Newspaper article International New York Times

Rebuilding Middle Class Via the Army

Newspaper article International New York Times

Rebuilding Middle Class Via the Army

Article excerpt

The old-fashioned organizational values of the United States military, such as hierarchy and bureaucracy, might be crucial to rebuilding the middle class.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a classroom at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. There were 16 students, all in their early 40s and most of them lieutenant colonels, who had been selected to spend a year in this rural, peaceful place learning how to think strategically about war.

In modern business, "thinking strategically" has become a cliche entirely devoid of meaning. But in the military, its meaning remains precise. As one person in the class told me, as a lieutenant colonel in a tank battalion, he was engaged in tactics: making sure that his tankers and their tanks were ready to fight. As a colonel, he would be concerned with strategy: advising on which enemies those tanks should engage and how.

For the first time in their careers, these officers were being taught to think broadly, with readings that included everything from military theory to philosophy. The professor, Stephen Gerras, who holds a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology and is a retired colonel, created an open, almost subversive, atmosphere in the class. (To enable this openness, I agreed to some ground rules: I wouldn't identify any of the students in the class or quote the specific things said.) It was thrilling to witness -- all these people exploring, publicly, thoughts that felt dangerous to them. It reminded me of first-year college students, except these were middle- age people who had commanded thousands of soldiers in battle.

The divide between strategy and tactics -- between people who design the plans of war and those who implement them -- is as old as organized armies. Interestingly, as laid out in what may be the single most important book of American business history, Alfred Chandler's "The Visible Hand," this military model was copied a century ago as the model for the hierarchical American corporation. In particular, these organizations borrowed the delineation between executives tasked with strategy -- the corporate equivalent of colonels and generals -- and tactical workers (enlisted soldiers) and midlevel managers, who played the role of captains, majors and lieutenant colonels.

But then came global trade, computers and the Internet, and we learned that the military-inspired corporate hierarchy didn't work so well when information needed to flow far more quickly throughout an organization and decisions had to be made with haste. Many of the structural economic challenges we face today can be explained by the decline of this organizational form. Uber, Airbnb and Google are examples of new corporate forms that scramble the roles of managers and managed, strategy and tactics.

There has been a continuous onslaught, over the last 40 years, on the midlevel managers Mr. Chandler once applauded. They have been replaced by email and Excel and outsourcing. Even many traditional- seeming companies brag about their flatter, leaner, less- hierarchical style. It would be hard to find any business-school professor or corporate executive preaching the blessings of bureaucracy.

These shifts may make business sense, but they come at a cost. Put simply: The disappearance of middle management is a central part of the disappearance of the middle class. Without large corporations that have a place for people at many levels of skill and ability and a reasonably clear path of promotion, tens of millions of Americans are left underemployed and underpaid. For much of the 20th century, companies would employ young people with few skills and invest in them, knowing that they would most likely be paid back over the employees' long tenure.

Today, the United States military is one of the few employers in America that still makes this kind of investment in a demographically broad group of people. If we wanted to find a 21st- century form of organization that can help rebuild the middle class, we would need it to retain at least a little something from the institution most responsible for building the American middle class in the first place. …

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