Walking the Walk: Searching for Renewal in the Footsteps of the Founders

[NOTE: This is an extended and enhanced revision of material that first appeared in Chapter 4 of my book, Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995/2002). It is based on a trip to Coalbrookdale, Shropshire made in the early 1990s]

It takes about 15 minutes for the Inter-City Express to clear the industrial debris of Northern London before it is rushing at high speed through countryside of small woods and rolling farmlands. The bright yellow fields of rapeseed and their neat hedgerows flicker by as the locomotive gathers its energies and hurtles north toward Wolverhampton. The highest points in view are the trees and the village church spires, which have replaced the ugly pylons and container cranes, now left far behind.

It is a grey, cloudy day in May, but according to the weather forecasters, in typical English fashion, “bursts of sunshine” are expected. Indeed, in the distance, the landscape turns brilliant as a broad shaft of sunlight pierces the overcast. Soon we are joined by a barge-canal and towpath that runs hard alongside the railbed, now on one side, now on the other. The canal consists of lengthy stretches of water, twenty or more feet wide, interrupted by flights of narrow locks. Every now and then a barge-like houseboat comes into sight, usually negotiating one of the locks. Nearly seven foot wide and up to seventy feet in length, they are now motor powered, but in the old days the barges were horse-drawn and their speed rarely exceeded three miles an hour. The canal disappears for long stretches, more restricted by the topography of the land than the track of the train, and we cross and recross it as we speed northward. A motorway, in its turn even less constrained than we, loops and whirls above us. But you can’t do 125 mph on the road and, when road and rail run parallel, we pass the cars and trucks at a satisfying clip.

I am headed on this train to Wolverhampton via Birmingham and, as we clack over spaghetti points through the latter city’s industrial sprawl, the layered networks of transportation and communication become plainer; rail over water, road over rail. The roar of the jets from the new international airport reminds one that it is air over road. And as we enter the steel and brick labyrinth of factories and warehouses that seem to comprise the whole of Birmingham, the antenna and microwave dishes perched high on the taller building assert the authority of the information highway over all. On the optical fibre networks and wireless linkages of the so-called information superhighway, it is light over air.

At Wolverhampton I have to change trains and I have time for a brief stroll. As I walk along the platform, I notice that the canal has rejoined us at what seems to be a major terminus. Houseboats are packed together and being prepared for the summer season of tourists and visitors and the small harbour is a hive of activity. Just outside the city a series of narrow locks drops the barges down what looks like a long, steep grade. Soon my local train, its twin cars packed with the locals and their baby strollers, is sliding rhythmically downhill.

My destination is Ironbridge in the bottom of the Severn River Gorge in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire. Now a quiet country valley, it is here that the Industrial Revolution was born three hundred years ago. At that time it was the most industrialized area in the world, for Coalbrookdale was the “Silicon Valley” of the revolution and remained a hotbed of innovation for over 150 years. Of course, back then the new “miracle” material was not silicon. It was iron. But from this small valley came many of the inventions and innovations that transformed our society.

I have read so much about the people who lived there, that I feel a growing excitement as the slow bus from Telford wanders through the hills and dales, dropping steadily into the gorge. I sense that I am not just on a visit but have been drawn there on a mission. I feel that I am travelling not as a tourist, but as an industrial pilgrim. And, like a pilgrim, I am seeking renewal — in this case the secrets of societal renewal. For the English Industrial revolution can be seen as a spontaneous, self-organizing renewal of an entire society. There was no master plan back then in the early 1700s, no industrial strategy, no grants from government agencies. It just seems to have happened.

Our retrospective explanations of the causes of this giant transformation — the Protestant ethic, high achievement motivation, a zeal for education — have been uniformly unsatisfactory. They are overly rational, too individualistic and, worst of all, impossible to replicate in modern contexts. For, unless these traits have genetic roots, appeals to them are descriptions, not explanations. What were the contexts that evoked such behaviours from ordinary people? Under what circumstances did it begin? How was it sustained and why did it eventually slacken? That’s why I am returning to the source of the canals and the railways, the roads and the airlines, to the origins of the internet and the Worldwide Web. I am there not just to see the sights, but to immerse myself in the context; to walk the walk, to follow in the footsteps of the founders of the revolution.

In the Steps of the Founders

There is a great deal of talk today (Reminder: this was written in 1995!) about organizational renewal, but in all the rhetoric we often forget to ask what the “it” is that is renewed. Take a one-time high-tech organization like Wang Laboratories, for example. In 1989 the company’s revenues peaked at over $3 Billion, which ranked it #146 in the Fortune 500. Wang had been a dominant player in dedicated word processors and their VS range of minicomputers. Three years later the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with its common shareholders’ equity all but wiped out. Wang had missed completely the microprocessor revolution and the rise of the personal computer. When they emerged from bankruptcy in September 1993, much had changed. The work force had been reduced from 31,000 to 6,000. The dedicated word processors were gone and the VS minis lingered on only in the form of service contracts. The new products were in optical imaging, software and network integration. Their TV ads showed the old Wang logo being destroyed by an explosion, with the new one emerging from the rubble.

What then, was the “it” in Wang that had survived and could be said to have been renewed? It was not the formal organization structure. It was not the legal corporation. The physical assets and facilities were changed and so were almost all the people. In the case of Wang Laboratories, it may seem that was little was left except for the name, and even that lasted only a short while before it was acquired. But even if it had survived, even flourished “only in name”, could we say that Wang had been renewed? Or would it be an entirely new organization? This problem of the nature of identity has troubled philosophers for a very long time. But if one could understand what “it” is, then perhaps one could get a better handle on renewal.

When the members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, seek renewal they try to understand how the values of their founder can be realized in the new contexts in which they find themselves. To this end they go through the “exercises” developed by Ignatius of Loyola nearly 500 years ago, either doing the exercises themselves, or supervising someone else going through the process. By “walking the walk”, stepping in the footsteps of their founder, they participate in the activities that lead to the founding of their institution. This is not an intellectual activity. They develop no logic, no “map” of how to proceed. But the appreciation of the founder’s values, generated by this participation act as a compass needle, giving them a continual sense of the direction in which to head. Indeed, this is probably one of the roles of ritual in all organizations, religious and secular — to re-mind one of the living presence of the past in the present. Thus the process of organizational renewal cannot begin without any foundations. There is continuity with the past for both individuals and organizations. But it cannot be the preservation of artifacts from the past in a cocoon detached from the present. That would be too simple. If that qualified as renewal, all we would need would be museums. But to wander through a museum is not necessarily to be renewed. No, renewal demands participation — the dynamic re-realization of something old in the new.

