Fred, Al and John
Many forces and people have shaped the world of trade and business. In American business, three figures have had, in current jargon, outsized roles. They are Fred Taylor, Al Sloan, and John Patterson. Fred and Al are better known by their full formal names: Frederick Winslow Taylor and Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr.; John Henry Patterson is not as well known as the others, but his influence has arguably been greater. Why should we care about these historical figures? Well, keep reading.
Frederick Taylor has been called “the father of scientific management.” His main idea was, to put it bluntly, that workers don’t know what they’re doing, and unless properly supervised, they’ll slack off. The original efficiency expert, Fred was the fellow who came up with the infamous time-and-motion studies. The upshot of his ideas was, essentially, to treat workers as if they were machines. The extreme forms of these views have been, at least publicly, in disfavor; presumably because we’re in a “knowledge economy.” But Fred Taylor’s basic notions linger and run very deep. The next fellow on our list took the next steps following Fred.
Alfred P. Sloan was the organizer of General Motors. He, almost single-handedly, defined the quintessential American corporation. His approach dovetailed Fred Taylors’ notions very nicely. The bedrock of Alfred Sloan’s General Motors was “professional management.” The idea was that decisions should be made by professionals who, being the best and brightest, “run the numbers” to make sure all will go well. The Sloan approach has been so thoroughly woven into the American business community, that it has almost achieved the status of being self-evident. The main challenges to these views have come from overseas, mainly Japan.
John Patterson defined the American way of selling. During his years at the National Cash Register company, he created a well-regimented army of salesmen. He gave his sales army clear and detailed marching orders that codified the suspect-to-prospect-to-customer conversion process. His techniques were picked up by most other large corporations, chief among them IBM. If you’ve had to deal with a slick salesman, you’ve been exposed to the John Patterson push.
So what does all this have to do with you and me at the beginning of the 21st century? The ideas of these three gentlemen have become so pervasive that they color our thinking without our overt awareness. We should be aware that many of the “truths” we consider self-evident were invented by these three men (and others to a lesser extent) at a specific time and place. The world has changed and will continue to change at a quickening pace. We need to find more appropriate ways to orgranize and sell, otherwise we’ll live in the past with Fred, Al and John. The first step towards exorcising their ghosts is to take automation and interaction more seriously, more seriously than another GM luminary Roger Smith.