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Published: July 1, 1996

 
 

"The Age of Heretics" by Art Kleiner

The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws and the Forerunners of Corporate Change by Art Kleiner (401 pages, Currency/Doubleday, 1996)

Someone I knew back in the early 1970's used to wear a discreet little button on his lapel that encapsulated the anti-linear, refuse-to-be-categorized Zeitgeist of the time. The words "Everything Is Everything" formed a circle in black letters on a white background. The idea was to read them, mantra-like, as "Everything Is Everything Is Everything Is Everything..." and so on and so on, into the vortex. Many people believed that then; most of them ultimately lost their faith.

One who didn't, apparently, was Art Kleiner, who has written a history of human resource management that links ideas more parochial thinkers might say have nothing to do with each other and concludes on a millenarian note that would not have sounded out of tune at a Baba Ram Dass retreat 20 years ago. Indeed, in the bio in the back of his peculiar but not uninteresting new book, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws and the Forerunners of Corporate Change, Mr. Kleiner says he brings "credentials" from both the counterculture and big business to his task, including co-authorship of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Currency/Doubleday) with Peter Senge.

It might seem that the countercultural approach would cause the eyes of hard-driving executives to glaze over in droves, but let's not forget that hundreds of these same executives, or their companies, pay large fees to attend, for example, Stephen Covey's Seven Habits seminars, which, hair and clothing styles aside, bear a certain resemblance to a Baba Ram Dass retreat 20 years ago. Perhaps Mr. Kleiner is onto something.

He begins by likening the modern corporation to the monasteries of the medieval church. Monasteries, he says, were communities of similarly minded people, in but not of the world. They had rituals that set them off from the non-monastic world. While they did the work of God, they also provided an orderly structure for daily life. And, in a turbulent time, they used their considerable political influence to encourage the growth of civil institutions that would impose discipline on society. Eventually, as the external world grew more orderly, monasteries evolved into universities and became the model for great commercial enterprises. They were populated by a variety of types — heretics, reformists, protesters and mystics — that would long survive them.

Most writers would probably begin the history of human resources with the scientific management theories of Frederick Taylor, whose view of workers as interchangeable parts in a greater whole is now under attack in hundreds of companies experimenting with any form of work team, employee participation or empowerment strategies. Mr. Kleiner, however, mentions Taylorism only in passing. Instead, he tells his story by analogy to these religious archetypes.

The analogies get to be a bit of a slog, as when, for example, he compares the social scientists and psychologists in the 50's who developed the scientific art of group dynamics to a medieval sect of monks who believed, not in the prevailing doctrine of human fallibility, but in the ability of humans to perfect themselves. The monk who would eventually become St. Augustine, a fanatic believer in the worst of human nature, pursued the sect's leader for 20 years and had him tried for heresy. The message, even for management gurus who fall from grace, is elusive.

Happily, Mr. Kleiner remains on earth more often than he takes flight, and his summary of the evolution of human organization over the years is compelling. The early research on groups emphasized roles individuals assume as a group evolves. But by applying principles of group dynamics to resolving conflicts — one of the earliest efforts was to help reduce racial tension in New Haven right after World War II — researchers learned that groups could evolve predictably, as the members of the group analyzed its process and traded feedback with its expert-leaders. The New Haven project, known as the Connecticut T-Group, eventually became the National Training Center, which offered two- to three-week seminars in group dynamics for, among others, corporate managers.

 
 
 
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