And so, as I settled down for the night in my comfortable bed-and-breakfast, not a hundred yards from the Iron Bridge itself, I thought that, although it might be more difficult to detect, I was just as interested in what had been preserved by the revolution as what had been changed.

Return with the Dead

In the morning the Postmaster of Ironbridge, in whose house I had stayed overnight, kindly offered me an early ride up the long hill to Coalbrookdale itself. With rain threatening and the need for an early start, I took him up on the offer — I didn’t have to “walk the walk” too literally and there would be plenty of walking to be done later. “The museums don’t open until 10am”, he told me, “You might as well begin at the Quaker burial ground.”

It was members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers as they were first derisively called, who pioneered the serious manufacture of iron in Coalbrookdale. It was a whole dynasty centred on the Darby family. For well over a hundred years, they and their kin worked in this valley, continually improving the production and forming of iron and developing a stream of products and production processes that changed our modes of living and working. The products they produced ranged from iron pots, skillets and fire grates to steam engines, railways and iron boats, bridges and buildings. As I crossed the rushing waters of the Coalbrook below the old Upper Furnace Pool and began the sharp climb up the opposing hill past the Quaker homestead of Rosehill House, I thought that if there any secrets of renewal, they are surely to be found in the habits of this small religious sect, who although they never comprised more than one percent of the population, exercised an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

The Quaker burial ground is an impressive sight. A narrow rectangle, thirty-six feet wide and a hundred feet long, it lies vertically on a steep green incline high up on the side of the dale. Its two huge conifers, the impression of their height further exaggerated by the steepness of the slope, tower over me as I climb the winding road. A solid brick wall, seven foot high, encloses the ground on all sides. A pair of plain iron gates stands at the entrance. They swing open lightly to my touch.

The Quaker Burial Ground at Coalbrookdale

Here they lie, row on row and side by side, nearly two hundred of them — Darbys, Reynolds, Dearmans, Dickinsons and many others. There is neither rank nor hierarchy. It is a true burial ground, not a cemetery, for the Quakers did not believe in the special significance of individual deeds and the graves themselves are all unmarked. They are buried in the same way that they lived — “plain”, without affectation or pretention. Simple headstones, identical in shape, rest along the brick perimeter. They record the names and dates of death. The months are numbered but not named — Quaker fashion — for they rejected the naming of days and months after pagan gods as a barbarous relic of the past. It is a testimony to their absolute rejection of hierarchy and authority of any kind. In the 17th century this habit was to cost individuals dearly, but the persecution they suffered seems to have played an important role in bonding the community together and their subsequent ability to renew the world.

The Context of the Times

The backdrop to both the Industrial Revolution and the formation of the Society of Friends was forty years of political, religious and social turmoil, which culminated in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the execution of Charles I in 1649. Politically the struggle had been between Absolutist Monarchs, who insisted on their rights and Parliament, who were no longer prepared to be ignored. The religious situation was more complicated. Henry VIII (1491–1547) had started the English Reformation for religious, political and personal reasons (his wish to divorce his first wife, the Catholic Catharine of Aragon). His daughter by Catharine, Mary Tudor (also known as Bloody Mary) had reversed the process and change the state religion back to Catholicism. Elizabeth I (1533–1603), his daughter by Anne Boleyn, had switched it back to Anglican again.

To make matters even more confusing, a significant group of people (the Puritans) felt that the Anglicans had retained far too much of the Catholic doctrine, rites and organization. The Puritan sects focused on the ancient doctrine of the Christian calling and the direct relation between God and the individual. They rejected the rituals and sacraments of the Established Church and refused to acknowledge the authority of the bishops. Add to this scene a severe agricultural depression and the social consequences can be imagined. Society was in ferment and the countryside was full of strangers. Radical religious and political groups such as the Arians, Anabaptists, Baptists, Diggers, Fifth Monarch Men, Levellers, Ranters and many others flourished. The times were full of portents and itinerant preachers delivered their apocalyptic visions to receptive audiences.

George Fox

One such preacher was George Fox (1624–1691), a charismatic leader and a brilliant, fiery speaker with a new vision for society. From 1650 onward he travelled round the North of England, gathering followers, or “Seekers” as they were called, who were attracted to his simple message and its radical implications of how people should live together. Together with Robert Barclay (1648–1690) and William Penn (1644–1718), he would become the spiritual leader of the Society of Friends. The first name they gave themselves, however, was “Children of Light”, for Fox preached that there was a Light in every person and that it was the role of the Quakers to allow every individual to find and follow that Inward light. Following Fox’s model, Quakers were themselves encouraged to travel in the ministry and by 1654 there were at least sixty preachers travelling in England and Wales.

Quaker Beliefs and Values

Robert Barclay, the most systematic theologian of the Society, once wrote that there were three forms of Christianity: Catholicism, Protestantism and Quakerism. In his view, the first depended upon the authority of the Church, while the second rested upon the authority of the text (especially the Old Testament). The Quakers took their authority only from the New Testament, and were fond of calling themselves “New Testament” Christians, contrasting their egalitarian treatment of men and women with the patriarchal habits of the Protestants which, the Quakers contended, stemmed from their reliance on the Old Testament. Although the Quakers’ philosophical insistence on the equality of men and women may have been limited in practice, it is undeniable that Quaker women performed astonishing feats for that and most other times. They preached, wrote tracts, travelled in the ministry, often to far off lands and, later, played leading roles in social reforms of all kinds.

Except for Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount, the Quaker’s favourite gospel was John, for in their view the other gospels were too concerned with the historical Christ. Only John wrote of an Eternal Christ available to all in the here-and-now. Thus, the Quakers believed that what counted was the individual’s experience of the Spirit, the Authority of the Spirit, unmediated by priest or text. In their experience, however, this experience could be realized only in a group context. The Society did not emphasize the group at the expense of the individual, however; individual self-direction in matters both spiritual and practical was inculcated from the beginning. The Quakers dismissed a professional clergy as “hireling priests”, much to the fury of the Established Church. Every woman and man was encouraged to find their own way to the Light. Quakers also rejected the doctrine of original sin and hence the need for baptism. In their view children were born innocent and remained in that state until they reached the age of reason.

