You read it here first

The personalities and the trends, the highs and the lows, the fads and the failures. For four decades now, MT has been observing and animating the art and craft of management. Stefan Stern rummages through the archives.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This magazine has enjoyed a wonderful ring-side seat over the past 40 years, witnessing the triumphs and disasters of British and international business at first hand. Only the head waiter at the Savoy Grill could claim to have been on more intimate terms with the great names of British business during this time. Looking back through four decades of Management Today's coverage, you realise how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same. New technology has revolutionised everything - but then, of course, it always has. The business cycle has not been completely abolished, yet. Companies rise and fall, build for the future or over-reach themselves, grow and acquire or shrink and get taken over.

Time spent trawling through this distinguished archive is also great fun, a marvellous nostalgia trip. The ghosts of boardrooms past stare out from these pages - many of whom, incidentally, seem to have shared the same taste in spectacles.

And here you can watch the British economy gyrate through several key phases, each with its own theme: The White Heat of Technology, Decline and Fall, The Sick Man of Europe ... but also Phoenix from the Ashes, Boom-boom Britain and Dot.com Madness. If we might just blow our own trumpet for a second, this magazine can be proud of the scope and seriousness of its reporting over this time.

MT has got a lot of things right. Twelve years ago a strongly worded leader warned that 'Managers whose interest in China extends little beyond reading Jung Chang's Wild Swans could experience a very rude awakening' (September 1994).

Twenty years ago we advised: 'By the 1990s, the City will be dominated by a clutch of highly efficient, global investment banks, offering a wide range of financial services' (October 1986 - the era of Big Bang).

But this discussion shouldn't descend into a David Nixon-style magic trick, ripping open envelopes containing back issues to declare: 'Here is one we predicted earlier!' In any case, that would also leave us open to the charge of - how can I put it? - getting the odd thing wrong as well. Like, for instance, praising Rover's 'no compulsory redundancies' agreement, which was tied to a training and development initiative (February 1995). MT awarded both Rentokil and Marks & Spencer the accolade of being 'Britain's most admired company', not all that long before both ran into serious trouble - from which, happily, one of these firms at least is now extricating itself.

And then there was the time we printed guru Richard Pascale's uplifting but sadly misguided pronouncement on the imminent demise of the management consultancies (March 1997): 'I think they will implode and disappear. The top consultants will set up on their own. The assets will walk.'

Well, you win some, you lose some. And that feature will at least have cheered up a lot of readers at the time.

But the more important, underlying story revealed by the archive is that of the profound human struggle undertaken by managers over the past 40 years to try and exercise some sort of control over their destiny. Time and again, MT has returned to report on this fundamental task.

Both optimists and pessimists will find plenty of evidence here to support their particular outlook. On the one hand, a sceptical new MBA graduate might ask: have Britain's managers really learnt anything at all over this time? Doesn't the MT back catalogue reveal a sadly repetitive series of failures and collapses - not just in the great old manufacturing industries of mining, shipbuilding, steel and car-making, but also in high-tech and retail as well? The UK in 2006 may do very well in financial and other intangible services, but where is the wealth creation, the innovation?

Why are so many former Great British companies now in foreign hands?

The guarded optimist will reply that Britain has rather successfully steered an admittedly painful course through to a post-industrial future.

The mass unemployment of the 1980s seems to be behind us, as does the double-digit inflation of the 1970s. Our best companies remain world-beaters. And if foreign companies want to buy up British assets, well, what does that tell you about the improved quality of British management and British businesses?

MT has plotted its own course through these events, perhaps occasionally siding with the pessimists, only to rediscover its optimism again after an interval. In March 1971 a young Tom Lester reported Lord Robens' gloomy prognosis for the future of the mining industry from his position as chair of the National Coal Board: 'No-one in Britain knows about extractive industries,' he said, 'except the ones in it.' This proved a deadly accurate analysis, borne out ultimately by the tragic collapse of the industry in the 1980s - a sorry outcome for an island 'built on coal', as Nye Bevan said.

But if MT has sometimes found itself to be the harbinger of bad news, then it has also been in the vanguard of exciting new ideas. As early as January '94 Simon Caulkin effectively welcomed the arrival of the 'new economy' - and even what is now being called 'Web 2.0'.

