Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Making of McKinsey: A Brief History of Management Consulting in America

An excerpt of The Firm at Long Reads:

...The American Century

In 1941 Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce coined the term “American Century” in a Life magazine editorial. He was describing the country’s global economic and political dominance leading up to World War II. But Luce was also correct in the literal sense: The American Century had actually started several decades before.
The building of the railroads and coincident spread of the telegraph in the United States in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century helped create the world’s first truly “mass” markets. If an executive had ambition, his company didn’t have to serve just local customers. It could serve an entire continent and beyond, if it had the wherewithal to get the organization and logistics right.

The economic historian Alfred Chandler documented the momentous changes in what came to be known as the Second Industrial Revolution in his seminal book Scale and Scope—the title of which referred to the simultaneous revolutions in both scale (in manufacture) and scope (in distribution) in American enterprise. Those twin revolutions transformed the United States from an agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse in the span of a single generation. In 1870 the nation accounted for 23 percent of the world’s industrial production. By 1913 that proportion had jumped to 36 percent, exceeding that of Great Britain.

By 1920, when only a third of homes in the country had electricity and only one in five had a flush toilet, the country’s business establishment was embarking on a course of radical, unprecedented expansion. This brought with it a dilemma that has preoccupied business leaders ever since: how to grow big while maintaining control over the enterprise. Moving from a single-product, owner-run enterprise into a complex and large-scale national one is a difficult task. First, you have to build production facilities massive enough to achieve the desired economies of scale. Second, you have to invest in a national marketing and distribution effort to ensure that sales have a chance of matching that scaled-up production. And third, you have to hire, train, and trust people to administer your business. Those people are called managers, and in the first half of the American Century, they were in very short supply.

The benefits to successful first-movers were gigantic. In industries where only one or two companies took the plunge early, they dominated their field for a very long time to come; this group includes well-known names like Heinz, Campbell Soup, and Westinghouse. A ten-year merger mania, from 1895 through 1904, also brought the creation of a number of corporate entities the likes of which the world had never seen—1,800 companies were crunched into 157 megacorporations, including stalwarts like U.S. Steel, American Cotton, National Biscuit, American Tobacco, General Electric, and AT&T.

The key business problem identified during this transition—and one that underwrote McKinsey’s success for several decades—was that a single, central office could no longer adequately administer such far-flung empires. Power had to be ceded to the extremities. The question was how. It was a quandary that beguiled some of the great thinkers of the time, including political scientist Max Weber, who argued that a systematic approach to marshaling resources through bureaucracy was a necessary and profound improvement over pure charismatic leadership.

In his book American Business, 1920–2000: How It Worked, Harvard professor Thomas McCraw pinpointed the issue: “In the running of a company of whatever size, the hardest thing to manage is usually this: the delicate balance between the necessity for centralized control and the equally strong need for employees to have enough autonomy to make maximum contributions to the company and derive satisfaction from their work. To put it another way, the problem is exactly where within the company to lodge the power to make different kinds of decisions.”...MUCH MORE