The Quakers rejected established authority of all kinds. They would not pay tithes to the church nor take their hats off to acknowledge superiors — perform “hat honour” as they called it. Neither would they swear oaths, many of which were required at the time. Instead, they undertook always to tell the truth. They were, of course, immune to bribery and flattery. “I see there is a people risen,” observed Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), “That I cannot win either with gifts, honours, offices or places; but all other sects and people I can.” It was the Quakers’ refusal to swear oaths and pay tithes that really got them into trouble with the authorities. While the Great Protector was alive, even the most radical Puritans were somewhat protected from sanction, but with the restoration of the monarchy, persecution began in earnest. Charles II (1630–1685) is known as the “Merry Monarch”, but under the Clarendon Code a variety of narrow, oppressive measures were introduced against dissenters. Quakers were arrested and imprisoned for their failure to pay tithes and their possessions were confiscated. They quickly gravitated toward trade and towns — tithes were levied on land and penalties for non-payment took the form of the confiscation of animals and implements. The delayed nature of returns from farming meant that imprisonment could occur at critical times and Quaker women might be incapable of working the fields in the absence of their husbands. Trade, in contrast, offered faster returns and was less vulnerable to disruption — inventories could be replaced and a man’s wife could carry on the business while he was in prison. Indeed many Quaker women played a prominent role in business, often learning to do so on the job, while their husbands were incarcerated.

The political persecution seems to have led directly to the Quakers’ adoption of what has become their basic unit of organization — the Quaker Meeting. These emerged from the need to coordinate the activities of some of the more radical Friends and to take care of the dependants of those who were in prison. Soon Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly and Annual Meetings were instituted. Groups of Friends would come together to discuss both spiritual and secular matters. The practice of visitation — attending Meetings outside one’s own area — became common. Friends carrying letters of commission from their “home” meeting were always welcome at Meetings wherever they travelled. Thus, the Meetings proved to be the most flexible of structures — a series of networks that combined a non-hierarchical stability over time with a constant state of flux and flow in their constituent elements.

Quaker Meeting House in the North of England

In addition, with the regular imprisonment of Quakers for offenses of all kinds, Friends were likely to be jailed with other Friends, as well as the persecuted from other religious backgrounds. It seems highly likely that these periods in jail offered tremendous opportunities for Quakers both to bond with each other and to spread their views.

The Growth of the Quaker Network

The Quaker movement had begun in the hill country in the North of England where the wool farmers, unlike crop farmers, were not self-sufficient and needed to exchange their wool product for other necessities. As a result, each market town had a small trading network centered on it. The early Quakers, as nomadic preachers and peddlers were ideally situated to integrate these networks to form larger systems. The Friends soon developed a unique source of news and ideas available only to members of the Society. The location of the movement in the north was soon reinforced by another dynamic. The Quakers’ refusal to swear oaths meant that they could not hold university posts or trade in incorporated towns. Neither could they collect monies owed to them through the courts. As a result, they moved away from the South-East of England to the unincorporated towns of Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and York. These places were usually Nonconformist and freethinking and far away from the establishments influences of London. Here they traded with people they could trust to pay their debts. They lacked faith in joint stock corporations, in part because they did not like to deal with owners or shareholders who did not share their values. In the iron industry, for example, the Quakers’ pacifist stance and their refusal to manufacture cannon, shot and other war materials excluded them from what was (then as now) a highly lucrative, if cyclical business. They preferred partnerships and it is understandable that their partners were usually fellow Quakers.

Thus a fringe community, operating on the social and geographical margins of English society, began to build an extensive network of information and trade, underpinned by shared values and mutual trust. We talk today of the age of information, contrasting it with the age of the machine but as will become clear, information and effective communication played an enormously significant role in the Quakers’ success in the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps things do not change as much as we think they do.

With the Quakers’ rejection of authority went an assertive egalitarianism. In their view, because of their focus on the individual, anyone of whatever religion — Christian, Jew, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu — could have access to the Spirit. This was a major break with the beliefs of most Puritans. The Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians were much more restrictive on who could be admitted to the faith. Later, when William Penn founded Pennsylvania, this openness would play a major role in the rapid growth of the young, egalitarian city of Philadelphia at the expense of the longer established but much more exclusionary Boston.

A more direct consequence of this egalitarian belief was the characteristic structure of all Quaker meetings, for no distinction was made between business and religious gatherings. There was no agenda, and the Meeting began in silence until a member felt moved by a current, deeply held “concern” to speak. Sometimes a three or four-hour meeting might conclude without anyone having spoken! For similar reasons Quaker Meetings never voted. For this would have short-circuited the process of finding the “sense of the Meeting” and placed too heavy an emphasis on verbal formulations and the activities of pressure groups and cliques. Instead, they waited; “Waiting upon the Lord” was the phrase commonly used to describe the process. Their communion with the Spirit did not take place via external sacraments, but was with each other, as they searched for that feeling of unity and mutuality that they call a “gathered” Meeting.

To modern managers, with our packed agendas and prepared statement, this sounds like an incredibly inefficient way to run meetings. But efficiency was not the objective; effectiveness was. The structure ensured that issues of genuine importance were raised and discussed in open dialogue. The absence of an agenda prevented pre-digested issues, historical structures and intellectual jousting from dominating the dialogue. George Fox rejected the reliability of “head knowledge”, as he called it; every Quaker had to “feel” his or her way to the Spirit. Indeed, it is this emphasis of Quakerism on non-intellectual modes of understanding that gives it much in common with Eastern religions; a feature that also often interferes with the ability of Western minds to appreciate Quakerism.

Quaker Education

As one might expect, the education of Quaker children went far beyond the imparting of “head knowledge”. Parental behaviour was critical because it was recognized that children learn first by observation and that emulation was a much more potent force than exhortation. Thus, Quaker education was not predominantly book learning and it was not confined to school. It meant the acquisition of virtuous habits and this could only take place in a secluded environment, first in the home and later in a Meeting-controlled school with a Quaker teacher and Quaker classmates. In practical matters the training for self-direction and learning by watching and doing was most evident in the Quakers’ comprehensive apprenticeship system. They rejected the authority of the Church in this area and made the training of apprentices the business of the Monthly and Quarterly meetings, paying particular attention to the employment of poor children. The scheme turned out to be a forerunner of what today we would call the development of human resources. Except that in the case of the Quakers the process did not serve a single organization, but an entire network of enterprises. The apprentice system became the primary source of young, well-trained ethically sound people who were to sustain Quaker businesses from generation to generation. Quaker egalitarianism extended to all vocations and none was regarded as menial. Quaker apprentices could, upon graduation, aspire to marry their masters’ daughters and many of them did. This had the effect of suppressing any incipient class distinctions and extending the Quaker network.

