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All about Alfred

July 17, 2011

One of the most important problems that I face at Disruptive Robotics is the development of new organizational models. My experiences of the last 15 years have convinced me that the product development processes necessary to deliver scalable robotics software products of commercial quality are, in fact, significantly different from those of traditional software companies. Robotics software requires the parallel development of many different types of software, each of which may require development under a different software development methodology. Along the way, these softwares are integrated and tested in various combinations until a product or product platform is delivered. The differences in production processes have a significant impact on the rest of a robotics company’s internal value chain, and are pronounced enough to require the development of robotics-specific organizational models from the ground up. This was also Sloan’s problem.

Until recently, I knew very little about Alfred P Sloan beyond the basics. General Motors President and Chairman. MIT alumni and Sloan’s namesake. Googling his name provided surprisingly little information. Even his Wikipedia entry is pretty sparse. But what caught my eye was the credit he is given for creating in GM the modern multinational corporation. The growth of the automotive industry, especially from the 1920’s through the 1950’s saw the development of a global market for automobiles, one of the defining new technologies of the first half of the last century. Under Sloan’s leadership, GM captured and maintained domestic leadership, despite having started far behind the Ford Company in market share, and went on to extend its reach globally. Sloan credited these successes with the development of a new type of organization and a new type of professional manager.

I have known for some time that I am facing the same type of problem with Disruptive. New models and new managers are required. Moreover, I also feel that a new type of entrepreneurial spirit is required, one that focuses entirely on the global expansion of robotics as a new, socially beneficial technology. I spent significant time studying the Society of Jesus as a 17th Century case of a founder faced with the problem of developing  just such a global organization. Loyala’s solutions to this problem are integrated deeply into the culture of Disruptive. Now I saw in Alfred Sloan another potential historical role model and set out to learn all I could of him.

I’ve started by obtaining his memoir, “My Years with General Motors.” I am perhaps halfway through, but I’m intrigued at how both Sloan and Loyola faced the problem of determining where along the centralized – decentralized continuum to situate their company. Loyola, owing in large part to the cost of communications in the 17th Century adopted highly decentralized governance principals, where nearly independent Jesuits set off for distant lands bound strictly by a highly centralized and stable set of values and principles. Clearly, the method worked as evidenced by the rapid growth of the Jesuits and their outpaced success compared to other monastic orders such as the Dominicans or the Franciscans.

Sloan, by contrast, attempted to strike just the right balance in sharing decision making authority between the decentralized operating divisions and the centralized corporation. Although I am not yet finished with the book, my early impression is that Sloan attempted to build centralization around what he called policy, but what would be termed strategy today, while leaving the responsibility for execution with the operating divisions.

I believe that the same solution may apply to the  development of our robotics organization, where the centralized Disruptive organization sets and manages expansionary strategies in two areas: core technology development and new market identification, while the subsidiary operating divisions focus on domain specific execution. Despite the problems that the modern GM has faced in restructuring, the early GM of the 1930’s probably offers a rich set of case studies that will inform the design of the Disruptive Group of companies.


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