The face of change

  • 31-Mar-2008 08:00 EDT
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On April 30, I will retire from SAE International after 34 years of service. In next month’s article, I will be reflecting on the wealth of unforgettable experiences that have defined my SAE career. So in this, my penultimate “Focus” article, I thought that an appropriate subject would be change.

Change is a concept that often inspires a broad range of reactions. Some embrace change and hope for it with all of their being; others fear its very notion. For the most part, I have learned that individuals do not mind change, but they mind being changed.

Whatever your viewpoint, there is no question that change is happening at warp speed right now for the industries that SAE serves. Most of you reading this article are much better equipped to talk about the myriad technical changes that have occurred over the last 34 years. So rather than addressing technology, I will focus on the changing faces of the industries—both the personal faces and the overall company faces.

If you were fortunate enough to attend the SAE World Congress banquets in the 1970s and 1980s, you may recall the impressive roster of attendees: people who worked in buildings that actually bore their surnames—Ford, Timken, Firestone, Stratton, Young, and Rockwell, to name a few. Other industry giants included Knudson, Iacocca, and Cole; and a personal highlight of my early career, Nelson Rockefeller as the main speaker. Of course, decades before I began working at SAE, the Wright brothers, Elmer Sperry, and many other notable individuals participated in the society’s events.

As a young staff person, the opportunity to attend VIP receptions and eavesdrop on these high-power executives’ conversations was great fun. I remember returning home and reporting to my family that these famous faces were just like me…except their toys cost a lot more than mine.

There was never any doubt in those days about who was in charge, but the era of the strong central leader and primary contributor has all but disappeared. (One notable exception is Roger Penske.) While I believe in the power of teams to solve problems and develop ideas, I also believe that one truly talented and creative person can often add the most value. Consensus and problem-solving based on the vote of six individuals are not always the best solutions.

Further, today it is more than just “changing faces”—it’s a question of who are the faces. Some of the most significant companies are controlled by venture capitalists and faceless beings who do not have “engineer” or industry experience on their resumes.

Consolidations and acquisitions are another consideration in the face of change, with CNH, Boeing, and Ford serving as examples across all three major mobility sectors. For SAE, this has meant a decrease in committee participation, fewer exhibitors, less advertising, and less support for the SAE Foundation. For engineers, in most cases this translates into fewer opportunities.

Last but certainly not least is the arrival of the new American manufacturers—Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Rolls-Royce Aerospace, Airbus, JCB, and Komatsu—all major players with top leaders in Japan, France, and the U.K.

So what does all of this mean (other than I have been around too long)? I once read that the brightest future is based on a forgotten past, causing me to struggle with how much “history” I should impart on my replacement and the other remaining staff. Is what happened in 1974 really important, other than to those of us who were there? I am told that we study history to avoid repeating our mistakes. I think that, in the case of our industries, there is no chance of returning to the “good ol’ days.” Time will have to tell if that is a positive or a negative thing.

Raymond A. Morris, SAE Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

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