The Quaker Meetings became developers of people under the “care of the Meeting”. In trade, apprentices would be taken on as shop assistants and funds were supplied by the Meeting for their training. When they were qualified funds would also be made available to be used as working capital to set them up in their own retail store. Thus the origins of capitalism lie as much in cooperation as they do in competition! Several oriental cultures raise community capital for entrepreneurs in similar ways. The mutual dependence of Quakers, each upon each other, was always expressed in their behaviour at the Meetings and had been underlined in the early years by their persistent persecution and imprisonment. Funds raised at Monthly and Quarterly were regularly used to replace tools and inventories confiscated by the authorities. As persecution began to diminish, the Meeting became sources of advice and counsel from people in the same trade, with the concern that trade practices always reflected Quaker beliefs. If a Friend were to get into financial trouble a small group would analyze the books of the business and, like modern management consultants (highly ethical ones), advise on the best course of action.

The Quakers were to take their values of honesty, equality, simplicity and peace and live them absolutely. And it was their devotion to their core values in their business practices that would change the structure of English society. It was in this milieu that the “Silicon Valley” of the revolution, Coalbrookdale, would come into being.

The Darbys of Coalbrookdale

The story of the Darby family and their role in the industrial revolution at Coalbrookdale is instructive because the social dynamics were repeated in many of the industries in which the Quakers became immersed. There were four Abraham Darbys involved with Coalbrookdale and the production of iron over a period of 150 years. Their involvement was not continuous; Abraham I and III died before they were forty and Abraham II lived for only 52 years. As a result, upon their deaths, their children were too young to succeed them. Management of the enterprise during these times was given to other members of the family until the young Darbys were of an age to get involved in the business. All these managers were Quakers. Indeed, until the 19th Century, the entire management group as well as some of the workers were Quaker. This fact in itself is probably a clue to the sustained creativity of the business; throughout this period management was always in the hands of young, well-trained people who, while they shared the core ideology of the founders, they had little investment in the status quo. Coupled with Quaker curiousity, inculcated from the start of their education, they spent their time in incessant tinkering and experimentation to improve the business. Today we call the process “continuous improvement.”

Abraham Darby I (1678–1717) started the enterprise in 1709. The son of a clockmaker, he had been apprenticed at Bristol in the malting business. While the Quakers frowned on the consumption of hard liquor, they were great brewers and the grains used the make beer had to be malted before use to develop the enzymes that turn starch into sugar. Part of this process involved the kiln-drying of the crop, using coke as a clean-burning fuel. It is highly likely that this is how Abraham I first became familiar with the use of coke in this way. His location in Bristol would also have given him invaluable introductions to the network of Quaker traders there. An unincorporated town, Bristol had attracted Quakers from the beginning. Its location on the west coast of England made it the centre of the wool trade and commerce with the Americas. Situated deep in the estuary of the Severn, it had made the river one of the busiest waterways in the country. The Quaker traders in Bristol would become some of Coalbrookdale’s largest customers for the export of iron products all over the world.

Once he had finished his apprenticeship, Abraham Darby became involved with several local Quakers in the setting up of a brass works. Why he should have done this is unclear. Perhaps he had met members of the Champion family in Bristol, Quakers who were already heavily involved in the brass business. Later they would become one of his major customers. In any event, this curious cross-industry experience would allow Abraham Darby to revolutionize the production of iron and its manufacture into all kinds of products. For in the early 18th century iron was still made using charcoal as a fuel. As the demand for iron grew the forests were being depleted at a huge rate, requiring ironmakers to forage further and further afield to feed their furnaces. The price of charcoal was soaring and indeed the British Navy was concerned that it would not have enough oak trees to build its warships. Constructing a first-rate ship-of-the-line required three thousand oaks, aged between 80 and 120 years. So wood was a strategic material! Thus, iron was expensive and used mainly in bar form for nails, horseshoes, chains, door hardware and swords and muskets. No one knew how to cast it into thin-walled hollowware.

In 1705 Abraham Darby travelled to Holland to study the casting of pots and pans in brass. In England at that time pots and pans were imported from Holland, where the Dutch were masters of brass founding. These utensils were incredibly expensive, often being named specifically in wills so that they could be passed on as heirlooms. Perhaps this spurred Darby on, for in 1707 he patented a process for casting good quality bellied pots in iron. In combination with coke as a fuel, he now had all the ingredients to set up an iron production process in Coalbrookdale. Here he would construct one of the world’s first continuous production processes, with raw materials being fed in at one end and finished products flowing out of the other.


If you stand in the Quaker burial ground and look to the south, you can see the gravity-assisted flow of the process just as Abraham Darby I must have visualized it. The deposits of iron ore, limestone and coal are up in the hills to the east. The narrow Coalbrook stream and its numerous small tributaries cut down through the dales toward the Severn river. Dammed at regular intervals, the brook was made to flow over the waterwheels that were used to pump the bellows of the furnace air blast. The raw materials were brought down by packhorse and dumped above the furnaces. Here the coal was burned in great heaps to drive off the impurities and turn it into coke. Limestone, also carried in by packhorse, was piled nearby. Men charged the furnaces with measured loads using wheelbarrows. The molten iron was then cast into pigs, which would later be remelted in air furnaces further down the valley and cast into pots, kettles, fire grates ands numerous other items. After fettling to remove any imperfection, these finished goods were transported on handcarts a few hundred yards downhill to a wharf on the Severn for shipment to ports all the way to Bristol. By harnessing the natural forces in Coalbrookdale, Abraham Darby I created a gravity-feed production and distribution systems over a hundred miles long!

When iron was made using charcoal a furnace could stay in blast for thirty weeks or less before the supplies of the fuel ran out. It would then take another three months to repair the brickwork inside the furnace, while sufficient charcoal was gathered for the next campaign. The use of coal in the form of coke to make iron opened up England’s vast deposits of coal for large scale exploitation and laid the foundation for the transformation of a batch process into continuous flow.

With the problem of fuel solved and the production process being steadily improved Abraham Darby bumped into the next major constraint — the seasonality of the water supply. The Coalbrook is a fast-running stream when there is plenty of water, but it dwindles to a trickle during times of drought. There was a limit to the size of the dams and, as a result, the waterwheels did not have enough power to drive the bellows during much of the summer. After campaigns averaging forty weeks in length, the furnaces would have to be shut down again, triggering the damage that followed the cooling of the brick interiors. This problem was tackled by Richard Ford (1689–1745), Abraham’s son-in-law, who succeeded him upon his death in 1717. Ford placed some of the newly developed horse-driven pumps below each of the furnaces so that the water, once it had done its job driving the waterwheels, could be returned to the upper pools to be reused. Now the air blast could be sustained for much longer periods — up to four years. This not only improved productivity and quality, but it avoided the need for frequent, expensive furnace relines. Horsepower proved to be only a temporary solution, for soon the pumps were to be powered by the first steam engines, another invention in whose development Coalbrookdale was to play such an important part.

