Thursday, November 01, 2012

An interesting parallel to John Gatto's work

I have written quite a bit about the work of John Taylor Gatto, the former Teacher of the Year who discovered, upon finding that his "Teacher of the Year" award was his ticket to being pushed out of the New York City schools, that a great part of the model for American public (or "government") schools is the schools of old Prussia.  Instead of (or perhaps in addition to?) generating the greatest soldiers known, our schools aimed to produce the consumers and factory workers needed by the "robber barons" of the late 19th century. 

Judging by the state of our garages and storage spaces, it seems they succeeded at least in creating great consumers, if not factory workers.

An interesting, and unexpected, parallel to Gatto's work is The Transformation of Corporate Control, by Neil Fligstein.  A textbook of my brother's when at this second rate school, I picked it up yesterday hoping to get some hints and "feel" for how companies think, and boy, did I ever.

Fligstein's thesis, more or less, is that federal railroad, canal, and other subsidies and protections created the great industrialists of the late 1800s as a product not of business acumen, but rather of political patronage.  As a result, they did well at accumulating capital (look at any 1800s era railroad station for proof), but struggled mightily to actually run a business profitably.  The history of big business management, then, is explained by Fligstein as the responses of big business to the implementation of regulations like the Sherman Antitrust Act--overt monopolies giving way to secret trusts giving way to strategies of holding companies, vertical and horizontal integration, conglomerates, and the management trends of leadership by production, leadership by sales and marketing, and leadership by finance.  As any reader of "Dilbert" would guess, the dominant trend today is leadership by the finance and accounting guys.  Fligstein uses Alfred Sloan as a picture of the sales and marketing leader, and Henry Ford as an archetype of the manufacturing leader.

The implications?  Central to Fligstein's thesis is the idea that there are precious few leaders who can unite manufacturing, marketing and sales, and finance, and that government action--specifically Sherman and other antitrust laws--has often been the prime mover to shift the mode of leadership.

Implications for the guy who will never attain the big corner office and company paid BMW 7 series?   Well, if you really want to change the world, Fligstein notes that you'll generally do well to avoid the big companies that are run by the finance guys.   Accounting schemes that require instant response don't do well with that. 

More importantly, if you've got a good idea and have a good basic grasp of sales, accounting, and product, you might be in for a fun ride if you go into business for yourself.  Fligstein's writing is not easy, but it is worthwhile.

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