Management and the Control of Research and Development

Control. .. depends upon information and activities involving information: information processing, programming, decision, and communication.

— James Beniger, The Control Revolution, 1986

Since at least the Middle Ages, Western society’s fascination with sophisti­cated technology has demanded organizational solutions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, railroads in Europe and the United States required professional managers to run them.1 As the scale of operations increased, ex­ecutives developed “systematic management’’ to coordinate and control their midlevel personnel.2 At the beginning of the twentieth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor, publishing his major work in 1911, devised a means — by way of “scientific management’’ — of extending managerial influence to the fac­tory floors of increasingly large industrial enterprises.3 In both systematic and scientific management, information provided the levers that managers used to control their subordinates. Frequently working with engineers, managers gathered information from lower-level staff and then used that knowledge to reorganize work processes and control employees.4

Scientists and engineers eventually posed far more difficult challenges to managers. Universities trained these ‘‘knowledge workers,’’ as management consultant Peter Drucker referred to them in the late 1940s, to be dedicated to their careers and their specialties, not to their employers. They generated new ideas in an undefined process that no one could routinize, thus ruling out scientific management techniques. Their specialized knowledge placed them

beyond the competence of most managers. Even if technical personnel wanted to share their knowledge with managers (which they typically did not), they could not clearly describe their creative process. Only after the fact, it seemed, could managers control the products or the technologists who created them. Even so, managers seldom perceived research and development (R&D) man­agement as a critical issue.5 Drucker suggested a solution he called manage­ment by objectives. According to this approach, managers and professionals jointly negotiated the objectives for the agency or firm on the one hand and for the individuals on the other, each worker agreeing to the terms. Individu­als and agencies or firms would harmonize their respective goals.6

The management-by-objectives strategy worked reasonably well for man­agers overseeing individual knowledge workers, but it did little to coordi­nate the efforts of scientists and engineers on large projects, on which experts organized (or disagreed) along disciplinary lines and could form only tempo­rary committees for the exchange of information. Much like with the unique and short-lived Manhattan Project, the experience of complicated programs such as ballistic missiles demonstrated that traditional organizational schemes would not suffice. Scientists and engineers found that they needed some indi­viduals to coordinate the information flowing among working groups. These ‘‘systems engineers’’ created and maintained documents that reflected the current design, and they coordinated design changes with all those involved in the program. Perceptive managers and military officers realized that central design coordination allowed them to gain control of both the creative process and its lively if unruly knowledge workers.

This study examines how scientists and engineers created a process to coordinate large-scale technology development-systems management—and how managers and military officers modified and gained control of it. The story owes a debt to the insights of Max Weber, who noted long ago that modern organizations form standardized rules and procedures that create and sustain bureaucracies.7 Scholars since then have elaborated upon the develop­ment of these procedures as a process of ‘‘knowledge codification,’’ one that can be formally internal to individuals or informally contained in the com­munications between or among individuals.8 For organizations to learn, to adapt, and to sustain adaptations, they must have processes that are both flex­ible and durable. Recent scholarship on these so-called learning organizations has pursued and elaborated on this view, providing a perspective congenial to a historical analysis of management. By means of communication, feedback, and codification, organizations can be said to learn and retain knowledge.9

Systems management first developed in the air defense and ballistic missile programs of the 1950s, across many aerospace organizations. These programs, like any other large-scale technologies, came into being as a result of nego­tiations among various organizations, classes, and interest groups.10 Scientists typically created the core ideas behind new systems or the critical elements that made them possible or useful. Engineers developed the subsystems and integrated them into a complex vehicle. Military officers promoted these com­plex vehicles as a means of besting their Cold War foes. Managers controlled the resources required to produce the new systems. Systems management was embraced because it assigned each of these groups a standard role in the tech­nology development process. Systems management became the core process of aerospace R&D institutions, modeled largely on management techniques developed on army and air force ballistic missile programs. Methods devel­oped for air defense systems paralleled those for ballistic missiles, but in the bureaucratic battles of the early 1960s, ballistic missile officers and their meth­ods triumphed, forming the basis for the air force’s procurement regulations.11

This book thus traces a path through the literature on the history and poli­tics of aerospace development and weapons procurement.12 Instead of pro­viding another case study of a particular project or organization, it pieces together a story from elements that include military and civilian organizations in the United States and Europe. This approach has the distinct advantage of providing cross-organizational and cross-cultural perspectives on the sub­ject, as well as showing the dynamics of the transfer of management methods. NASA and the European programs encountered the same kinds of technical and social issues that the air force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had previously come upon, and ultimately they looked outside of their orga­nizations to help resolve the problems. NASA looked to the air force (and to a lesser degree to JPL), and a few years later the Europeans gleaned their methods from NASA. The Apollo program became a highly visible icon of American managerial skill — the symbol of the difference between American technical prowess and European technical retardation in the 1960s and early 1970s.

European frustration reached its peak in 1969, when NASA put men on the Moon while the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) endured yet another failure of its launcher. ELDO only haphazardly adopted American management methods, and the lack of authority meant that those that ELDO did adopt could not be consistently implemented. The failures of ELDO ultimately proved to be the spur for the Europeans to over­come their historic hostilities and create a highly successful integrated space organization, the European Space Agency. This new agency and its predeces­sor, the European Space Research Organisation, borrowed extensively from NASA and its contractors. NASA’s management methods, when adapted to the European environment, became key ingredients in Europe’s subsequent successful space program. The air force, the army’s (and later NASA’s) JPL, NASA’s manned space programs, and the European integrated space pro­grams all learned that spending more to ensure success was less expensive than failure.

The modern aerospace industry is paradoxical. It is both innovative, as its various air and space products attest, and bureaucratic, as evidenced by the hundreds of engineers assigned to each project and the overpriced compo­nents used. How can these two characteristics coexist? The answer lies in the nature of aerospace products, which must be extraordinarily dependable and robust, and in the processes that the industry uses to ensure extraordinary dependability. Spacecraft that fail as they approach Mars cannot be repaired. Hundreds can lose their lives if an aircraft crashes. The media’s dramatization of aerospace failures is itself an indication that these failures are not the norm. In a hotly contested Cold War race for technical superiority, the extreme envi­ronment of space exacted its toll in numerous failures of extremely expensive systems. Those funding the race demanded results. In response, development organizations created what few expected and even fewer wanted—a bureau­cracy for innovation. To begin to understand this apparent contradiction in terms, we must first understand the exacting nature of space technologies and the concerns of those who create them.


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