By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
When Houston City Council voted a half million dollars for management training for department executives last month, members didn't realize some of that pays for a controversial program called Model-Netics. The program is peddled by Main Events Management (MEM), a company founded by the former boss of Al Haines, now the city's chief administrative officer.
Variously described as draconian, militaristic and boringly useless by critics, Model-Netics is touted by its creator, retired American General CEO Harold Hook, as a management language that improves organizational efficiency.
Model-Netics is composed of 151 models made up of diagrams, slogans and graphs with such exotic titles as Cruel Sea, the Northbound Train, the Change Curve and the Tomato Plant Problem. A training manual says the symbols and underlying concepts allow initiates to converse via "the language of MEM," shortcutting lengthy discussions and creating a common corporate culture.
For instance, "Cruel Sea" means "situations which, in the interest of the total organization, require a decision which will have a negative impact on some individuals in the organization." In a word, layoffs.
Likewise, a lengthy definition of "Northbound Train" can be succinctly summarized as "get with the program." "Change Curve" means that when new management systems are introduced, there will be a temporary falloff in efficiency followed by long-term improvements.
Twenty years ago, Hook set up MEM to sell Model-Netics training and materials to corporations and agencies. It will cost the city $3,800 per executive for initial training, after which the trainee becomes the trainer for future classes. Haines would not put a total figure on how much MEM will be paid by the city.
Hook was phasing out of American General when Haines joined the staff there in 1996. Haines, like all new American General managers then, was required to take 20 one-hour Model-Netics classes over five months. He emerged as a big fan of the program. The city's chief administrative officer says the aviation, parks and fire departments will start training employees, and some of the mayor's staff have already been through the classes.
According to Haines, the program is one of many teaching tools to help city executives understand and apply management principles. "We believe that a key to increasing effectiveness and efficiency in this city is management development," says the administrator. "We simply do not do it in the public sector."
Likewise, Fire Chief Lester Tyra explains that his department never had a formal management communication system. "Model-Netics was a simplistic way to be able to teach our upper and middle management people how to communicate internally. It's a simplistic terminology, and it may have the weird terms, but that's what makes it simple."
Parks Director Oliver Spellman lauds Haines for providing a choice of programs. After working in Cleveland and New York, he credits Houston as one of the more progressive governmental entities when it comes to management training. "I'm loving it. I think this is great," says Spellman, a graduate of Model-Netics training. He says he'll have staff managers trained in several alternative programs and then decide which is most worthwhile. That seems contradictory to the stated Model-Netics goal, which is to have everybody using the same management terms.
Model-Netics was introduced into the Houston Independent School District two years ago at an initial price of $175,000, with disputed results. Interviewed by the Insider at the time, ["Hook-ed on Model-Netics," March 13, 1997], a participating principal described the training as a mind-numbing mishmash of "every kind of management principle you ever heard of, plus common sense."
Haines credits the program with notable improvements in HISD management, but the same question about the accomplishments of Model-Netics provokes laughter from Gayle Fallon, president of Houston Federation of Teachers union.
"Why is it that bad programs proliferate?" she asks rhetorically. "Model-Netics is a draconian management theory; it's the idea of my way or the highway." Fallon figures that "anything that talks in secret code that the employees don't understand is suspect to begin with."
Fallon says HISD principals complained that the program enforced compliance from the top down. "One said she would never treat an employee the way the program teaches," recalls Fallon. "You do what a specific manager wants, and if you question them or have a better idea, they get rid of you in the Cruel Sea because you are not working out in their Job Fusion Triangle."
An American General employee who suffered through the training described Model-Netics as an inside joke even within the corporation itself. "Nobody uses it except upper level management, maybe as they run into Harold Hook in the hall," says the source, with a laugh. "I think it's a great program to encourage the use of No-Doz. Caffeine use goes up tremendously right before the class."
If that's true, perhaps the city should also plan on increasing its budget allocations for coffee purchases in departments hosting Model-Netics training over the coming year.
-- Tim Fleck