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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Corporate Culture: A Blessing and a Curse : COMPANY MAN The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life by Anthony Sampson ; Times Books; $27.50, 320 pages

November 22, 1995|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Novelists and historians alike have mostly overlooked the fact that the greater part of our waking lives is spent at work. But as Anthony Sampson reminds us in "Company Man," the passions and politics of the office are no less momentous or tumultuous than wars among nations or the agonies of an unhappy family.

"Company Man" is Sampson's ambitious study of life in the corporate world, a highly readable tale that harks all the way back to the British East India Company and runs up to MicroSoft. The notion of "corporate culture" is nothing new, Sampson shows us, and the very idea of the corporation--an entity that is something greater than the sum of its human parts--is both the blessing and the curse of Western civilization.

The sweep of Sampson's book allows him to make some surprising and illuminating linkages. We may think of MicroSoft's Bill Gates as a computer nerd who stumbled into the big bucks, but Sampson points out that Gates has been deservedly compared to Henry Ford, who was responsible for "the most thorough subjugation of men to machines."

"Gates, it is said, chose Seattle [for the headquarters of MicroSoft] not so much because it was his home town," Sampson points out, "as because the constant rain encouraged hard work."

Sampson is a British author and journalist specializing in business coverage, and his publisher categorizes "Company Man" as a business book. But he has aspired to--and achieved--something more, and the reader whose eyes glaze over at the thought of a monograph on the corporation ought not to be deterred from picking up Sampson's book.

Indeed, Sampson does for the corporation what Paul Fussell did for World War II in his masterful "Wartime"--that is, he shows us how the corporation actually works (or doesn't work) in real life, how it affects the lives and destinies of flesh-and-blood human beings who work in its offices, how it functions in our world as an institution no less crucial than church or government or the media.

Sampson debunks many of the myths that have attached themselves to the corporation. The advent of personal computers, which were touted as tools of liberation from the drudgery of office work, soon became instruments of oppression in the hands of corporations that only grew more "awesome and mysterious" as their reach became multinational and then global.

"[Computers] could provide bosses with mechanical all-seeing eyes," he writes. "And the spread of computers was speeding up the most ruthless purge of company men since the Depression of the '30s."

Indeed, it is the scourging of "middle managers" in the '80s and '90s that is the real theme of "Company Man." The old bargain of the company man--loyalty, conformity and hard work in exchange for job security--was repudiated in the heat of competition, and executives who dedicated their careers to a single employer were rewarded with pink slips.

IBM, for example, was once a "paragon of paternalism" that rewarded the loyalty of its employees with little kindnesses--Christmas presents for the kids, flowers when a loved one passed away. But Sampson points out the corporate culture encouraged a dangerous complacency. And so, when the layoffs began, IBM's employees found themselves unable to compete for jobs in much the same way (and for the same reasons) that IBM itself was outmatched by its ruthless competitors in the computer industry.

"They live in an unreal world," said one employer who was unhappy with the work habits of former IBM employees. "Now when I advertise for jobs, I'm tempted to say 'IBM-ers need not apply.' "

Sampson's book has been deservedly compared to William Whyte's "The Organization Man," a landmark study of conformity in corporate life. Like Whyte's influential book, "Company Man" is a business book with a big heart and a sharp moral sensibility, and Sampson insists on reminding us of the enormous human cost of success and failure in the corporate world.

Indeed, even as he dutifully surveys the innovations of business management in the '90s, Sampson cannot seem to shake the conviction that he is beholding something evil, or at least something capable of evil.

When Sampson invokes the words of C.S. Lewis--"My symbol for hell is something like . . . the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern"--I wonder if he is not also signaling his own nagging moral doubts about the very subject that he has chronicled with such authority.

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