He or she can put one foot in front of another.

Little did we know that in the 20 years that followed corporate chieftains would crush the backbones of their organizations.  Since ’86,  chief executives have parodied the Japanese concept of ‘lean management’: they have sent their manufacturing to Asia and absolutely gutted their ranks of experienced middle managers, largely forcing their brightest and best into early retirement or into unemployment.  Today, when you can get past unwieldy interactive phone systems and low level account people who do not understand the products or systems of the companies for which they work, you largely reach middle managers who just hope the problem will go away so that they can get to the other 10 backed-up phone calls that await them.

Our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2006-2007 is about to be published, and will be posted with our other reports on the Global Province.  To our shock, it will reveal that the U.S. has suddenly dropped from number one to number six in the competiveness rankings of countries around the globe.  The authors of a Davos report about our fall from grace would say that America has been torpedoed by national fiscal mismanagement.  We would say that a huge drop in quality occasioned by offshore product design and manufacturing, coupled with onshore service run by an inexperienced middle management, have bought us unending grief.  We no longer have to worry about Red Octobers and other Soviet threats: we have seen the new enemy and it may be us.

The Loss of Vital Skills Peter Kindlmann, professor emeritus at Yale, recently wrote us about the kind of attrition of skills that takes place in this confused economic setting.  A teacher of engineering design, he has long and productively concerned himself with the broad issues involved in educating us for the tasks in life with which we must wrestle:

My take, really describing the same thing from a more technical point of view, rather than a management emphasis, is that more complex technology has steadily de-skilled and dis-enfranchised its users.

Most of us are now lease-holders vis-a-vis most everything we own, zombies beholden to the originators of our technological circumstances.  Helplessness has always been a powerful shaper of personality, and the unwitting accommodation to this new form of helplessness may be contributing to hedonism, to a loss of a sense of community responsibility, and to profligate spending.  Despite all that spending and activity, we really “own” very little.

All this certainly relates to how skills differentiate in the workplace, where issues of ownership are closely tied to satisfaction and motivation.  And it has long been sadly true that what we do for work seldom takes a form from which we can bequeath any values to our children.

Richard Sennett made much of this in his 1998 book, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.  Some will claim that he rails against inevitabilities, others will oppose him as a Marxist sociologist.  But I always felt, since reading his book the year it came out, when I was laid up with a badly herniated disk, that there was much to what he said.

Stated yet another way, we have become deskilled and helpless.  Would it be fair to say that this has put us at the mercy of just about everyone?  And does it account for the fact that, oft as not, many of us know more about a product or service we are buying than the knowledge worker selling it to us, be it a doctor who has only read a third of the literature on a new drug he is prescribing or the MIS manager in almost every corporation who controls an interactive phone system that sends frustrated customers to other suppliers?  A result of this loss of a can-do middle management is pervasive dysfunctionality throughout large parts of our population.  We do not know to what extent this sense of helplessness has fueled the rising epidemic of depression throughout society. Incidentally, for more on Kindlmann, see our letter, “Web Sharing.”

That One Person.  Even today, in an era of eviscerated middle management, the trick in working with other organizations is to find that one hidden person in another company who can get the job done.  Years ago we discovered the trick with the English: in a British company you had long chats with the men about all manner of interesting thing.  But then you actually had to find a woman who really could do the business today.  Most recently we bought a new notebook computer from a large company, and the order got fouled up beyond belief.  Nobody in the notebook division could straighten things out, but we found a chap with some power in the Rocky Mountains who could shake the company’s tree.  It always comes down to a middle manager who has a conscience, some humor, patience, a softspoken manner, and unbelievable persistence.

Such people, talented middle managers, are more valuable than ever in the age of the virtual company.  Charles Handy, the very humanistic English business thinker, has remarked that some of the more advanced companies now only have 20% of their employees on their payrolls: the rest of their workers are outside the company gates, working for themselves or for outsourcing companies.  With half their workers part of an organization on the other side of the globe, companies require extraordinarily adroit middle managers who can successfully work with a huge number of people not beholden to them.  They have to be able to burrow into unrelated organizations and find that one person who can make things happen.

