Learning from the Past

With the recent passing of my father, I discovered some of his treasured business artifacts from a 47 year career in the “the Bell System”. For those under the age of 40, you may not realize that AT&T, founded in 1885 and known for several decades as “Ma Bell” had an established network of “Baby Bells” providing a monopoly on both local and long distance residential and commercial phone service across the United States. Employees often moved from one baby bell to another as they worked to advance their career. Dad was a senior executive in New York Telephone’s Network Operations group, and was the force behind acquiring NYC’s first mainframe computer to modernize data management. 

In a paper he wrote to his leadership on April 26, 1963 he notes that “The concept of Management Information Systems is not a new idea….This subject has received considerable emphasis recently in many business periodicals – both data processing magazines and those devoted to general management.” The paper uses the very costly process required to process a new customer service order using only carbonized copies of information needed to move a client’s order through the steps needed to result in a working number printed in the massive phone book for the market the customer resided in, to illustrate the opportunities for enhancing the ability to more effectively manage more aspects of the business through streamlined information management.  In an era where the balance between management and employee expertise seems more fluid than the concept of “management” was in 1963, what struck me most of all were the timeless management points cited throughout the 27 page paper.

Those insights (some paraphrased) include my father’s words and my reaction in italics below:


  • Information is business management’s most powerful tool. 
    • Today’s challenge is deciding which information is most important to harness.
  • Constantly transcribing information to manipulate it into new reports means about 80% of the cost of preparing a report is from capturing rather than processing data.
    • While 60 years of automation advancements has reduced this percentage down considerably, the point of using few sources of data to generate more insights is still very relevant and worth reviewing for your business.
  • A completed service order is the record containing the most valuable information…Over 200 different reports are generated from a completed service order…43 of which are marketing.
    • The details needed to effectively set up a client are still the most critical data points a business can have; and if you doubt the role of marketing in your business, note that even in 1963, 21.5% of reports derived from initial customer data can still provide critical insights in honing your marketing efforts.
  • Functional barriers and departmental bias exist…resulting in certain departments assuming either dominating or apathetic attitudes…
    • This issue still persists without active management attention to continually working to ensure cross functional collaboration at all levels of the company.
  • The cost to automate won’t necessarily save clerical staff costs, but rather will impact service improvement and better management control and overall, improve economic viability of the business.
    • This insight is a cautionary point to carefully consider which investments might be a necessary stretch today to establish a more efficient operation in the future. 
  • Collaboration was key in this process with the Baby Bells of Ohio, Michigan and New England all working on different aspects of establishing a more effective Management Information System.
    • Any company that has staff and facilities in other markets would benefit from ensuring collaboration in the development of new, groundbreaking solutions that will impact the whole company whether those are policies or operational changes. Top down management decisions were common in 1963, but it was collaboration among the Bell System leaders that likely played a big role in the long successful run of this monopoly.


Of all of the points in this very detailed paper from a mid-level manager (at the time) to the most senior executives in the firm, this last point is the one that resonates most with me.

  • It is essential that there be a joint interdepartmental effort, overall objectives and requirements, overall viewpoint on functions and needs versus restrictive departmental attitudes, and timely, accurate, pertinent info for better admin control.
    • In essence, Dad was calling out his superior management to take note that an effort as significant as automating the management information systems of The Bell System, must not be undertaken without clear objectives, timelines and input from all impacted departments. The project could easily have been driven solely by the operations department (today’s IT or IS team), but they recognized the need to gather all requirements before proceeding.


As progress continues to rush forward in every aspect of our lives, we can always learn by understanding the factors that drove success in the past.

Note: Written in memoriam collaboration with my Dad, Robert A. Lenz

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