Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beware the Dominant Narrative

Earlier this month I was fortunate to spend time with Greg Galer, VP of Collection and Exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  The museum itself is a gem, with holdings that include the world's largest: library of whaling logbooks, prints, journals; collection of scrimshaw; Japanese whaling art and literature outside of Japan; and Dutch Old Master marine paintings in the New World.  In addition, the museum’s emphasis on 19th and 20th century whaling technology makes it a global center for scholarly research. 

I was not there, however, to talk with Greg about whaling, but more about his expertise in nineteenth-century business technology and enterprise, and in particular, his work on the Ames family.  Greg’s 2002 Ph.D. thesis at MIT was titled Forging Ahead: The Ames Family of Easton, Massachusetts and Two Centuries of Industrial Enterprise 1635-1861.  In it, he traced the trajectory of one Oliver Ames, born in 1779 and trained as a blacksmith, who took up the business of making shovels and in the process evolved from “artisan and craftsman to industrialist.”  

In this engaging work, Greg (reinforcing the writings of Philip Scranton) concluded that the Industrial Revolution was no revolution at all.  “It was a gradual and fluid evolution from one way of doing business to another” led by men who maintained many of their artisan traditions and long-held beliefs about family and community.

Anyone who has dabbled a bit in American industrial history will recognize this is some distance from the dominant narrative, which goes something like this:

We Americans were all sitting around in the mid-1800s making candles in our cottages when suddenly, there came upon us like lightening, a revolutionary idea: The women-folk fled to the mills to make textiles, while the men-folk joined the army, won a war or two, and learned how to lead enterprises through top-down command and control.  Then we all built some railroads and ran our track right up to Mr. Ford’s mass production facility, where Mr. Edison was screwing in light bulbs just before Mr. Watson installed computers.  In short order Mr. Gates showed up with an operating system and—poof—Google arrived to organize our world. 

Intel, Toyota, GM and GE all get a footnote in this dominant narrative, but you get the drift—massive businesses and big-time assembly line production revolutionized the world for an expanding American mass market.

In other words, from candle-making to the Industrial Revolution to the Knowledge Economy, all in a nice straight line, barely breaking a sweat. 

However, Greg argues that the Revolution started long before we (or Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.) said it did, making it instead an Evolution, and one littered with small scale but complex businesses whose struggle to meet customer needs eventually led the way to marquee industries like textiles, the railroad and the automobile. 

In other words, despite the existence in American business of a dominant narrative, there have always been lots and lots of people paying it scant attention, but still making lots and lots of money and living happy, productive lives.

The Dominant Narratives of Our Times

News last week that China consumed more energy than the U.S. last year will undoubtedly spark a raft of articles around the dominant narrative of modern geopolitics: China will rule the world.  Fortunately, there are other competing narratives, thoughtful but less clanging, which offer futures with much more variety and opportunity.  (I wrote about one such narrative here—A Modern Fable: China is the Borg.)  

The dominant narrative of geopolitics when I was growing up was the Domino Theory which said that communism in one country would inevitably lead to communism throughout a region (and eventually the world).  This was a dominant narrative that lasted a generation and was not only wrong, but deadly.

The dominant narrative of American history for its first two centuries was exceptionalism, the idea that Americans were the crowning achievement of Western Civilization, put on earth to straighten things out.  I wrote about that here.  (How’s that going for us?)

As for today’s overpowering, overwhelming business dominant narrative, I can perhaps capture its essence: We should all be like Google.  We should innovate like Google, organize like Google, and serve food in our cafeterias like Google. 

Indeed, I offer proof that Google is God.

But Back to Shovels for a Moment


It turns out--in addition to the Ames’ marvelous success--that shovels are a terrific metaphor in general for successfully ignoring the dominant narrative.

We know, for example, that the California Gold Rush was much kinder to merchants than miners.  Samuel Brannan would become the wealthiest man in California by opening supply stores near the gold fields and selling lots of, well, shovels.  Meanwhile, the dominant narrative—go West and get Rich—drove at least half of all miners to lose money on their venture, and most of the rest to make only modest profits.

We know that one of Robert E. Lee’s nicknames—like that of Oliver Ames--was “King of Spades,” referring derisively to his penchant for having his men dig-in properly in defensive positions.  The dominant nineteenth-century battle narrative was to "stand up and fight like a Man"; Lee, of course, crushed the North at places like Cold Harbor, saved thousands of lives and almost won a war with his shovel strategy. “King of Spades” eventually became a term of endearment.

The moral is that you can jump on the dominant narrative bandwagon.  Run to the gold fields to get rich.  Organized your business like the railroad.  Adopt the assembly line as your Holy Grail.  Or, you can recognize that there’s exceptional stuff going on today that looks and acts nothing like the dominant narrative.  

Study the railroad.  Obsess about China.   Imitate Google.  But when you’re done, you might just try building some shovels.