As we proceed through the 21st century, major changes in the social parameters of the world motivate some new HP-style what-if thinking about how to do electronics. The trend begun by HP and Tek can be extended by including the form of company organization.
By comparison, the dominant 20th century organization of electronics enterprise was that of the hierarchical model. This form of organization concentrates decision making and innovation at the top of the hierarchy. They are delegated to varying extents to lower levels, and in the purely hierarchical scheme of command and control, all decision making emanates from the top level. At successively lower levels, less innovation and decision making is required, as job functions become well defined. At low levels, assembly workers function as essentially human machines, performing highly defined and repetitive tasks: Put these parts in these holes of the circuit-board, solder, then repeat.
The HP and Tek way
The founders of HP and Tektronix — Bill Hewlett and David Packard of HP or Howard Vollum and Jack Murdock of Tek — had the foresight to see that the earlier business model was imperfect; it was too much a product of the machine-mindedness of the 19th century. It reduced workers to the status of a deterministic machine, and as such, they were interchangeable, replaceable, and had no creative value. Their potential to innovate and make decisions was consequently lost to the company.
The HP and Tek founders valued people and what they could contribute; thereby replacing the view of workers as machines with one that was more like what they themselves were: innovators. It need not be recounted in detail here how well this has worked out in practice over the years that the founders ran these respective companies.
The HP and Tektronix company traditions were essentially indistinguishable; all the major features of the HP way were also found in Tek culture, including policies such as profit-sharing and stock options for employees. Employees were thereby given reasons to view themselves as having a stake in the enterprise along with the founders. In addition, employees were treated as though they were family members by the founders, and this high regard for the worth of others as persons resulted in high morale.
In effect, a trend was begun in their relationship to workers by these company founders, in distributing some of their decision making to the entire workforce of the company. I remember a story from Tektronix of how a janitor in Building 50, the technical center of Tek, proposed to an engineer working after-hours an improvement in the front-panel organization of a Tek curve tracer that was setting in the hallway. There were no arbitrary limitations on who was allowed to do the innovating. As a consequence, both HP and Tek were hotbeds of creativity. Command and control became more distributed than in a pure hierarchy, and the performance of company functions did not rest so heavily on a few innovators at the top.
In the next part of this series, we will continue this look at the hierarchy. We'll see what worked and what didn't, and we'll see what work was eventually farmed out and why.