Editor’s note: William Dunk of William Dunk Partners is an international business consultant who has been based in Chapel Hill since 1996. He writes frequently about business and cultural issues in his column “The Global Province.” He also compiles a widely read and quoted review of corporate annual reports. WRAL Local Tech Wire will publish Dunk’s 2007 reviews “Beast in the Jungle” beginning on Labor Day.

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
– Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!”

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In 1986, one of our colleagues gave a speech analyzing what businessmen could learn from The Hunt for the Red October. For him the novel offered lessons aplenty that could guide the wayfarer through the last quarter of the 20th century.

The heroes were Soviet submarine captain Marko Aleksandrovich Ramius and CIA analyst Jack (John Patrick) Ryan. That was key.

It was they who conspired to secure a successful outcome that would have eluded any of their masters. No surprise. It is not admirals, or generals, or directors of intelligence who really struggle through wars or really win the peace. It’s captains—and sometimes a colonel. It’s a middle manager somewhere who always gets the job done. He or she can put one foot in front of another.

Little did we know that in the 20 years that followed corporate chieftains would crush the backbones of their organizations. Since ’86, chief executives have parodied the Japanese concept of ‘lean management’: they have sent their manufacturing to Asia and absolutely gutted their ranks of experienced middle managers, largely forcing their brightest and best into early retirement or into unemployment.

Today, when you can get past unwieldy interactive phone systems and low level account people who do not understand the products or systems of the companies for which they work, you largely reach middle managers who just hope the problem will go away so that they can get to the other 10 backed-up phone calls that await them.

Our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2006-2007 is about to be published. To our shock, it will reveal that the U.S. has suddenly dropped from number one to number six in the competitiveness rankings of countries around the globe. The authors of a Davos report about our fall from grace would say that America has been torpedoed by national fiscal mismanagement. We would say that a huge drop in quality occasioned by offshore product design and manufacturing, coupled with onshore service run by an inexperienced middle management, have bought us unending grief. We no longer have to worry about Red Octobers and other Soviet threats: we have seen the new enemy and it may be us.

The Loss of Vital Skills

Peter Kindlmann, professor emeritus at Yale, recently wrote us about the kind of attrition of skills that takes place in this confused economic setting. A teacher of engineering design, he has long and productively concerned himself with the broad issues involved in educating us for the tasks in life with which we must wrestle:

“My take, really describing the same thing from a more technical point of view, rather than a management emphasis, is that more complex technology has steadily de-skilled and dis-enfranchised its users.

“Most of us are now lease-holders vis-a-vis most everything we own, zombies beholden to the originators of our technological circumstances. Helplessness has always been a powerful shaper of personality, and the unwitting accommodation to this new form of helplessness may be contributing to hedonism, to a loss of a sense of community responsibility, and to profligate spending. Despite all that spending and activity, we really “own” very little.

“All this certainly relates to how skills differentiate in the workplace, where issues of ownership are closely tied to satisfaction and motivation. And it has long been sadly true that what we do for work seldom takes a form from which we can bequeath any values to our children.

“Richard Sennett made much of this in his 1998 book, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Some will claim that he rails against inevitabilities, others will oppose him as a Marxist sociologist. But I always felt, since reading his book the year it came out, when I was laid up with a badly herniated disk, that there was much to what he said.”

Stated yet another way, we have become deskilled and helpless.

Would it be fair to say that this has put us at the mercy of just about everyone? And does it account for the fact that, oft as not, many of us know more about a product or service we are buying than the knowledge worker selling it to us, be it a doctor who has only read a third of the literature on a new drug he is prescribing or the MIS manager in almost every corporation who controls an interactive phone system that sends frustrated customers to other suppliers?

A result of this loss of a can-do middle management is pervasive dysfunctionality throughout large parts of our population. We do not know to what extent this sense of helplessness has fueled the rising epidemic of depression throughout society.

That One Person

Even today, in an era of eviscerated middle management, the trick in working with other organizations is to find that one hidden person in another company who can get the job done. Years ago we discovered the trick with the English: in a British company you had long chats with the men about all manner of interesting thing. But then you actually had to find a woman who really could do the business today.

Most recently we bought a new notebook computer from a large company, and the order got fouled up beyond belief. Nobody in the notebook division could straighten things out, but we found a chap with some power in the Rocky Mountains who could shake the company’s tree. It always comes down to a middle manager who has a conscience, some humor, patience, a soft-spoken manner, and unbelievable persistence.

Such people, talented middle managers, are more valuable than ever in the age of the virtual company. Charles Handy, the very humanistic English business thinker, has remarked that some of the more advanced companies now only have 20% of their employees on their payrolls: the rest of their workers are outside the company gates, working for themselves or for outsourcing companies. With half their workers part of an organization on the other side of the globe, companies require extraordinarily adroit middle managers who can successfully work with a huge number of people not beholden to them. They have to be able to burrow into unrelated organizations and find that one person who can make things happen.