Anyway, this is what Caulkin wrote more than 12 years ago: 'In the age of the Walkman and personal software, classical economic assumptions about supply and demand are stood on their head. In the "revised sequence", supply creates demand, not vice versa - whole industries based on the personal stereo and software exist to prove it.'

Now, if only we'd been paying more attention back then, what great businesses might we all have launched by now?

This magazine's founding editor, Robert Heller, who has done more than anyone to establish management journalism in this country (without him, some of us would struggle to earn a living), has distinguished himself with perspicacious writing over four decades.

Heller imagined, also in the early '90s, what a 'new economy' manager might look like. He scores at least nine and a half out of 10 for accuracy: 'Manager 2000 will practise co-operation and collaboration with everybody, inside and outside the firm, from colleagues and subordinates to customers and suppliers. He/she will be a tolerant teamworker, putting the projects of the team above the ambitions of the person. The environment will encourage this by devolution of power and delegation of duties - right down to the empowered, self-managing worker near the top of the inverted pyramid.'

MT has never been frightened of big ideas. It was the natural home in the UK for the thoughts of the greatest management writer of them all, Peter Drucker, who died last year just short of his 96th birthday. The magazine published several of his essays and speeches over the years, including this characteristically lucid piece of analysis in December 1967: 'The main challenge to management is to make knowledge productive. A hundred years ago, nobody knew how to make the manual worker productive. It was not until the end of the century that we found the answer was to work wiser, not harder. Yet we still do not know how to make knowledge workers productive.'

Forty years on, it is not clear that anyone has come forward with a definitive answer to Drucker's question, which remains as pertinent today as when he first asked it.

MT is no Johnny-come-lately on the other big business issues that take up so much senior management time these days. We were deeply into the 'green' debate early on, using strange new words such as 'sustainability' before they reached the pages of most newspapers or the annual reports of major Plcs.

In the January '95 issue of MT, Will Hutton (then economics editor of the Guardian) wrote: 'Sustainability benefits us all. If taxes could be raised less from levies on income ... and more on finite resources and environmental polluters, there would be a new source of revenue.'

And long before the now slightly tedious debate on corporate social responsibility (CSR) became mainstream, Stanley Kalms at Dixons was giving MT (also in January '95) the benefit of his terse but not in the least stupid thoughts on the matter. 'I don't think buying and selling is an ethical problem,' he said, 'but I recognise the massive conflict in large businesses between your responsibilities, and it's good to find a forum where ethics can be discussed.'

Putting his money where his mouth was, Kalms went on to sponsor a chair in ethics at the London Business School.

MT has charted the rise and fall in the popularity of fads and concepts as they have emerged from the business schools and management consultancies.

Where once British managers had been dazzled by Boston Consulting Group's 'matrix' theory of conglom- erates (see page 41), by 1979 we reported how doubts were now setting in.

In January '93, we described Honeywell's adoption of Total Quality Management (TQM) as a 'pilgrimage, not a panacea'. (They seem to have become a little lost on that journey.)

In June '93, we brought to the surface some of the concerns that many employers had (and continue to have) about the MBA. But never doubt the ability of the management industry to come up with new ideas just when things are looking tough. In August '93, three consultancy firms hailed the arrival of Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) in our pages: Arthur Andersen, Gemini Consulting and Booz Allen & Hamilton. Of course, one of these consultancy firms is no longer with us ...

MT has inevitably spent much of its time reporting on the private sector.

But it has also found space to analyse the particular challenges faced by managers in the public sector - above all, by those working in the NHS, the country's biggest employer.

In October '93 we interviewed the then NHS chief executive Sir Duncan Nicholl, who offered a remarkably frank (and, again, remarkably accurate) account of what the future held for the service: 'It will be publicly funded from a general taxation base because that is the efficient way to do it. It will come under significant pressures from an ageing population and the advances of high technology and it's going to be extremely tough.'

As well as ideas, MT has got up close and personal with all the great business figures of the age. From Sir Alastair Morton at Eurotunnel to Sir Richard Branson at Virgin and Lord MacLaurin at Tesco: if you wanted to know what made contemporary leaders tick, you had to spend some time scrutinising our pages. This remains true today.

Again, the archive proves particularly illuminating. In October '82, a longer-haired and slightly less rich Bill Gates admitted that Microsoft's dazzling success had taken him by surprise. 'We never expected the kind of growth we've seen,' he said. But surely, having learnt his lesson, he wouldn't get caught out again by, say, the arrival of the internet, or the rise of Google? Er ...

