FORREST CHRISTIAN ON WILFRED BROWN
Wilfred Brown (1908-1985) is the most important twentieth century CEO whom you've never heard of. As Chairman and Managing Director of Glacier Metal Company from 1939 to its sale in 1965, Brown oversaw several experimental efforts in empowerment, workplace democracy, compensation, pricing and organizational design that culminated in the almost two-decade-long efforts (1948-1965) led by Dr. Elliott Jaques. This unique collaboration between a CEO and a researcher — which Peter Drucker called "the most extensive study of actual worker behavior in large-scale industry" — resulted in one of the only true comprehensive systems of management and led to groundbreaking discoveries and management methods that challenged almost every area of management and organizational design.
Brown was always intensely interested in issues of societal institutions and used his tenure to experiment. He wanted to answer questions that almost no one else running a company thought important: Why should some people earn more than others? How can decisions be made better? How can a need for management authority exist in a democratic society? How can each person in the company do the most he can? His insight was in seeing these things as intertwined and connected, and therefore needing the same rigorous approach and definitions that the company's engineers used in metallurgy. His insistence on experimentation meant that methods were constantly being challenged and refined, sometimes thrown out completely as new data showed them to be counter-productive.
To Brown, the current state of organizational and management science was abysmal and didn’t deserve the name. It lacked clarity in basic definitions, leading people to use the same terms to mean many different things. He believed that management could not grow until it developed a more rigorously consistent theoretical foundation, at the same time demanding that the answers work inside the tumultuous environment of a unionized multi-site company in Britain during a time of national labor unrest. Felt-fair pay, policy-making works councils, time-span of discretion and many other elements of the Glacier Method and Stratified Systems Theory were all working management processes at the company.
Brown was concerned and wanted to engage the wider world with what was happening at Glacier, even while still in management and later in the House of Lords. He spoke extensively, authored or coauthored eight books — including two with Jaques — and published in business journals like Harvard Business Review.
While he is remembered for his contributions to management theory and for providing the "laboratory" for the work of Elliott Jaques and his colleagues, one must recognize that Brown was a real chief executive who had to answer to the board for the company's results and manage the daily problems of a real corporation. The management methods and ideas he wrote about were in successful practice at Glacier, not some "pie in the sky" academic theory. He understood the difference between a management theory and the inherent messiness of a manager's job.
An longtime advocate of practical learning for managers, Brown started the Glacier Institute of Management (GIM) in 1961 to train Glacier employees. GIM also trained others in the management systems developed at the company, introducing over 400 firms to the compensation ideas by 1965. The institute continued under the company’s new ownership until it was finally phased out in the late 1980s. Brown also worked with the wider sphere of professional education for working managers, serving as the first Chairman of Acton Technical College's Governing Body, Chairman of Brunel University from 1949 to 1965, and Pro-Chancellor of Brunel from 1965 to 1980, in addition to creating the Glacier Institute of Management. Although he never attended university, Brown received honorary degrees from Brunel University (DTech, 1966), Southern Illinois University (Doctor of Laws, 1967) and Cranfield University (DSc, 1972).
He was awarded the MBE in 1944 and in 1964 was made a life peer as Baron Brown of Machrihanish, in the County of Argylshire. He served as the United Kingdom's Minister of State at the Board of Trade from 1965 to 1970.
Richard D.B. Brown
Personal Memories about Wilfred Brown
2005 World Conference - 100k
On a Great Partnership: Wilfred Brown and Elliott Jacques
Video Interviews: Ralph Rowbottom
Wilfred Brown's Reflections on Employment Hierarchies in the Civil Service
Video Interviews Richard D.B. Brown
Glimpses Into Wilfred Brown's Life
Video Interviews: Richard D.B. Brown
Organization: Glacier Institute of Management
Originally published: 1962 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, London, UK
ISBN 0 435 85101 2
Originally published: 1971 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, London, UK
ISBN 0 435 85103 9
Originally published: 1960 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, London, UK
ISBN 0 435 85100 4