100 years ago Today!

A century ago today, a businessman made a series of business decisions that were instrumental in launching the middle class in America. His name was Henry Ford, and together with his Treasurer James Couzens, they chose to double the income of the workers in their factories to 5 dollars a day (if they also complied to a code of conduct), limit the work week to 5 – eight hour days, and follow up with a lot of other positive changes for the average worker at their plants. The results were almost immediate, doubling their annual revenue in 3 years, eliminating the terrible turnover within the plants, catalyzing interest in top candidates wanting to work for Ford and eventually making a car and that was affordable for the average American, helping to set up the building of the middle class in America. That famous story demonstrates the power that business people can have by making choices that benefit all parts of their organizations, including themselves. This decision was not made in a vacuum, however. Both Henry Ford (Protestant) and James Couzens (Catholic) were influenced by the Christian thinkers of the day calling for more equitable business practices. James Couzens, indicated part of the motivation of his decisions (that he had to fight for at the Board level to get approved), when he commented on them that day: “It is our belief that social justice begins at home. We want those who have helped us produce this great institution and are helping us maintain it to share our prosperity. We want them to have present profits and future prospects…Believing as we do, that a division of our earnings between capital and labor is unequal, we have sought a plan of relief suitable to our business.” Henry Ford echoed the same sentiment in his comments: “This was entirely a volunteer act… it was to our way of thinking an act of social justice, and in the last analysis, we did it for our own satisfaction of mind. There is a pleasure in feeling that you have made others happy – that you have lessened to some degree the burdens of your fellowmen – that you have provided a margin out of which may be had pleasure and savings.” These leaders believed that short term corrections in wages, lifestyle and health of their employee’s would not only benefit the workers, but also add to their bottom line profits in motivation, effectiveness, and morale.

Some of the business community did not like this decision at all. One of the writers at the Wall Street journal commented that:” this is the misapplication of Biblical and spiritual principles into a field that they do not belong.” Over the following century, the ongoing relevance of Biblical writings and their application has ebbed and flowed at different moments in the business and economic theory, through depressions and expansions alike. Kaleidoscope forward to today. For a number of reasons, we are fast approaching the inequality ratios that were prevalent in the years before 1914, before these changes began to be widely practiced. The middle class is threatened in the United States, and upward mobility is easier in many European economies than in the United States. Two wage earners in households, two jobs per person, home equity loans and debt have bolstered up many trying to maintain a lifestyle where savings are non-existent and making ends meet is a daily stress.

We believe there are again business decisions and practices that can help alleviate this problem in the world as we face it today. Rather than depending only on Christian and ethical business leaders to voluntarily make the kind of decisions that these business leaders made a century ago, we look to another place in the N.T. writings and cutting edge business practice for answers and direction. Today, because of the power of networked, interconnected, global resourced businesses, the need for organizations strategies, structures, and systems requires in involvement of many people rather than just one individual to help organizations survive and thrive. Organic structures for organization, using the human body as a model in many cases are the metaphor to understand complex adaptive organizations. The body of Christ as an organizational structure birthed when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh in Acts 2 has never been more relevant. We believe that one of the great opportunities today is the understanding of what happens when people organize as collectives in all its forms, mirroring many of the principles and structures of various systems in the human body. We will be posting many specific business practices and their applications for your comment, and welcome any of your comments. We also believe that this cutting edge business practice has the possibility of reflecting the spirit of what Henry Ford and James Couzens were trying to do when they made their decisions – not the redistribution of wealth but the fair and appropriate distribution of wealth in the first place. We would invite people from business, Christian or not, who believe business has many of the answers to the addressing of inequality, unemployment, and thriving businesses in the 21st century to add their comments and follow this blog with us, as we learn together as a collective.

Categories: Culture, Strategy, Structure

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