Thinking About History

On Friday 15th January 2010, twitlonger:

AT&T – bp001 – History –

If you like figuring out how the world around us came to be what it is, the study of history is a fun game to play. We often think of “history” as being biographies, large ideas, political movements, governments, major technological developments, and wars won and lost. That’s valid, of course. But, partly because of limited time for history in school, but partly due to what is often a slightly negative cultural attitude toward business, we tend to ignore the powerful perspective on history that one gets from examining histories of industries and even of influential individual businesses.

The case method.

Law school students study one case at a time to learn the law. When they get jobs as lawyers or judges, they work on many cases, but the work is organized into individual cases.

What’s a “case”? A situation.

Some business school students learn business administration, operation, and strategy using the “case method.” The case method gets students into the habit of studying the history of one particular business or industry in order to understand how the business responded to conditions at points in time, what worked, what didn’t, and why — at those points in time. That makes the case method different. The alternative is to teach selected principles that once worked for some circumstances, might be working today for some companies, but may or may not work in the future for anybody. The point is that the case method of business education creates the habit of always re-analyzing and re-assessing strategies and circumstances in order to continually adjust the organization’s activities to new, emerging, evolving circumstances. This to take advantage of new opportunities, predict when current working things will stop working, and avoid emerging problems.

So why not examine the “case” of the US corporation known as AT&T? Once at least one of the largest corporations in America — maybe the largest, I’m not sure — no one can reasonably dispute that it was one of the principal reasons for the power and success of the United States.

I had occasion today to be reminded that the last remaining assets of AT&T had been sold to SBC Corporation in 2005. At the end of 2005, AT&T — the colossus, the company that once had over a million employees, once the American national telephone company, once the home of the world-famous and historic Bell Laboratories and Western Electric manufacturing company, once the source of the most numerous and most important scientific and engineering advances, once one of the few companies in the world considered to be the best place to learn the art and science of management — simply ceased to exist as an independent company.

Was the glass half-full or half-empty?

One of the things that’s always true about history is that a lot how it reads depends on the assumptions, values, and attitudes of the people doing the historical analysis and writing the history. That’s why people say, “It’s the winners who get to write the history.” Since the Americans won the American Revolutionary War, George Washington is written of in history as a hero. If the British had won, he’d have been written of as a criminal, a traitor, a rebel.

This is true of business and industrial history as well. For example, the article linked below says AT&T ceased to exist because of dumb management during the 22-year period from Dec 31, 1983 through 2005. That might be true, but I doubt it. I was working at AT&T during the period 1982 thru 1987 and was an interested observer, with a little bit of knowledge of the underlying technology and business issues, from the sidelines on and off over the years after that.

Here’s the article that lists quite a few of the right issues and facts, but leaves me wondering if they understand how to view the facts.

This writer isn’t a historian. It’s just the first google hit i stumbled into that seemed to have a lot of the basic dates I was looking for when something reminded me about the 2005 sale of AT&T to SBC. I decided to provide this link since it was pretty negative and would, therefore, be both a useful source of some initial facts and provide an interpretation that — since I’ve long been fascinated with and “mostly” an admirer of AT&T — I was likely to enjoy finding some reason to disagree with (“mostly,” in that I really liked working for AT&T, but I also had my own issues with it and some of its people … but that’s one of the important points … imperfect groups of imperfect people, when they’re managed well-enough in circumstances that are right enough, can produce results that are valuable enough to be considered essential, crucial, fundamental, and historic – thus spake mcmullen …: ).

Why does it matter? Oh, it doesn’t, really. It’s just like any other subject in the world where some scream (as in the opening paragraph of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities), “it’s very very good”, while others shout, “it’s very very bad,” while others don’t notice anything going on at all. It’s the role, the process, the pleasure of the independent mind to listen to the claims of both extremes in order to discern the reality giving rise to those views, and then to place ourselves in the “shoes” of the decision-makers and make our own assessments of whether they played their cards well, or poorly, or both, at those points in time.

Great stuff.

Ok. AT&T. Let’s have a look.

file: C&CL


carol freeman ♥



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