Pepperdine EdD: The Collapse of the Bell System: An Anecdotal Reflection From a Former Comm Tech

A Bell System switchboard where overseas calls are handled. Not all of the services shown are available during wartime conditions. December 22,1943 88-WWT-28-3 11900_2005_001 (above)

The following is my Human Resources Management paper written in 2005 for EDET714: Management of  Human Resources Course, Pepperdine University, Educational Technology Doctoral program. At the bottom of this post is a PDF version of the original graded submission. Enjoy.

Just based on the nature of the business, one might think that the North American Telecommunications Industry during the 1980s and 1990s would have been an environment that thrived on technological change and innovation. But there were aspects of the management style and philosophy of the major telecommunications companies, such as the former Pacific Bell, during the 80s and 90s that may have resembled more industrial era/World War II militaristic “overwhelm problems with massive numbers of troops” than some modem paperless Jetson-esque office environment. Nonetheless, large-scale changes were taking place. This paper will briefly look at how some of these changes translated down to the small local workgroup/office environment.

History/Pre-History of the Telecommunications Industry

For all of its apparent connections to the technological revolution that has been taking place over the past half-century, the founding roots of the North American telecommunications industry lay squarely in the age of the steam engine and the late 19th Century Industrial Age. The company that would become American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) was founded by Alexander Graham Bell, with two financial bankers, in 1876 after Bell received two patents for inventing the telephone (AT&T, 2005). Not much might have happened with this new invention had it been left to Bell, who left the business to his partners while he pursued other interests. The biggest player in the industry, at the time, was Westem Union, with its near monopoly of the telegraph business that went back to the early 1800s. Only one year after incorporation, one of Bell’s partners tried to sell the company to Westem Union for $100,000 but Westem Union did not want to have anything to do with the “electrical toy” and rejected the offer (Thierer, 1994). Fortunately for the industry someone with greater nerve and foresight was brought in to run the Bell Company. In 1878 Theodore Vail was brought in as general manager to promote the industry, protect Bell’s patents and push franchise holders to a standard of service that would help stabilize the industry. By 1882 the Bell companies found themselves in the position to acquired Western Electric, which had been the manufacturing arm of rival Western Union (Todd, 1978).

Vail became president from 1885 to 1887. He then returned for a second term from 1907 until 1919. The policies, organizational structures and business strategies developed during Vail’s tenure became the operating principals of AT&T and the Bell companies for the next 70 years. In 1908 Vail promoted the company slogan, “One System, One Policy, Universal Service” (AT&T, 2005).

Seventy Years Later

Telecommunications Archivist, Kenneth Todd, Jr. wrote:

“By the end of Theodore Vail’s presidency of AT&T in 1919, the pattern was pretty well set. Thousands of Bell System people performed hundreds of different jobs within various departments in various Bell System associated companies and at AT&T jobs changed as times and technology changed, but it would have been possible for a Bell System employee to feel at home with the writings and notes made by Bell System people 50 or 60 years before” (Todd, 1978).

Pacific Bell, Anaheim T-CXR Switch Room circa 1980 by Joe Bustillos

Pacific Bell, Anaheim T-CXR Switch Room circa 1980 by Joe Bustillos

The Bell System was so standardized that every aspect of running the business was covered in the grey/green binders called BSPs (“Basic Standard Practice”) that filled the bookshelves of every Central Office (CO) of every Bell System installation. Grey metal cabinets, desks, chairs, ten-foot equipment racks with grey metal earthquake reinforcement brackets; every CO in the country was standardized and any piece of equipment could be removed and reinstalled in any other CO in the country. Westem Electric installed all the hardware and wiring, AT&T managed all the long distance and regional switches and the local Bell company managed the local loop (from the CO to the customer) and the switch between local CDs. As an employee of one of the Bell System Companies, Pacific Bell, from 1979 to 1995,1 saw that it was very much as Todd expressed. But during my tenure tremendous changes were at work at the local “phone factory” that would change the nature of the business and bring about the end of the Bell System as it had been known.

Change Agents at the Work at the Bell System

BREAKING UP THE FAMILY

AT&T had been fighting anti-trust/monopoly charges since they bought Western Union in 1909. For the most part they had managed to avoid being broken apart by submitting to governmental regulation and by working out deals with the independent phone companies. Specifically, 1913 AT&T settled its first anti-trust suit with the government in the Kingsburg Commitment in which AT&T divested it controlling interest in Western Union, allowed non-competing independent telephone companies to interconnect with AT&T’s long distance service and established AT&T as government sanctioned monopoly in the long distance market. That was good until 1949, when the government brought another anti-trust suit against AT&T in part because of their expansion into broadcast radio and television. The consent decree that ended the suit in 1956 restricted AT&T to activities directly connected with running the national telephone system and “special projects” for the federal government. Finally, in 1982 AT&T and the Justice Department settled a third anti-trust that was filed in 1974 in which AT&T agreed to divest itself of its local telephone companies in exchange for the Justice Department removing restrictions in the 1956 consent decree (AT&T, 2005). While the Justice Department was continually labeled as the bad guy rumors abounded that AT&T was more than willing to let go of local companies if it meant that they could pursue other markets such as the personal computer market and the wireless telephony market (Massey, 2005). Thus, in 1984 AT&T was no longer the parent company of the local companies and companies, such as Pacific Bell, had to learn how to manage themselves.