Engines and Tramways

Many people do not realize that the evolution of the steam engine from its initial role as a supplier of pumping power to that of driving a railway locomotive took nearly 100 years. A similar, somewhat shorter development process took place in the use of iron rails. Coalbrookdale was to feature prominently in both innovations. Newcomen had patented the first viable steam engine in 1705. It worked on suction rather than expansion; a piston in a cylinder drew in low-pressure steam, which was then condensed by a jet of water to form a partial vacuum. Atmospheric pressure then pushed the piston back down the cylinder. For this reason, Newcomen machines were often called “atmospheric” engines. They were ideal for the purpose for which they were designed; for “raising water by fire” as the original patent put it; that is to pump water from mines. Via a rocking beam, the weight of the pumping mechanism pulled the piston out, the vacuum sucked it in. They were to become essential to the mining industry.

The Newcomen Engine

Initially the cylinders for the engines, like earlier pots and skillets, were made from brass and imported from Holland. These were prodigiously expensive, but they could be cast thin and brass cooled quickly, which made the engine small and reasonable efficient. What iron lacked in efficiency, however, it could now make up for in size and cheapness. In 1722 Coalbrookdale began to cast the first of the enormous iron cylinders that came to characterize the Newcomen. Diameters were five feet or more and pistons, packed with leather to fit the rough bore, were designed to operate over an eight-foot stroke about ten times a minute. Together with their rocking beams, boilers and supporting infrastructure, these giant machines could take months to construct. The slow cadence of their whooshing sighs and the clank of their headgear became familiar sounds wherever industry operated. The specialist workmen who designed and built them soon became known as engineers.

The first steam engines supplied linear rather than rotary motion so that they could not be attached directly to anything that needed to turn. When, in 1743, Richard Ford and Abraham Darby II installed the first Newcomen engines, they used them to replace the horses on the water pumps — the waterwheels were still needed as an intermediary to turn the rotary cams that moved the bellows. It would take nearly another forty years for inventors to redesign and improve Newcomen’s engine, culminating in the efforts of James Watt. Indeed, it was not until 1781 that Abraham Darby III was able to connect the new steam engines directly to the bellows. By then, however, there were ironworks all over England and the individual furnaces could put out nearly ten times as much product as the 1709 model built by Abraham I and of much higher quality.

Another great innovation that Coalbrookdale was involved with was the development of tramways. It seems to have begun in various ingenious attempts to solve their transportation problems. Packhorses could not carry more than two or three hundred pounds each. In addition, they were expensive and reduced the roads to mire. By the late 1740s Abraham II had begun to lay wooden tramways around the property to protect the roads and allow carts and wagons to be drawn. The wood rotted and wore out quickly and in 1767, Richard Reynolds, Abraham II’s son-in-law struck upon the idea of making the tramways out of iron plate. Some say that the inspiration for this was the slump in the demand for iron in the aftermath of the Seven Year War (1756–1763). Making iron plateways would have kept the furnaces busy and, when demand picked up, they could be smelted down again. In any event, it was the first time that iron had been used for this purpose and it was astoundingly successful. By 1785 there were over twenty miles of tramways in the dale, designed to be run on by wagons with flanged wheels. A horse could pull a 15-ton wagon running on an iron rail. The wagons would have to be reinforced to carry such loads, with wheels and axles of iron rather than wood. Naturally Coalbrookdale pioneered the manufacture of these products.

Canals and Railways

By the middle of the 18th century the use of coke to make cheap, high-quality iron at Coalbrookdale had spawned a variety of industries as consumer and commercial demand boomed for the newly affordable iron products. Previously the country had operated as myriad, small separate economies. Now the rapidly growing scale of the iron industry and the markets it served demanded that these microcosms be connected. All over the country the requirements for bulk transportation soared, both for finished goods and raw materials, especially in the mining industry. There were about a thousand miles of navigable rivers in England at this time, but often they did not connect the right centres and the seasonality of their flow, together with obstruction by other users made them unreliable. Tramways laid on the road helped somewhat but did not provide the scale of the carrying capacity now needed.

The first solution to the transportation problems was the building of barge canals. The Duke of Bridgewater had built the first one in 1759 to transport coal from his fields at Worsely to Manchester, 40 miles away. It proved to be fabulously profitable. The canal offered huge gains in transportation efficiency. A horse could carry three hundred pounds on it back, pull three tons on a road wagon, 15 tons on rail, but it could draw, at the same speed, up to 100 tons loaded on barges. Over the next eighty years the canal network would grow to over four thousand miles in extent. This basic network was supplemented by innumerable feeder branches, usually consisting of horse-drawn wagons running on iron tramways. Richard Reynolds and later his son, William Reynolds, became sponsors of canal construction to serve the needs of both Coalbrookdale and its neighbouring enterprises.

The undulating landscape of Shropshire posed a number of special problems for the canal builders and taxed the ingenuity of another emerging class of specialists who would come to be known as civil engineers. Canals demanded a steady supply of water to maintain a constant depth and to feed the locks used to raise and lower barges over short distances. Canal bottoms had to be sealed with clay to prevent leakage into the mine workings and pumps had to be added to offset the effect of droughts and consumption by the locks. Canal beds have to be level, so tunnels and cuttings were needed to go through hills, and aqueducts, supported on stone pillars, were necessary to carry the canal across the deeper valleys. The aqueducts themselves, like the early barges, were often made of iron plates riveted together to form tubs. Coalbrookdale made many of these.

Valleys like the Severn River Gorge were far too wide and deep to be crossed by aqueducts and barges could not be lowered to the river by locks, for the slope was too long and steep for locks to be economical. The solution to this was the so-called “inclined plane”. This usually consisted of twin rail tracks on which barges could run, sitting on a trolley of some kind. Two barges could be connected by rope or chain via a giant pulley at the top of the plane. Full barges could be lowered while drawing up empty barges at the same time. Later on steam engines were used to drive the process. One of the forerunners of the railway, this system was pioneered and developed by William Reynolds and widely adopted by the canal companies.

