Watching the somewhat tedious two-hour episode of Mad Men I was reminded of the longstanding debate over the organization man. In truth, I had been thinking about a recent article by Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, calling on American companies to return to the ethos of the organization.
Before launching into a meditation about the rise and fall of that 50s relic, the organization man, I will put it all in a larger context.
World War II mobilized a generation of young men. When they returned from the war they brought with them the cultural and organizational values that pertained in the military.
What were those values? Hard work, discipline, loyalty, group solidarity, coupled with a chance to earn one’s stars and stripes, thus, to receive promotions and move up the hierarchy.
In the military the good of the individual is the good of the group. The two are not at loggerheads; no one assumes that the individual who follows orders and does his job has thereby sacrificed his individuality.
These values had proven their worth in the war. They had contributed mightily to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Having learned these values in the crucible of war American men applied them to the task of rebuilding America.
Remove the uniform and replace it with a flannel suit and you have “the organization man.”
Of course, the rise of the organization man offended certain segments of the American population. Academic intellectuals and other members of the intelligentsia opposed the ethos it did not grant them power, status, and glory.
A world that idolized Dwight Eisenhower was not going to make professors, artists, lawyers, and journalists feel that they were enormously important.
So, the thinking class needed to knock the organization man down a notch. It could not reasonably attack the military ethos—that would come later—but it could certainly critique corporate culture for failing to value individual creativity and free expression.
In 1956 a journalist named William Whyte wrote a book that became gospel to those who abhorred the new, martialized, corporate America.
That book, The Organization Man, was a massive best seller.
Whyte argued that American business was stifling the individuality of its employees by emphasizing company loyalty over creative expression, by encouraging conformity over individuality, by making everyone a cog in the great corporate machine.
More than that, the cultural critique argued that the organization man had sacrificed his identity, his true Self, on the altar of corporate profits.
Working hand-in-glove with the therapy culture intellectuals declared that the organization man was neurotic, even mentally ill.
The best contemporary example of this critique is everyone’s favorite television show: Mad Men.
Don Draper did not fight in World War II; he fought in Korea. Still, Draper bears an assumed identity. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman. His life, his career, his place in the company hierarchy is a lie. Thus he is incubating madness.
In last night's episode he was shucking off his organization man persona and getting in touch with his sexuality. Not that he had not been doing so in the past, but yesterday's version of Draper showed him more openly sexual than he had been in the past, to the detriment of his work.
The attack on group loyalty and conformity helped pave the way for the Kennedy presidency, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement and counterculture.
In particular, the Vietnam War discredited martial values, thus opening the country to countercultural values. After the 1960s American corporations started a long march toward increased creativity, individuality, and free agency.
By now, it has largely succeeded. In doing so it has set America apart from the rest of the world. Companies in other countries are hard at work developing talent from within. Like any good military organization they see the value of promoting from within.
American companies are following another cultural model.
Professor Peter Capelli describes the situation:
The one place the picture looks different is the United States. There certainly are complaints here as well about the difficulty finding the right candidates, but the narrative is quite different. Here the story is about getting a "just-in-time" workforce, finding the precise workers we need just at the time we need them but letting them go when our needs change and then replacing them with new ones. It's a "plug 'n play" approach to the workforce, and it's not working that well.
Instead of training workers to advance within the company, to acquire new skills, American companies try to find new employees elsewhere.
How much of a sea change has corporate management experienced? Capelli writes:
US large companies have been filling 66 percent of their vacancies from the outside, in contrast to a generation ago where 90 percent were filled from within. Because one company's outside hire of an experienced candidate is another company's retention problem, employers rightly look around and wonder whether investments in their employees will pay off. These patterns reinforce each other: less development leads to a greater need to hire skills from the outside, and doing so reduces the need to develop internally; it also creates spillover problems for other employers for whom turnover reduces the ability to finance training.
It’s not just a question of corporate efficiency. It’s about corporate values.
If a company cannot commit to an employee’s growth within the company, how committed with the employee be to the company?
In a workplace where everyone is an independent contractor, where no one feels like a part of the corporate culture, where people do not cultivate long term relationships with their fellow employees, there will be a lot more anomie than social harmony.
And, a company that fails to promote from with will demoralize the workforce.
Now, companies have arrived at the worst of all possible situations. They have not tried to develop people from within and are having trouble finding people with the skills they need.
Capelli describes some of the problems:
All that would be ok except that employers are finding it difficult to hire the skills they need. The supply of skills in specific areas is uncertain, so the quality and price jumps around a lot. Some jobs require skills or at least sets of skills that are unusual, and finding a good fit outside is very difficult. Skills that one learns through training become scarce because few employers train.
For the employees, it's not working well because they find themselves stuck in their current jobs. No one wants to develop them, no one wants to let them grow into a job when the alternative is to find someone who can "hit the ground running" because they have done that job elsewhere. So development and advancement are hard to come by.
Especially in slack labor markets like the one we have now, employees are also petrified that they will not appear to have the skills that are required to fit changing jobs, especially as companies restructure, losing their jobs in the process to some outside hire. So they freeze up, afraid to do anything that might look like a mistake.
The era of free expression and creative individuality looks a lot better on paper than it looks in practice.