In February 1992, Greg Dyke revealed his philosophy of business: 'You've gotta have fun. Take risks, make mistakes, never be boring.' Looks like he lived up to all of that at the BBC. And when it stopped being fun, he walked.

Longevity has given MT the opportunity to gain a special insight into the character of organisations. The Forte hotel and catering busi- ness was a case in point. In September 1969 a frankly complacent-sounding Charles (later Lord) Forte told us: 'To me, this is not altogether a public company; it seems to belong to me ... our corporate planning is less conscious and less forward than some.'

A generation later, his son Sir Rocco told MT (February '95) that he was well placed to fight off any future takeover bids, promising to be 'well prepared'. By August that year Granada had snaffled up his business.

Back in October '95, a very fresh-faced Tony Blair promised MT readers that New Labour would be a friend to business. As it turned out, Blair seems to have promised to be everyone's friend at one time or another.

He even said he'd be nice to that Gordon Brown once.

In January '96, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick explained why she thought business people were pin-striped dinosaurs. 'Finance bores the pants off me,' she declared. Perhaps the £652 million L'Oreal paid for her business earlier this year finally piqued her interest.

Delving further back into MT's past (December '87), we find Sir Iain Vallance at BT being described by a senior colleague in these terms: 'Vallance is a very able man - but of a particular sort.' He is 'not a conceiver or a conceptual person'. And in June '77 we asked, of Sir Clive Sinclair: 'Entrepreneur extraordinary, or spectacular flop?' With the benefit of hindsight, you would have to conclude: both.

Two other big names leap out from the files. In March '69 John Thackray wrote a brilliant analysis of the US government's troubles with the development of the F1-11 swing-wing fighter bomber. We labelled it 'a $6 billion disaster' - call that $100 billion in today's money.

And the management genius behind this disaster? Step forward former Ford executive and former US defense secretary Robert McNamara. He had sought efficiency savings by commissioning a multi-purpose fighter that could meet the needs of any combat situation. McNamara had already resigned in exhaustion at the failure of US forces to make progress in Vietnam. Now, as Thackray wrote, he had another failure on his hands.

'Thus McNamara, who did so much to bring the concept of modern management to public attention and to dignify it, will also have contributed to its current decline ... The trouble with brilliant managers is that they are unsettling; they tend to cut across traditional lines of power and influence; and mere efficiency is not always a primary concern of politicians.'

A chill descends as the March '90 cover of MT comes into view: here is the bouncing Czech, Robert Maxwell - 'the man who would be king' - discussing the launch of the European newspaper, and his great dynastic plans for the future: 'The succession is in place. Kevin and Ian (the sons) are joint managing directors, and if they can persuade their colleagues that they can run the business that will be it.'

But that, of course, was not it at all.

Profiles are one great MT speciality. Storytelling is another. Great writing (and photo- graphy) have been MT hallmarks since issue one. Too often, perhaps, these qualities have been deployed to tell tales of disappointment.

We went to ICL in Putney, first in August '70 and then again in February '83, hoping to be able to report the success of a Great British IT champion.

In vain.

In February '77 we predicted tough times ahead for Britain's trade unions - that man Caulkin again: 'Both the strength and the weakness of the trade unions lie in their pragmatism ... but even trade unions are only per- manent so long as they have a function to perform.' In May '77, we charted the death of mass shipbuilding in this country. In June '90 a 'recession special' was shot through with gloom as a heavy landing after late '80s excess was (correctly) predicted.

But there have been more upbeat stories as well. In January '80, a feature by Tom Lester on the potential of these new-fangled silicon chips looked forward optimistically. And strategically, MT made some good calls. In October '69 we saw a way forward for British Leyland: 'Specialist cars, where the company has a nearly unique selling proposition and 10% of the market, may offer the best chance of beating the Americans.' (July '06: Nanjing Automobile Group, final buyer of Rover, announces plans to build the MG sports car in Oklahoma.)

In July '79, David Manasian interviewed Kenneth Galley, city planning officer for the Newcastle metropolitan authority, about the prospects for his then bleak Tyneside fiefdom (which still looked much as it did in the film Get Carter). 'It's no use pretending that we're going to rebuild our economic base on the back of heavy industry,' said Galley. Been clubbing down the quayside recently?