By the latter half of the 18th century Coalbrookdale became a major producer not only of the iron pots, skillets, and fire grates with which they had begun the business, but of iron products of every kind (other than cannon, shot and war materials). The latter prohibition turned out to be fortunate, as it forced them to focus on rapidly growing markets in other technologies and protected them somewhat from the cyclical booms and busts of the military hardware business, although they were still exposed to the wide fluctuations in the price of iron.

More importantly Coalbrookdale, via the Quaker network, was the centre for entrepreneurship of all kinds. The Darbys and their extended family seem to have been associated with every important innovation in the use of iron for 150 years, either working closely with the leading inventors or developing the technology themselves. William Reynolds, for example, kept close ties with the developers of the steam engine, especially with Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Their double-acting machines with mechanical speed governors and rotary transmissions became the dominant design. Coalbrookdale cast and bored many of the cylinders and pump barrels for them and also used such engines to direct drive their furnace air blasts. Later, after the turn of the century, when Richard Trevithick finally succeeded in reducing the huge scale of the steam engine to a size where it could be used to drive locomotives and boats, it was to Coalbrookdale that he came to have many of the parts made. Thus, the Darbys were involved in the first use of steam power to drive both railway engines, riverboats and later, automobiles.

The Quaker entrepreneurs themselves seem to have been compulsive experimenters and tinkerers with their products and processes, always looking for ways to improve them. Although by the 1740s Coalbrookdale had become pre-eminent in the manufacture of cast iron, its product was still too brittle for use in forges, where the main market lay. Abraham II struggled with this problem for years, making careful experiments until at last he perfected a method using iron ores with low phosphorus content. The story is told of him, with the end of this process in sight, staying by the furnace for six days and nights without sleep until he got the quality of metal he desired. Collapsing with exhaustion, he was carried home in triumph to Rosehill House across the Coalbrook by his jubilant workmen.

Abraham III continued the close involvement of Coalbrookdale with the development of the steam engine. But his crowning achievement was the construction across the Severn River of the world’s first iron bridge. It was erected in three months in 1779 without accident. Using 400 tons of castings, it arched in a single, graceful span 100 feet wide at a height of 50 feet above the river. It captured the imagination of all who saw it, attracting industrial pilgrims from all over Europe to come and see it. It still does to this day. Back then, however, in the 18th century, it made real the possibility of constructing buildings of iron instead of wood and stone. Abraham III was awarded a gold medal from the Society of Arts for his efforts.

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale

And so it continued in Coalbrookdale for another 70 years. In the great flood of 1795, all the bridges across the Severn were severely damaged, with only the iron bridge surviving unharmed and intact. This confirmed the superiority of iron construction to other methods and boosted demand tremendously. For decades Coalbrookdale made iron bridges to be installed all over England and shipped to other countries as far away as Jamaica. By the turn of the century the first “fireproof” iron buildings began to appear with iron columns and iron beams. This development opened up a yet another fast-growing market for iron products.

The involvement of the Quakers with the early railroads kept Coalbrookdale in the thick of developments in that industry. It is astounding to read that when the railroads first emerged as a viable method of transportation, many people thought that they would be used only to replace the tramway feeders to the canals. After all, the mines, factories and warehouses were all situated on canals and could not be relocated easily. As a result, the first railroads were seen as highly speculative investments. But what seems speculative to an individual, may not seem at all risky to a network of entrepreneurs, who are already trading with each other. When Edward Pease, the Quaker engineer who surveyed the first railroad line in 1820, could find no one to invest in it, he turned to the Quaker network for financing. Pease was a close friend of George Stephenson, the developer of the “Rocket” locomotive, and knew that the scheme was technically sound. The Quaker network would make it commercially viable. Thus, the Stockton and Darlington railroad, the first in England, also became known as the Quaker Line. It was a huge financial success — the price of coal in Darlington fell by over half shortly after the line opened and customers flocked to use it. The early locomotives could pull as much as a barge-horse but at considerably higher speeds. In addition, a railroad was much cheaper to build and maintain than a canal. A railroad building boom began which, in its size and duration, soon eclipsed that of the canals.

The Quakers as a Community of Learning

As one walks the hills and valleys of the Severn Gorge around Coalbrookdale today, only the larger structures and parts of buildings and machines — the durable residues of industrial activity — remain. Industrial archaeology is no different from any other kind in that respect — the hard “outputs” endure, but the soft “inputs”, the social contexts and communities, in which all the activity took place, leave little trace. In the history of the Quakers and the story of Coalbrookdale, however, there is powerful evidence of the kind of social context which promoted such innovative activity. It is what one might call a community of learning.

In many respects, the dynamics of the Quaker network seem to have been very similar to the social dynamics of that other, more modern community of learning — Silicon Valley in California. For example, observers have remarked that in some ways that entire valley community appears to be a single organization, consisting of a vast professional and social network of individuals. The Quaker network with its extended connections seems to have functioned in the same way. The focus of individual commitment, the Silicon Valley counterpart of the Quaker Meeting, is the project. It acts as a flexible, temporary unit of organization which lasts long enough to “fuse” individuals into a team to get the job done. Many individuals sign-up for unspecified, but finite periods of time, to work with great intensity on such project teams. Once a project is over, there is a period of “fission” as the team breaks up and individuals move on to other projects, searching for the technological frontiers where the more immediate returns are to be had and the chances of success are greatest. For many individuals in Silicon Valley, the notion of allegiance to a formal organizational structure, to the company within which the project takes place, is anathema. Continuity is provided by being plugged into the network, tapping one’s relationships and building social capital. Survival depends upon keeping individual skills honed, staying flexible and finding the “hot” projects to work on. The overall result is a dynamic system which can flex and flow with the changing technology, just as Coalbrookdale did, beginning nearly 300 years ago.

This “fission-fusion” dynamic could not work in formal organization structures with well-defined hierarchies and defended territories. Silicon Valley is an open meritocracy where what counts is the situation and the skills required to address it. Individuals are important but the blending of their skills, the team, is pre-eminent. Like the Quakers, successful Silicon Valley firms strive to achieve a dynamic balance of individuality and community. This was true even in firms like Intel whose confrontational, “Spartan” culture could be contrasted with the much friendlier, “Athenian” culture of Hewlett-Packard (Note: this was before H-P spun of its medical and instrument business as Agilent in 1999. Today one might say that the old H-P is alive and well but living under an assumed name!) Both firms were assertively egalitarian. H-P appealed to family values, Intel to those of the team. On a research team, everyone was equal, from the project manager to the janitor. No job was considered menial. Everyone contributed their expertise toward achieving the final goal of a finished, successful project.

