BOOKS - Falling Behind, Catching Up - James Hanson admires a fluent analysis of post-war British industry. From Empire to Europe, Geoffrey Owen, HarperCollins £19.99.
As the first Financial Times editor to change its main emphasis from economics to industry, Sir Geoffrey Owen was highly regarded by businessmen for his insight and knowledge of British companies.
The underlying theme of this historical analysis, a bold sweep of 100 years of British industry, is management, good and bad, and how it will make or break a company. Whether today's management will be so appreciative of his constant reference to the need to make Europe its main arena of competition is, however, open to doubt. But there's no doubt that management today is also the name of his game.
Britain has moved ahead of the Continent because of our old-fashioned belief in tackling world markets. Not only where they are 'soft', as Owen suggests, but where, as in North America, serious competition still beats anything known over here. The title implies Britain will once again be imperially great when it is fully integrated into Europe, but the majority of UK businesses are chary of joining a German-dominated federal Europe based on joining the euro.
Owen stretches the old paradox that the seeds of a business' failure lie within its success, which is possible judging from the examples he gives. Will Britain learn from history to adapt quickly enough to the fast-moving scenario almost overwhelming the world today? Especially information and communications technology (ICT), where the US, for example, is far ahead in computer usage - not to mention business-to-business use of the internet. Will Europe be able to adapt to such fast-moving change where today's technology is already out of date? Of all, Britain is most likely to narrow the gap soonest.
Owen deals with this in great detail, constantly referring back to the need for management which is enthusiastic for change, innovation and new technology.
He also looks at four potential causes of decline in a broad survey of 10 industries and assesses the validity of some widely canvassed explanations with the iconoclastic conclusion that his evidence 'runs counter to some popular institutional explanations of British decline'. Quite. He asserts that you cannot have successful management without tough competitive markets to drive management, which most managers have always known, but the criterion is whether they act soon enough.
He's highly critical of government interference in business where interventionist policies have been 'disastrous' and where we still try to live with the consequences. We all know the easiest business decisions are made with 20/20 hindsight, but he says a good decision is difficult to make. That's where persuasive managers succeed. They speedily sweep along the board, top management and the workforce with their enthusiastic and well-explained ideas.
The statistics in the book make valuable reading. Shop stewards' constant interference post-war in the smooth operation of companies was a nightmare pre-Thatcher. The sheer number of strikes, stoppages and slow-downs, as they still are in France, were largely caused by overmanned, inflexible workforces with which management was too slow to come to terms.
The history of this industrial unrest, as he states, was the hangover from wartime hoarding of labour. When the troops returned, the industrial mindset was to keep excessive numbers as the norm, instead of immediate rationalisation with the workforce and the unions, of the real numbers required to perform the companies' objectives. This could have been done sympathetically with proper redundancy payments.
Education is an important part of Owen's thorough review, where, with our present government's attitude to education being such a flop, we are still behind the Continent in producing the industrial and commercial workforce of the future.
I found From Empire to Europe engaging and knowledgeable, although it's aimed more at industrial academics and undergraduates than at the business world. A very well-written volume, well worth a visit to the library to borrow or perhaps to buy for the boardroom.