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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Decisions based on what? Information Upcoming in the L&SWR

At the core of the operations with large businesses is communication. Smooth and accurate communication is vital to make sure that many different operating units, dispersed over large distances, coordinate their actions. Being the first major industry to have large scale, geographically spread operations, the Victorian railways were the first to develop and evolve complex information transfer systems up and down their organisations. ‘Upward’ forms of communication developed to enable senior management could make astute decisions. It is these latter forms of communication that I am working on at the moment.

While not the most engaging subject that I have to deal with in my PhD, the development of upward communication within the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) is very important for my study. The matter of what information managers had is central to my overarching question of how the company’s managers made decisions, and how good those decisions were. Did they go ‘lets have an extra siding here, a station there, or an extra waiting room’ based on large or small amounts of information, and how did the level of information feed into the quality of decision-making?

I am quite lucky with this part of the study, in that I am graced, unusually, with more information on upward information flows in the earlier part of the L&SWR’s history, than the flows in the late-Victorian period. I suppose this is because before 1870, after which the company was in its mature phase, everything was still developing, and as such a greater number of edicts were made that defined exactly what communications were required. However, by the later period, there was less need to inform junior managers, particularly station agents, of what forms and returns they were required to send to the headquarters regularly, as these had been ingrained in the fabric of railway life for some time and were ‘common knowledge’ amongst the staff. Thus, there is, in the case of the L&SWR, a paucity of information about information flows in the later Victorian period.

My main sources of evidence from the early period of the L&SWR’s history are the rule books, that were issued to each employee (in 1845, 1852, and 1864), and the ‘Abstract of instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station agents’ (from 1858 and 1865). These laid down what information senior managers should have been sent by station agents from stations and yards. These communications took three forms; statistics, regular operating returns and correspondence dealing with other pertinent matters, and most were sent by train to officials at the company’s headquarters.

The range of statistics that junior managers sent to senior management developed very quickly, and they were a way for the latter to observe long term trends in traffic volumes, but also to regulate costs. So, by 1864 these included the tonnage of goods traffic arriving at stations, the number of passengers carried, the type of goods traffic carried, the amount of money taken, the wages paid, the amount of coal (or coke) used by locomotives, the amount of tickets issued, and the volume of stores used. From these, senior management made decisions as to the policies that the company would pursue, or where economies needed to be made.

In addition to this, there developed a number of returns that related to the operating procedures of the company, allowing senior management to monitor how well the organisation was functioning. These included returns of damaged roiling stock that arrived at stations, sent to the Locomotive Superintendent, a daily return of lost property found, forwarded to the Lost Property Office, and most importantly, a general return that encompassed any other issues at the stations. This return, sent daily by the first train, included anything from suggestions regarding safety, right through to ideas for improving company operations or the need for increased accommodation for traffic at stations. Thus, these communications showed senior managers how the company was functioning and where improvements needed to be made.

Lastly, there were ad hoc forms of upward communications. Of course, there were the occasions when senior management was required to be immediately notified of an occurrence, as in the case of an accident, but letters were also to be sent up to headquarters on other matters that could not wait until the regular morning report. These included when signals were out of repair, a staff member that was suspended for infringing the rule, or a response to when information was requested by senior management in a hurry. These communications, I presume, were rare, and were less associated with decision making, than with reporting something that had gone wrong.

Thus, by the 1860s the L&SWR had developed many procedures, so that information of different types could move up the company hierarchy to inform decision-making. Whether that decision-making was any good, well, that is the question of my PhD.

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