A major difference between the Quaker network and Silicon Valley is that Quakers lived a set of values that was radically different from the daily practices of the rest of society. Back in the 17th century the results of this would often be manifested in unexpected ways. Quakers would not tolerate “dissembling” behaviour of any kind. For them acting and the law were both suspect professions, because both actors and lawyers were required to behave unauthentically; to project views that they might not truly hold and emotions that they might not really feel. It seems that the Quakers had the surprisingly modern view, reinforced today by TV dramas and court room behaviour, that the playhouse and the courthouse were one! Thus, the first Quaker shopkeepers felt it was dishonest to bargain over prices, to put a false price on goods, or to charge two customers a different price for the same goods. This policy was greeted with scorn and derision by their competitors when it was first introduced: everyone knew that you had to bargain over prices. But the consumers beat a pathway to the Quakers’ stores, and their competitors soon had to follow suit. In this way the Quakers may have invented the concept of the price tag and the market price. It is interesting to note, however, that while these innovations were sustained by market forces, they were initiated by ethical considerations.

One can see too in the Quaker business Meetings, the direct expression of their core values. With no distinction between religion and business, the requirements of the Meetings for honesty, plain dealing and trading within one’s capital became the assurance to customers and investors (today we would call them stakeholders) of the enterprise’s trustworthiness. In 18th century England there was nothing else to rely on. Indeed, the dependence of outsiders at that time upon this process probably constitutes the origins of our modern system of corporate governance in the Western world. In many, if not most companies today, however, the values behind the process seem to have been lost. The notion today that a Board of Directors might grill managers about whether their core values were embodied in their business practices and then attest to it to outsiders seems utopian if not outright hilarious. It seems that somehow, we have retained the form but lost the substance. This brief exploration of the founding belief system helps one realize how much has been lost.

In their educational practices, in the turning out of experienced, ethical young people, the Quakers seem to have both anticipated and realized, at least 200 years before their formulation, the educational goals of the leading Western business schools. Just as in the case of our corporate governance system, many of our contemporary business schools seem to have retained the form but lost the substance. They teach what George Fox would have dismissed as “head knowledge” — the techniques necessary to function in business — but fail to inculcate the contextual values and philosophies that make their application effective over the long haul.

Quaker Accomplishments

During the English Industrial Revolution the astonishing success of the Coalbrookdale enterprise was repeated over and over again in other industries and other places. From their humble beginnings as traders, the Quaker families became the leading entrepreneurs in cotton, wool (Barclay, Gurney), coal, brass (Champion), brewing (Burton, Truman), iron (Darby, Lloyds), steel and machinery (Huntsman, Ransome), food (Cadbury, Fry, Huntley and Palmer, Rowntree), china (Cookeworthy), chemicals (Allen and Hanbury, Crosfield, Reckitt) and shoes (Clarks). Through what they called their “Atlantic Community”, the Quakers became active traders between England and America — the Boston Tea Party was “held” on a pair of Quaker ships — and played a significant part in the enterprises of the United States. In the steel industry, for example, both Bethlehem Steel and Lukens Steel were founded by Quakers. Joseph Wharton, after making his fortune in steel, went on to endower the business school at the University of Pennsylvania. Several major innovations emerged from cross-industry fertilization as products and processes were transferred across industries via the Quaker network. For example, the bleaching and dyeing processes in the textile industries turned out to be the forerunners of the soap and chemical industries, and we have already seen how coke came to be used in the manufacture of iron.

From the primary industries the Friends moved into manufacturing and tertiary industries such as banking where, in those unregulated times, their reputation for honesty and integrity gave them a natural competitive edge! Robert Barclay’s descendants made a fortune in the wool trade before giving their name to Barclays Bank (which still has Quaker families represented on its board). Lloyds, another of Britain’s major commercial banks, also began its life as a Quaker enterprise, as did dozens of the country’s financial institutions. The Quakers were obsessive record keepers and their precise accounts give us the most accurate pictures available of early businesses. It is thus not entirely surprising to know that Price Waterhouse & Co., the accountants, started as a Quaker business, as did the advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson.

The Quakers were the first to develop many of the management practices used today. The use of domestic travellers and sales agents first became common in the soap industry. Sick funds, pension schemes and company outings and social activities were all developed and used in the 19th century in several Quaker enterprises. Quakers such as the Cadburys of Bourneville and the Rowntrees of York were social activists. They formed social and religious charitable trusts, and built libraries and schools, hospitals for the sick, and model living communities for their workers. All of this was done long before governments became involved in such activities in the form of the welfare state. The Quakers’ egalitarianism and universalism ensured that they were the first religious group to denounce slavery (at Germantown in Pennsylvania in 1688) and require their members to free their slaves. Through Quakers like John Howard and Elizabeth Fry they were untiring in their activities to reform prisons, asylums and institutions of all kinds.

Everywhere the Quakers were associated with invention and discovery. John Dalton, the discoverer of the atom and Joseph Lister, the surgeon who researched and pioneered the use of antiseptics were both Quakers. The Quaker emphasis on practice and experiment, coupled with the individual’s search for Truth, fitted perfectly with the new scientific temper of the times. Many had scientific hobbies in addition to their regular activities. Their representation as Fellows in the British Royal Societies has been over forty times what one would have expected from their presence in the general population.

The Decline of the Quakers

Toward the end of his life John Wesley (1703–1791) the leader of the religious revival that became known as Methodism wrote, “I (do) not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality. And these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

It is not surprising then that, over time, the vitality of the Quaker movement began to wane under the twin influences of accumulated tradition and their phenomenal material success. During the first fifty years of their existence, a time when they actively repudiated religious tradition as a guide to behaviour, the Quakers were hugely productive writers, producing more writings per capita than any other denomination. By 1700 their own traditions were starting to become decisive, and the Meetings ensured that members knew their history. The emigration of so many Quakers to America seems to have aggravated the problem. The physical contiguity of the Meetings in England allowed an oral and experiential tradition, with no compelling reason to write down what everybody knew. In America, when faced with unusual situations, Quakers could no longer consult this collective memory — they would need to refer to a book of policies. Thus, the Quakers began to lose their oral, experiential tradition. Policies, once written down, are subject to interpretation, and it is no coincidence that in the 18th and 19th Centuries the Quakers, both in England and America, were wracked and split by a number of doctrinal and procedural disputes.

