Arup’s Key Speech

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the values that companies hold, and how they influence what they do. Many companies have mission statements or tenets or core values; some of them adhere to those values, some ignore them, and some can literally be defined by them. But are they actually helpful, and how do you come about them?

An article in this week’s New Yorker about Arup showed how they handle it. I’d seen the name ‘Arup’ in many places over the last few years, in association with some very interesting major building and construction projects, from the Dongtan ecocity in China to the Marsyas art exhibit in the Tate Modern. They seemed a rather inscrutable company – while people like Norman Foster seem to be in the papers every day, I never saw anything about Arup.

Well, Arup are structural engineers who have branches all over the world. They work on a lot of interesting projects, obviously, but what really caught my interest from this article was what it said about the company’s philosophy.

Ove [the founder of Arup] died in 1988, at the age of ninety-two, but he is still a presence. A talk that he gave to his partners in 1970 is referred to at the firm as “the key speech” and is required reading for all new employees. In it, Ove explores themes that constitute a sort of mission statement: the importance of working noncompetitively with colleagues, of engaging in interesting, useful, and morally responsible work, and of pursuing “total archicture,” in which structural, aesthetic, human, and environmental considerations are treated as parts of a whole. In a related lecture, Ove said, “By creating a model fraternity, so to speak, we make a contribution to what is almost the central problem of our time: how to overcome the social friction and strike which threatens to overwhelm mankind. We could become a small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.”

Today, one conspicuous manifestation of the fraternal approach is the company’s internal computer network, known as Ovanet. Among its features is a large collection of technical forums, covering most of the firm’s many specialities and subspecialities. An engineer in the Arup office in Darussalam, Brunei, say, can post a question in the appropriate Ovanet forum about the bending moment of a particular loaded beam, and be reasonably certain that, overnight, the problem will be taken up sequentially by colleagues in Arup offices around the world.

The firm has grown substantially since Ove’s death, but it has done so in the manner he prescribed, by expanding horizontally into related fields, and by following the passions of the engineers, who are encouraged to create absorbing projects for themselves. Arup is a privately held trust, operated for the benefit of its employees, and its leaders don’t brood about short-term financial results. (The firm had revenues of 826 million dollars in 2006, and profits of 61 million) […]

Ove’s concept of the “model fraternity” is really an engineering scheme – a way of routing gravity through a professional organisation, and through a life. The Arup co-operative model is less a business plan than a human structural paradigm; it’s a reciprocal network, in which the load paths are mutually supporting, and it’s the true basis of Ove’s “small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.” Because of the nature of their work, Balmond and his Arup colleagues have been able to achieve something professionally that no single architect, however distinguished, could ever come close to: they have helped design a significant sampling of the greatest buildings of their time.

I read Ove Arup’s key speech (PDF), and while it’s occasionally unfocused and wandering, it describes a powerful message: my company is not about making lots of money. It’s about giving people interesting and useful work that helps themselves and other people. Yes, money is important to the extent that it allows people to be happy, but it is a means, not a primary end.

Here what the speech has to say about quality:

Our work should be interesting and rewarding. Only a job done well, as well as we can do it – and as well as it can be done – is that. We must therefore strive for quality in what we do, and never be satisfied with second-rate.

I was pleased to see this spelled out so decisively in a document that is required reading for all employees, because while other companies will aver similar feelings, few will do it with such force, and then carry those feelings through in every element of the company. These people really mean it.

Even better, Arup is a privately owned trust. It makes a lot of money – not as much as Microsoft or Coca Cola or Goldman Sachs – but it aims to share that money in a fair manner.

One of the most influential books I’ve read was the Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Not only is it a great series of books, but I read them when I was 15, an age where I was very receptive to new messages. In the books, Robinson likes exploring the ideas behind capitalism and what might come afterwards, such as co-operatives. I thought co-operatives sounded like marvellous things, and was rather disappointed when I found that there were few interesting or very successful companies that worked on that model. Discovering that Arup does is a real delight for me.

I’m sure Arup has faults, and I know that its model wouldn’t work in some situations; for example, there are still an awful lot of people whose prime motivation is money. But Arup, and the key speech that it has adhered to for 37 years, confirms to me that it’s possible for companies to really ‘do good’ for their employees, and for everyone – in reality, and for the long haul.

5 Replies to “Arup’s Key Speech”

  1. As a five year employee of Arup, I think its a great place to work with interesting people, who are not primarily driven by money and who want to do the work they do.

  2. I think exactly the same way. I recently started at Arup and its a great friendly place to work…
    We aren’t in it for the money and i dont think any of the other workers are either… They truely want to help.

  3. A visit to one of Arup’s Asia offices will tell a different story. The company’s rapid expansion is unfortunately leaving many of Ove’s ideals behind. Perhaps they’ll implement his ideals once they’ve reached maturity…

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