THE COLOR OF THE SWITCH ROOM

Another change agent that was at work in the 1980s and 90s in the Bell System, though much less publicized than AT&T’s divestiture, was the change in the complexion or color of the switch room. The work environment in the Bell System, like any other American work environment that had its roots in the industrial age, was very much a rigidly stratified work environment. Women worked as operators, clerks and secretaries. Men worked as technicians in the field and in the CO and as managers. Between the two groups there were almost no brown or black faces to be seen (especially in the latter group). With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, AT&T and its local companies were forced to make their working population reflect the local population (Wikipedia, 2005). This process was still very much at work when I became a Communications Technician in 1979 for Pacific Bell at my first posting in Anaheim, California.

THE SPEED OF AN ELECTRON

The third change agent was the speed of technological change. The regional switch in downtown Anaheim had been a noisy electro-mechanical machine that occupied four floors of the city-block sized installation. In the early 1980s that machine was replaced by two electronic switches that occupied two moderately sized air-conditioned rooms. Toward the end of my tenure in the mid-1990s, instead of building new COs to service new communities or expansions of communities, they could be serviced by putting an electronic switch in rented space in an office building or even in utility closet sized huts where no office complex was available. This change required a change in how the machinery was maintained, the size of the work force and administration of the workforce.

The Bell System Reacts to Change Agents

In an organization as large as AT&T or Pacific Bell where every aspect of the business, every specification had been indexed and catalogued in some BSP binder on every manager’s bookshelf, changes from this many directions and of this level of magnitude are rarely managed without “growing pains,” and more than a few catastrophes. In the case of the group that I worked for, T-Carrier, even the creation of the new sub-group (DNAC) that I was brought into showed that the managers were still thinking in the electro-mechanical model and not the electronic model of equipment installation and maintenance.

MISMANAGING WORKGROUP SIZE

Before the first switch was invented, armies of operators were needed to manually connect every caller to his or her destination. In fact a frustrated Kansas City undertaker invented the first automatic switch in 1891 because he felt that the operators were blocking potential customers from reaching him. Mr. Strowger’s electro-mechanical switch and the switches that followed in its footsteps made the dial telephone possible, but instead of an army of operators, an army of technicians were needed to routinely inspect, clean, and service these noisy devices. (Todd, 1978)

As the number of subscribers grew and the size of the switches grew to accommodate the traffic, the craft of the switchman grew such that there were master switchmen and apprentices who had to be trained for months before they were allowed to work on the very valuable switch. One technician told me that in some large regional switches the complexity of the circuitry and noise of all those thousands of mechanical switches running full out during the busiest part of the day could be enough that if the servicing technician didn’t have his troubleshooting plan firmly planted in his mind he could easily become disoriented and bring the machine down by working on the wrong section of the machine.

But even as these massive machines were being replaced by silent cabinet-sized electronic switches planners were still creating work groups as if an army of technicians were going to be needed to make the machine work. In fact, with the generation of electronic devices I worked on, once the equipment was installed and tested for service it was much better to keep the technicians away from the equipment except to replace failed circuit packs. Some technicians could be tracked in the field just by following the failure indicators on the service area monitoring system.

On the one hand the technology was so good that, compared to the previous generation equipment, one could justify the number of technician in our group, provided the managers were still thinking about how many technicians it used to require to keep the old equipment working. That lasted for a few years. But once the workforce error was discovered management took to gathering the whole group together about once every ten months to tell us that X number of jobs were going to go away and that those with low seniority would do well to find other groups to become assigned to. This practice continued for the duration of my career with Pacific Bell, such that when I took an “Early Out” of my job to become a teacher my 15-years of service was among the two or three lowest years of service in my group. Needless to say, morale was continually knocked down a peg whenever workforce numbers were discussed.

GOODBYE APPRENTICESHIP AND JOB OWNERSHIP

One of the things that were lost as the switch room went from electro-mechanical to electronic was the apprenticeship system. Apprenticeship seemed to go by the wayside in part because it seems that management felt that with the newer equipment less training was required and could be handled by a handful of off-site training sessions versus the on-site models. Also contributing to the loss of the mentor/mentee relationships was the enforcement of EBOC guidelines, which brought women and minorities into this previously white-men-only territory. That is, the company complied with the government guidelines but there was nothing that said that the veteran technicians had to help or take any of the new recruits under their wings. Thus job performance suffered because the veterans tended to feel that they could not be judged unsatisfactory as long as someone in the group was lower in their job performance ratings.

Another thing that suffered during this period was the switchmen’s sense of ownership over the health and welfare of the switch. In the era of the electro-mechanical switch the machine was the technicians’ pride and joy and taskmaster. It lived or died based on their expertise and regardless of how “standardized” all of these machines were supposed to be, there were always quirks and “personalities” to these machines that only the local switchman knew about. But as the electronic switch took over and the local Bell companies began to experiment with different management systems, and control of the switch was taken from the switch room and place in remote business centers where technicians and clerks would issue work orders to fix failures or issue new orders. When the technicians saw that their timecards had be pre-filled with work orders many of them decided that even if their were alarms in the machine, that they’d work on their work load unless the center called with a trouble ticket. Thus, the company lost any proactive care and expertise that the technician would have willingly given.

Conclusion

Vail’s system of standardization had worked all the way into the 1970s in part because the work culture and the technology were in harmony. But as the technology moved ahead of the work culture, both craft and management lost something that had made the system so successful for the prior hundred years. The pressure of divestiture and approaching competition left craft with the sense that there was little reason to give more than the minimum to the job (or at least more than the worst guy in the work group). In a way, the technology eventually got to be so good that, except for initial installation and testing, neither the worker nor the manager were much needed.

REFERENCES

THE COLLAPSE OF THE BELL SYSTEM: AN ANECDOTAL REFLECTION FROM A FORMER COMM TECH

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