The Quaker enterprises grew into huge organizations and the third and fourth generations of many of the families had problems financing, let alone managing the complex, large scale systems that they and their forebears had created. Many of the businesses either went public or were bought by public companies. As such, Quaker businesses formed the core operations of such giant firms as British Steel and Unilever. In addition, the accumulation of wealth and possessions placed an increasing strain on the Quakers’ ability to live “plain”. Often the richer members of the sect moved south to London, from the fringes of society to the heart of the establishment. Soon many of them were identified as “gay” Friends, nominal Quakers, whose lifestyle and dress no longer fully reflected the original values. In time, many of them married “out” and joined the Church of England and the Conservative Party, institutions whose values and traditions sanctioned the ownership (but perhaps not the accumulation) of possessions. Abraham Darby IV was one of the converts to Anglicanism.

The Quakers’ contribution and power peaked in the middle of the 19th Century and after that their influence began to dwindle. They were never very numerous: in 1680 there were about 60,000 Quakers in England, approximately 1% of the population. But by 1840 that number had fallen to only 16,000. By 1995, with the notable exception of Sir Adrian Cadbury of Cadbury-Schweppes, there were few Quakers playing prominent roles in English business.

Abraham Darby IV (1804–1878)

A Burst of Sunshine

By the time my train entered the outskirts of London on its way back to Euston station it was a gloomy day with a driving rain and low, scudding clouds. The factories, warehouses and container yards looked even more depressing in the rain. But personally, I felt brighter, enlightened, even renewed. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Quakers were a burst of sunshine on a dull, English landscape. True Children of Light, they emerged from the chaos of the Civil War, to show us that for organizational renewal it is essential that every individual approach the world naively — as directly and freshly as possible. It did not matter whether it was the world of the Spirit or the world of physical phenomena; they realized that the best learning takes place when there are few preconceptions and fast feedback between action and result. They understood that a creative religious faith cannot be based on the uncritical acceptance of dogmatic authority or holy text. It is not a blind belief in the existence of particular persons or the occurrence of miraculous events in the distant past that may be repeated in the distant future. Rather, they thought faith to be a belief in the possibility of such experiences in the present, experiences that should be open to everyone.

They recognized too that such experiences could take place only through open dialogue in an assertively egalitarian community of inquiry, a community that acknowledged no authority other than its own: generated from within and consistent with its core values. It was a process of discovery of the general will, the “will of all”. This did not require tradeoffs and compromise. It demanded integration — an act of creation on the part of every individual. It could not happen in a hierarchical organization, because there people could only renegotiate the terms of their inequity. It could only happen in a community of equals, where leadership was not fixed, but moved according to circumstance and was always open to criticism.

On my way back, my visit to Coalbrookdale seemed to trigger a host of cultural memories, as the names of the heroes of the revolution echoed in my mind. I suddenly remembered, as a child, seeing in an old encyclopaedia an illustration of a man in 18th century dress seated in a kitchen with his head resting on his arm, which is draped over the back of the chair. From the boiling kettle on the stove issue clouds of steam which contain visions of mines and railways, factories and steamships. It was entitled “James Watt inventing the steam engine”.

James Watt Inventing the Steam Engine

I had always suspected that it was romantic bunkum. But now I understood that worse than that, it reflected a serious cultural inability in much of the English-speaking world to understand the dynamics of invention. For one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution has been the popular belief that the great inventions were largely the result of the efforts of great inventors — lone individuals who seem to operate in a social and physical vacuum while they think great thoughts. These giant figures are usually presented without background, without any discussion of the social context, the communities of inquiry, in which they functioned or what they actually did. The Quaker experience suggests, however, that invention does not come from a rational process of contemplation and reflection conducted by lone individuals. It comes from action and interaction in a community of self-directed, thoughtful individuals who reflect on their experience. It is a community that rejects the status quo and comprises individuals who accept little on authority, other than what they have seen and experienced for themselves. Personal creativity cannot be separated from the organizational context. The creative individual and the creative community are in a figure-ground relationship: they are mutually dependent, each upon the other.


To renew an organization is to restore or revitalize it in some way. Renewal is concerned with the revival in mature organizations of the values, feelings, excitement and emotional commitment often experienced only in the beginning of an organization’s life. Renewal is about the restoration of something important, that has been either lost of forgotten as an organization has grown and prospered. At the beginning of the organization’s life there was some shared experience that was authentic and meaningful. Over time this original feeling of authenticity, of meaning has either faded or been lost. Renewal involves going back to the founding values to reconnect the past to the present; to rediscover the old in the new. It will be well for us to remember this as we head toward the Brave New World of “digital transformation”. The financial crash of 2008, the recession that followed it and the unintended consequences of the Information Communication Technology Revolution remind us how little we understand about the shape of emerging information technology and the effect it will have on our societies. No one has ever been there before. There are no roads and thus there are no maps. The territory into which we are journeying is more like an uncharted ocean or a swamp.

We may not have maps, but we do have compasses. For it seems that the organizations and technologies which will survive in the new world are those which allow us to rekindle and sustain a sense of commitment and purpose in daily activities. Countering the inexorable growth of large-scale hierarchical organizations, the technology must allow us to live in ways which recapture the core values and open dialogue of the egalitarian community as exemplified in the story of the Quakers. Information is not enough, successful organizations have to help people integrate that information in narratives. Narratives allow us to create our identities, centres of gravity that help us to make meaning — to remember who we are and where we have been. Our notions then, of organizational renewal are intimately connected with our memories, both collective and personal. Our sense of continuity amid change can come only from the past — we have to look backward in order to go forward. This is particularly true of the people who once worked for organizations like Wang. When everything else is gone, they will still remember the visions, values and social contexts that once inspired the commitment of thousands to work together. Wherever they are, these contexts may be recreated and knowledge of them passed on to the next generation. One of Wang’s alumni, John Chambers, went on to use his experience to become CEO of Cisco Systems, the hugely successful supplier of internet infrastructure. He is regarded as one of America’s leading managers of his era.

Thus “the company”, like the spirit of the Quakers, the founders of the Industrial Revolution, remains as a pattern of interaction in an immense, weakly-connected network, vast beyond our comprehension. But, through this network, the patterns have the potential to be reincarnated in new activities at any time.

Perhaps this is the only sense in which any human organization survives.




Speaker, Writer and Educator on Management. Hope to change the world with my book The New Ecology of Leadership (Columbia University Press, April 2012)

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David Hurst

David Hurst

Speaker, Writer and Educator on Management. Hope to change the world with my book The New Ecology of Leadership (Columbia University Press, April 2012)

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