THE PROBLEM SOLVERS: A History of Arthur D. Little, Inc. by

THE PROBLEM SOLVERS: A History of Arthur D. Little, Inc.

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Little, a protean, world-class consultancy based in Cambridge, MA, turns 100 this October. Seizing on the occasion, Kahn (a staff writer at The New Yorker) offers an anecdotal appreciation that, despite inclusion of a chapter entitled ""The Underlying Unity of It All,"" fails to put the eclectic enterprise into any kind of significant perspective. The text begins and ends with a series of short takes on the varied tasks undertaken by 50-odd ADL staffers in the course of two more or less typical work days. To illustrate, an economist is in Angola advising the national oil company on its negotiations with Chevron and Gulf for exploration/production contracts; a senior executive at headquarters confers with the vice-president of a Swiss aluminum maker planning a diversification program. Also in Cambridge is the head of public relations; she is preparing a position paper defending a dubious decision to test nerve gas in a local laboratory. Betwixt and between, Kahn provides an episodic account of the company's halting development. Originally a partnership formed to offer chemical engineering and testing services, the finn (which went public in 1969) did not hit its stride until well after the 1935 death of Arthur Dehon Little. The co-founder (a chemist by trade) did, though, foster a corporate environment that encouraged both speculative inquiry and innovative application of scientific principles to industrial problems. A loyal alumnus (but not a graduate) of MIT, he forged a link with his alma mater that endures to this day. Having survived the Great Depression, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Royal Little (architect of Textron, Inc. and nephew of Arthur D.), ADL began to prosper during WW II. General James Gavin, recruited in 1958, later led the company into international markets where it has fared extremely well. At last count, ADL's annual revenues topped $210 million; technical and/or management consulting accounted for about 75% of volume, with the balance accruing from industrial research. On the client roster, besides American corporations, are federal agencies, local jurisdictions, foreign governments, and multinationals. By Kahn's count, ADL has at least 125 significant rivals for the consulting dollar; their ranks encompass old-line firms, accounting concerns, commercial banks, and universities. Unfortunately, he neglects to provide a context for either ADL or its competition. Even more troublesome is the author's bent for according such engaging but trivial in-house escapades as the successful launch of a lead balloon approximately equal narrative weight with substantive assignments, like the design of a telecommunications system for Saudi Arabia, and several notable fiascos, including a dim view (for IBM) of xerography's future. While ADL and its talented professionals may defy precise pigeonholing, the firm clearly is something more than the sum of its demonstrably fascinating parts. Kahn never quite comes to grips with this essential element of the ADL story, thus making his centenary celebration an exercise without much point.

Pub Date: May 13th, 1986
Publisher: Little, Brown