• The Corsairs of Cynefin

    This post originally appeared in the Cognitive Edge blog on December 12, 2010.

    Several days ago I woke up with the opening of the ‘Major-General’s Song’ from Gilbert & Sullivan repeating over and over in my head:

    I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
    I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
    From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical….

    At first, I was intrigued. I had no idea where this came from. My husband had (thankfully) not performed a medley in the shower the day before. We had not watched any movie versions of Broadway musicals. I had not inadvertently stumbled on any direct or veiled reference to The Pirates of Penzance on the Web. In fact, I had barely thought about this comic opera since we performed it in my high school more years ago than I want to say.

    Interestingly, however, I had gone to bed the night before thinking about — not to say fretting over — these blog posts. What to write next?… What next?… What?… Next?… Perhaps as repetitive and insistent as the Major-General was the next morning. Once the babble died down, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection: Was my brain suggesting that there was something there, or were these just random neural bits and pieces thrown out to clear my brain? So I looked up the full lyrics on Wikipedia (link above) and, over coffee, read them to my husband Steve.

    His comment: “You know, that’s interesting. Back in the late 90s, I remember seeing a paper on the Web by someone from Aberystwyth [the University of Wales], talking about the simultaneous development of modern military and business strategy by some West Point [U.S. Military Academy] graduates in the mid-19th century. Wouldn’t that be an unexpected combination and coincidence? Military battles, business strategy, Wales….”

    It seemed like a stretch, but he sent me the link to the paper after he got to his office. The original server was gone, but the Internet Archive had crawled it:
    ‘The Historical Genesis of Modern Business and Military Strategy: 1850 – 1950’, by Keith Hoskin (Manchester), Richard Macve (LSE and Aberystwyth), and John Stone (Aberystwyth), professors of management, accounting, and history, respectively. Unexpected combination indeed! Their paper was written for a 1997 conference at Manchester on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Accounting. I kept looking and found that formal publication took another decade, when it appeared as ‘Accounting and strategy: towards understanding the historical genesis of modern business and military strategy’ in a 2006 edited volume on Contemporary Issues in Management Accounting from Oxford University Press.

    With apologies to readers who have a deep background in strategy, accounting, and history, here is my take-away of their thesis: Most prior histories of strategy either defer to ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights(!) or infer some vaguely-defined emergence after the Industrial Revolution or even post-World War II. Hoskin, Macve, and Stone argue instead that the roots are very specific, that the locus was a small number of people, all of whom happened to be West Point graduates under the influence of Sylvanus Thayer, its fourth Superintendent. In 1817, Thayer instituted a scheme of written directives, examinations, and numerical evaluations, and a line-management system for their administration, which was propagated by newly-commissioned officers as they moved up the ranks of the Army.

    Hoskin et al. cite the accomplishment of several West Point graduates in their post-military careers, who went on to establish or organize such 19th-century successes as the Springfield Armory, the Western Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest in the U.S. — precisely along the lines set up by Thayer. In the military sphere, they suggest that the balance in the U.S. Civil War shifted when the General Staff of the Union Army was finally put under the authority of two more of Thayer’s disciples trained in the 1830s. They, in turn, recruited yet more like-minded managers and engaged experienced senior staff from the aforementioned Pennsylvania Railroad. As a result of this business-like action, the focus shifted from battlefield operations to enterprise management and ultimately victory.

    Although I’m certainly not qualified to evaluate the authors’ historical evidence, what I found most intriguing was Thayer’s practice at West Point (borrowed from the French écoles he had visited) with its emphasis on writing, examining, and evaluating — more generally, as Hoskin et al. describe it, “new modes of communicating, of learning, and of valuing.” That has some interesting parallels with what we — all of us involved with Cognitive Edge, both accredited practitioners and on-staff consultants — are doing with our clients, who are using written narratives to better understand their constituencies and to modify their strategies accordingly.

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