Lady Day.  Some of our readers will be familiar with Stephanie Day, a Californian who shared with us her brave battle with breast cancer in 3 very instructive accounts.  She passed away on August 6, 2007.

What our readers did not know was that she was an unusually competent Silicon Valley executive.  Officially, she was vice president of communication and investor relations at California Microwave, a $100-million-plus company that built microwave radios and transmitters for a host of applications.  Unofficially she was the glue that kept the place together.  She was the level-headed, even-handed catalyst who could talk in measured tones to inside managers and outside investors in order to move the ball down the court.  Eventually the company dissolved because new senior management, foisted on the company by outside money managers with short term ambitions, took it over a cliff.  She was loyal to the last, always trying to make the place work.  Ironically, it is the middle manager, buried in the fastnesses of a company, who always turns out have the long-term perspective chief executives and Wall Street are lacking.  Unknown people of the same stature still people companies across America—companies that are often stumbling at the top.

Downsized.  Kazuo Ishiguro is author of a fascinating novel called The Remains of the Day that Merchant Ivory made into an affecting movie.  In it a butler, Stevens, has had to severely trim the staff to meet the needs of Mr. Farrady, the new owner of Darlington Hall.  He has to come up with a ‘staff plan’ where the estate is run by 4 people, rather than its former twenty-eight.  They keep the place running, just barely.  But, as he says, he underestimated his own limitations, finding himself making mistakes here and there.  As in downsizings everywhere, the middle managers who remain, no matter how competent, get tasked with too much, and their organizations falter.  The Remains of the Day, after an exhausting decade of cost-cutting, simply turn out to be shabby.

Lincoln.  If you read “Oh Captain! My Captain!” you might not know that Walt Whitman wrote it to commemorate President Lincoln who had saved the country but had been assassinated by Booth.  There were many reasons why Lincoln succeeded.  First and foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he fired a bunch of bad generals along the way, and eventually put a field soldier named Grant at the head of his Army.  Grant, unlike the political and sometimes disloyal generals who preceded him, was not afraid to carry the fight to the enemy.  Grant, we should note, had previously been cashiered from the Army, and began anew his service during the Civil War as a colonel.  He was a middle manager who made good in a hurry.  It’s interesting to us, as well, that Grant had a great deal of quartermaster experience.

P.S.  In some quarters, middle management jobs are regarded as a living hell.  Most recently Stephanie Armour writes in USA Today, “Who Wants to be a Middle Manager,” August 12, 2007, “The love is gone. Middle-management jobs are fast falling out of favor as the brass ring loses its allure.  Instead, the jobs are being seen as handcuffs that require long hours with scant reward—a onetime career goal now being shunned in large part by the newer generation of workers now entering the workplace.”

P.P.S.  “O Captain” became Whitman’s most popular poem, and he was always asked to recite it.  He finally said that if he knew how popular it would be, he would have never written the poem.  Soon enough, he grew tired of it.

P.P.P.S.  Decline of the Middle Class. The loss of middle management inside organizations has been accompanied by the disintegration of the middle class within society.  Families caught in the middle are not making it, and income statistics show America increasingly to be split between the haves and the have-nots.  Back in 2003 , USA Today claimed that the “Middle Class Barely Treads Water.”  “Millions of middle-class families can no longer afford to live on two incomes.  A generation ago, a typical American middle-class family lived on the income of a single breadwinner.  In recent years it has taken two working spouses to live the modern middle-class dream.  Now, it seems even that is not enough to survive the skyrocketing cost of housing, health care and college while saving for retirement and shouldering growing debt loads.”  This would seem to be a recipe for social instability.

P.P.P.P.S.  With so many of a company’s vital workers living outside its portals, the global company  require loose organizational coupling, a concept not widely understand by theorists of corporate behavior.  Likewise, as we suggested in “Free Association,” loose coupling of software systems is vital to business success in order to permit agile behavior.  Only the spirit of confederation can permit the degree of collaboration that allows impossible goals to be achieved in a chaotic world.

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