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Alistair Mant speaks on Wilfred Brown and Industrial Democracy

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Wilfred Brown, Managing Director and Chairman of Glacier Metal Company, London

Wilfred Brown, Managing Director and Chairman of Glacier Metal Company, London

Alistair Mant, Chairman, Socio-technical Study Group, spoke at the 2005 GO Society Conference in Toronto about his experiences and work with Wilfred Brown, the chairman of Glacier Metal Company, where the ideas about work levels were originally worked out. Mant makes the point that well before Dr. Jaques and his Tavistock colleagues came onto the scene, Brown was working to create a different kind of company.

Brown was a lifelong Socialist, according to Mant. He certainly published several times in Socialist papers in the 1940s and was always a member of Labour. Mant points out that when he was elevated to Baron, he chose to be Baron of the location of his favorite golf course. (Brown was a scratch golfer throughout much of his life.)

Brown was a complex man. “He understood power,” Mant says, and was certainly not averse to accumulating power. Gerry Kraines asked if Brown’s experiences in the 1930s (he married shareholder’s relatives twice) didn’t represent a opportunistic quality. Which Mant admits that it did (“in a good way!”). Those of us who are not power people do not always understand the ways of those who use power well. Brown was not averse to getting power but he also believed that “power should be corralled”, even including his own power as chief executive and Chairman of Glacier Metal Company.

Some excerpts from Mant’s discussion:

Elliott [Jaques] was bent on building RO and developing the theory… Wilfred [Brown] was bent on making industrial democracy work.

I’ve heard this from a lot of people, that there was a big difference in what the two men were really trying to do. Which makes sense: Jaques was a young researcher at the time and Brown was a Chief Executive, mixing ownership and executive.

Alistair Mant speaking at the 2005 GO Society conference in Toronto
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Within a year of becoming chief executive, he had instituted a works council in every single factory — this going back to 1941. What you need to understand is that Brown was already on this pathway of seeing whether you could democratize an industrial organization.

As we said, this was very different assumptions than that of [unintelligible]. Because he was fond of the union. He saw the unions as part of the deal.

Now what was interesting about Brown was that he had this conception … that when your firms get really big — as I said, like a [unintelligible] — then you need to replicate the institutions of the state….

This is an incredibly radical idea. And size matters, as Jaques points out about what he called “mutual recognition units”, everyone in three consecutive, related layers of a hierarchy (manager’s manager, manager, manager’s subordinates). It’s interesting because Luc Hoebeke and others do a lot with the three-layers and most Jaquesians point out that the three-layer management is the key to good relations.

Brown understood power extremely well… He understood and was easy with power but he knew that power had to be corralled….

He forced the managers to unionize themselves — and this might interest you — he could see that they were going to get squeezed on pay. Of course, managers always fantasize that they are part of the ownership. They’re actually just hired hands. So he got them to unionize themselves as a management union. Wil was always coming up with schemes like this….

So he quite specifically wanted to replicate the organs of the state in the firm. Now this was a very — if you think about that — by now, he was just in his thirties. And he has this grand vision of industrial democracy and he’s using Glacier Metal Company as his testbed. It was an extraordinary thing for a thirty year-old bloke to be doing. And all of that is entrained, until 1948, when Elliott [Jaques] comes on the scene.


Brown was working on participation before Jaques arrived. It may explain why some of the more participatory elements don’t seem to survive in Jaques’s later works: he was concentrating on something else.

It’s also interesting to combine this idea of organizations getting to a certain size and needing to be constitutionally structured like the [democratic] state, with the thoughts of Luc Hoebeke (see the podcast recordings available on this feed)

What became the central thing that Wilfred Brown taught Elliott [Jaques] is that if you’re in a purposive system, the kind of purposive system that Russ Aikoff [?] talks about, then you do need a spine of authority. And that word, “authority”, is the killer because where I come from in Australia — and certainly, I think, in the USA — “authority” is a tricky word for people. They don’t like it much. It gets confused with authoritarianism, and autocracy, and such. The mere use of the word “authority” — which for me is a simply a neutral description of a role relationship, that’s the English language — has become something else….

Mant goes more into this in his book,Intelligent Leadership. I’m an American: we really do have an aversion to the idea of authority. And organization, as Urwick points out: “There is, in the United States, a built-in tendency to be apprehensive of and unduly critical of formal organization.” If you doubt, you can check out some of the comments that I have gotten over the last four years on this weblog.

When Elliott turned up at Glacier, he was 31 and Wilfred was 40. So you had this additional element of an older man, who is broad in his understanding of the world, and a younger man whose very intensive focus is quite narrow, and doesn’t’ really understand an employment bureaucracy. The reason why Elliott got so engaged with the notion of bureaucracy, began to understand it, that there are some rules that when you break them you get into a mess, you get into bullshit.

He uses that term in the “technical sense”, based on the monograph “On Bullshit” that was written some years back. He goes into what he means more in the full video.

But it’s very hard to say — and I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, trying to work out who taught who what, and I think it was truly symbiotic. It would be very difficult to say, because the whole thing was hacked out in these brawling sessions they had, they were constantly having a good intellectual brawl….

I find Brown fascinating. He combines an ease with power, idealistic fervor, and intellectual rigor that is rare. Of course, the foreignness of his experiences may also be part of the mix. We didn’t have many people in the States who were openly Socialist (my father’s college roommate being a rare exception to the day he died), and some of the acts of the Labour government in the 1960s seem baffling to me today, living as I do in a free-trade happy world. I suppose this allows me to look beyond what are surely thought of as his harebrained ideas to what motivated them, and how he arrived at them.

But it’s the power thing that is most interesting. Brown surely understood power. Gerry Kraines asked if Brown’s ability to marry into ownership didn’t represent an opportunistic streak in him. He seems like an aggressive man, willing to push and fight. He was willing to accrue power. And yet his ideal that power should be corralled led him to give up power, to cede it to constitutional structures being created at Glacier. I hate to make this analogy, but he reminds me of another man who wanted power but whose ideals allowed him to cast it off for the greater good, a one G. Washington.

The full video of Mant’s session is available from the GO Society Media Library. It’s a fascinating look at Brown from a noted management expert who knew him.

Plus, you get to hear some interesting facts about Elliott Jaques. He changed his name before medical school? I hadn’t heard that. I knew that he was married to the perhaps mercurial but noted British actress, Kay Walsh, but I’m not sure when, although I recall something about 1956 (ending or beginning?). Reportedly, they adopted a daughter (Gemma). I’ve heard that he was married to an actress during the Brunel years. Sometime in the 1980s he met and married Kathryn Cason. He’s from Canada, somehow went to the UK during the war and did some service to the military there. I think that’s all I know about him. So it is neat to hear more about him.

Mant also contributed a chapter toOrganization Design, Levels of Work & Human Capability, also available from the GO Society website.

Image Credit: Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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