It’s often said that America is so young; that our history is without great depth.  When you visit a hilltop town in Italy, you might be walking beneath an archway that was constructed after the Saracens (what they used to call Arabs) finished their despoiling of the countryside, sometime in the 1200’s. In contrast, I can stroll around our neighborhood in uptown Kingston, NY, where we’ve got the largest density of pre-revolutionary war stone houses in the country- mostly built in the 1700’s, or 500 years after the Caliphs and Emirs were evicted from the land of le dolce vita.

Despite the relative newness of our country, the abandoned factories and railroad sidings that litter the Northeast are vestiges of a rich time in history – a time where more life-altering technological advances were made in the span of 100 years that were made in the previous 500. The legacy of Thomas Edison and Nicolas Tesla was not only factories where work could continue through the night with electric light, but where directly-motorized machinery could operate efficiently enough to allow precision manufacturing.

After installing electric lights and motors, manufacturers were able to produce new consumer goods, like the phonograph, movies, and electrical appliances. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was efficiency revolution – where experts with stop watches analyzed how tasks were performed, creating methodologies for more efficient work. These approaches were applied to sales, in turn, giving birth to marketing.  The notion of having an organizational mission and values was developed – not only for the sake of efficiency (although that was cited), but because many of the industrialists had genuine feelings of wanting to create a better society.

John H. Patterson (1844-1922), founder of the National Cash Register Company, was a pioneer in many aspects of modern business that exist to this day.  The modern campuses of Google and Microsoft were foreseen in his “daylight factory” – a building with floor-to-ceiling windows, and gardens designed by John Charles Olmsted, nephew and adopted son of Frederick Law Olmstead.  The management training schools of GE and IBM can be traced to the corporate training schools at National Cash Register that were established in 1894.  Four years later as National Cash Register, Elias St. Elmo Lewis devised the customer funnel, which in some form or another, is still taught in business schools today.

Patterson was particularly proud of his work in what he called his “welfare” program. Today, we usually use the term “corporate welfare” to suggest programs in which corporations are the beneficiaries – but in the late 19th century, in a world of grimy dark factories, there was novel thinking that corporations should provide more life benefits to employees.  Many criticisms have been leveled at Patterson – that his programs were the product of “conceited paternalism and insincerity”.

Not unlike today’s discussions of the Return on Investment of Social Media, Patterson focused on the fact that taking care of workers saved money. He had placards over the doors that said, simply, “It Pays”. When asked the meaning of the signs, it was explained “the figures show very plainly that the same number of employees have increased the output of the factory ten per cent since the introduction of our welfare program”.

Patterson hired a  young lady by the name of Lena Harvey (1860-1941) to develop and operate the welfare program. Harvey was what we’d today call a “social worker”.  She brought her experience with working with rough and tough farm boys in one-room school houses, then later in community boys clubs to the factory. Looking around for models of industrial welfare work in other organizations, the only example that Harvey found was at the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia, where school children were given classes.

Providing a sort of “youth center” to neighborhood boys was one of the first introductions, and was meant to stem the rise of hooliganism around the factory.  It was followed by a program to beautify worker’s homes and the factory grounds, a factory dining facility with warm meals, and offset hours so that the young ladies of the factory wouldn’t be intimidated by their male cohorts at quitting time. Over her four years with Patterson, Harvey was credited with the creation of 35 employee social organizations, including a school of mechanics, autoharp club, a janitors’ glee club (!), a bicycling club, and a Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor.

Clubs and societies were becoming a mainstay in communities all across America, and continued to play a dominant role on our society into the 1960’s – a decline of which is so well documented in Robert D. Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone.  In the last 25 years, there has been a 58% drop in the attendance of club meetings, which might somehow play into the rise of social media.

Lena Harvey describes the reaction to the death of one of her boys’ clubs members:

When they had to meet the loss by death of their first club president, Carl Ridell, a fine handsome lad of sixteen, they all realized that had it not been for the club, few if any of them would have known him.  “Now a boy has many friends,” they used to say, “because he belongs to the club.”

Social Media

I still get asked a lot about social media – how it simply seems ridiculous for people to spend so much time sharing intimate information with strangers.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact there over the past 25 years there has also been a 43% drop in people sharing family dinners, and a 35% drop in people simply having friends over.

In my own experience with social media, Twitter in particular, I’ve found that my ability to be social is enhanced – that it is simpler to meet someone online, then go on to meet them “IRL”, or “in Real Life” at a meet-up or conference. Last October I attended one of the most influential social media events in the US,  Blog World in Las Vegas, and only casually knew one other person there.  Attending this year’s Blog World in New York, I’m asking my friends on Twitter, “who’s going”, and getting dozens of replies.

DragonSearch and Social Media

While we haven’t created any clubs at DragonSearch, we do have a nice kitchen. I don’t think that quite falls into the category of corporate welfare.  We do try to send as many people to Blog World and other social media industry events as possible.  Over the next couple of months, DragonSearch will be represented at 140Conf, Blog World, Fashion140, SES, Conversion Conf, and many more events.  Like the industrialists of old, we’re driven to make a better company. In our case, it isn’t so much to reduce costs, but to help foster more social media expertise within the company.

Should we bring back corporate well-being (that’s what THEY meant by “welfare” in the late 1800’s)? Have any thoughts? We’d love to hear your opinions.