The Insider

Hook-ed on Model-Netics
Each Friday morning, a group of HISD principals convenes in a conference room just off Superintendent Rod Paige's office at district headquarters, where they listen patiently as an instructor puts them through their latest lesson. The principals aren't being schooled on up-to-date classroom techniques or improved campus security procedures, but rather on the abstruse language of a management training program called "Model-Netics" that Paige is imposing on the HISD hierarchy -- at a cost to taxpayers of more than $161,000.

Model-Netics is the creation of Harold Hook, the 65-year-old chairman and former CEO of American General who's known as "Uncle Harold" to his admirers at the insurance giant and as "Captain Hook" to critics of what some consider the draconian management system in place at the corporation.

American General director Thomas Barrow once described Hook's management style and Model-Netics to Business Week as being "a lot like the military. There's a rule and a method of doing everything."

As formulated by Hook, Model-Netics consists of 151 models made up of diagrams, slogans and glyphs with such unlikely tags as "Cruel Sea," "Acres of Diamonds," "Freudian Hydraulic" and "Northbound Train."

One HISD employee undergoing the instruction says Model-Netics, which requires participants to attend 20 one-hour sessions over five months and recommends an additional 60 to 80 hours of study, doesn't seem very relevant to education management. The concept of children or their needs never comes up, and one instructor prattled on about how each school should strive "to make a profit."

"It's every kind of management principle you ever heard of, plus common sense," says the employee. It even includes such chestnuts as the Peter Principle, the tendency of organizations to promote individuals beyond their competency. "That one made us laugh," says our source, "'cause we said, 'Yep, that's HISD.' "

Model-Netics is peddled by Main Events Management (MEM), a firm that Hook established more than 20 years ago. It has become more or less synonymous with American General during Hook's 19 years at the helm of the corporation. Many of the Model-Netics trainers are American General employees, and all new employees of American General and its myriad subsidiaries go through the mandatory 20 hour-long sessions at a pace of one per week (ostensibly because the average manager can't "internalize" the models at a faster rate).

According to promotional literature for Model-Netics, each model presented in the course is a letter in a "management alphabet." Once mastered, they add up to a vocabulary that allows Model-Netics grads to converse via "the language of MEM," saving time and creating a common corporate culture. The weekly training session for principals is only one of many such sessions going on across HISD, as district superintendents trained in Model-Netics conduct other classes at their own offices. The goal is to eventually have the entire HISD bureaucracy down to the assistant principal level yakking at one other in MEM-speak.

Terry Abbott, HISD's new exorbitantly overpaid publicist, claims the district has gotten a hell of a deal from Hook. "American General is giving the school district $701,000 in free monitoring and consulting for the management improvement program," Abbott proclaimed in response to a request from The Insider for information on HISD's arrangement with MEM. "Since the district is paying only a fraction of that, for every $1 HISD spends on the program, it gets back $4.35 in free services." Thus, argued Abbott, HISD is getting more than $862,000 worth of services for $161,310.

"Oh, you're kidding -- those poor souls," exclaimed an American General employee and Model-Netics vet upon learning that HISD had embraced Hook's collection of textbook management concepts, psychobabble and mysterious symbols. He says Model-Netics is an old private joke around American General's Allen Parkway headquarters: "Nobody uses it [except] upper level management, maybe as they run into Harold Hook in the hall."

The main effect of Model-Netics is more consumer conditioning than management revolution, the employee added. "I think it's a great program to encourage the use of No Doz. Caffeine consumption goes up tremendously right before the class. You get a new employee, and they're like, 'What's this Model-Netics all about?' We all laugh and say, 'Oh, you'll find out.' "

Hook didn't sound surprised when The Insider informed him that some of his minions laugh behind his back at his training course. "What is the phrase?" he mused. "A prophet is not without honor save in his own land."

But far from laughing, Paige and his chief in-house brain-truster, educational services chief of staff Susan Sclafani, take Model-Netics very seriously. After all, they, like Hook, hold associate certificates in Model-Netics and have received their "Model-Netics Memory Jogger," a sort of Little Red Book of the program's principles for those who can't recall all 151 models at the drop of a memo. For instance, should Paige be in a mood to privatize HISD cafeteria services and lay off workers, he can simply thumb to "Cruel Sea" in his Memory Jogger and brush up on this definition: "The term applied to situations which, in the interest of the total organization, require a decision which will have a negative impact on some individuals in the organization."

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