In October that year Manasian also reported brilliantly on the saga of Watney's Red Barrel, the kegged beer monstrosity that provoked the launch of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). The story was 'a constant warning to over-zealous marketing men in any industry who try to push traditional consumer tastes too far, too fast'. So true.

We even told stories that no-one was ready or able to hear at the time.

In January '97 Sunday Times business editor David Smith wrote that 'Britain is definitely on the up' - not that you would have guessed that from the tone of the general election in May that year, which brought Labour back into office.

And wasn't deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine trying to explain all along that the economy had been in recovery for some time already ...?

Forty years on, MT looks in better health than ever. Doubtless this is because its foundations have been so strong. A look back at the glorious archive confirms this. The challenge now is to continue this tradition into the 21st century. That means looking forwards, of course, but without forgetting what has gone on before.

The theme tune to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' comedy Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? contains the lovely lines: 'Tomorrow's almost over, today went by so fast/And the only thing to look forward to's the past.'

Indulging in too much nostalgia can be dangerous. Bill Clinton says that politicians and business leaders need to be in the 'future business', and he is probably right. But even if we can't always be sure where we are going, we should at least take the time to understand where we are coming from.

HOW WE USED TO MANAGE A RETROSPECTIVE OF POPULAR MANAGEMENT THINKING, 1966-2006

BOSTON MATRIX

In 1970, the Boston Consulting Group introduced its classic two-by-two matrix, which divides business and product lines into four categories, based on market share and growth rate:

Dogs: Products with a low share of a low-growth market. They tend to absorb cash rather than generate it. Get rid of them.

Cash cows: Products with a high share of a slow-growth market. Keep them for the time being, and milk them to fund other opportunities.

Problem children/question marks: Products with a low share of a high-growth market. They absorb money but generate little in return.

Stars: Products in high-growth markets with a relatively high share of that market. Stars should generate stellar incomes. Keep and build them.

The idea was to balance your portfolio, putting dogs down and keeping a wary eye on problem children. It proved a little too rigid for the real world, but its descendants are still around.

TQM

Total Quality Management is a classic example of a good idea that turned a little sour - as is often the case with theories that are turned into TLAs (three-letter acronyms). The 'quality movement' was effectively led by management thinker W Edwards Deming, who was brought in to restore Japanese industry after the second world war.

Deming married the Japanese instinct for consensus with the industrial concept of teamwork, saying quality and continuous improvement (kaizen) lay down a road called empowerment. In the 1980s, western industrialists, panicking at the success of Japanese competitors, launched Total Quality Management (TQM). 'Quality circles', consisting of empowered staff working in self-managed teams, would deliver the performance needed. Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxon taste for command-and-control could not stomach all this empowerment, and TQM, and the paperwork it generated, proved counter-productive.

BUSINESS PROCESS RE-ENGINEERING (BPR)

Yes, it's another TLA (see TQM, left). In 1993, when a recession-hit world was looking for tough medicine, Michael Hammer and James Champy published Re-engineering The Corporation.

Their advice was: start again with a blank piece of paper. What would be the most effective form for this business to take? What activities can we get rid of? And what implications does this have for our headcount?

It was time to 'break the china', the authors said. Reinvent your industry and take the tough measures others are too squeamish to pursue. For CEOs looking to justify 'downsizings', Hammer and Champy's book came just at the right time.

It was picked up and developed by many consultancies - Gemini was a vigorous advocate, as revealed in David Craig's recent Rip-Off. BPR was great in theory but often vicious in practice. It has few open supporters today - sensible managers have learnt to call it something else.

PLANNING

The fact that as recently as 1971 people could still write seriously about centralised planning shows how strong a hold the idea had on the nation's managers. But the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the travails of former nationalised industries) seemed to put paid to the idea for ever. We are all free-marketeers now.

What John Kay calls the 'disciplined pluralism' of markets should create more wealth than planners ever could. And supporters of chaos theory will tell you that planning is not only unwise, it is impossible.

So what has happened to planning and the planners? Some corporations - notably Shell - did develop the niche activity of 'scenario planning'.

But other planners have had to make the best of it, either in accounting or management consultancy.

Now, all managers are supposed to be good planners, although it is a rare skill. Such are the vagaries of management fashion. If only we had a cunning plan to bring it back ...

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