SWOT has been around since the dawn of time, or so it seems. The basic audit tool that every business owner, director, manager and student uses to perform a “quick review” of any given situation or person.
But where did it originate, and who actually owns it?
It all started at the Stanford Research Institute, in California, in the early 1960s. A think tank had been set up to look at the problems associated with centralised planning functions, known then as the Corporate Planner. The function had slipped out of fashion for various reasons, and industrialists were on the search for a system of planning that could be used at all levels within an organisation and would produce consistent and robust results.
The Fortune 500 companies of the day sponsored this work, with the first sponsor listed as IBM; followed by Boeing, Union Carbide, Burroughs, Ford Motors, and the list went on.
The research looked at human psychology, the process of making a decision and the values and beliefs that drive us in the workplace. As the research progressed into 1963, they began to look at defining the problem and produced a series of questions that went like this:
- What’s good about what we do today, and what isn’t good?
- What could be good about what we do tomorrow and what may go bad?
This translated into a four box analysis called S F O T
An analysis of what could be perceived in the present-day as either SATISFACTORY or a FAULT; and in the future as an OPPORTUNITY or a THREAT. The initials were rearranged into the acronym S O F T and published in 1963. The originators of this test were Albert Humphrey and Otis Benepe, although it was Albert Humphrey who was ultimately credited in the history books as having thought it up.
The SOFT element was but a single jigsaw piece in the complete system of planning that solved the problems of how companies produce consistent and robust plans for change and improvement.
Following publication, the research was presented to the world by Albert Humphrey, Robert Stewart and Isaac Ansoff (remember the Ansoff Matrix?) via formal roadshow allowing them to deliver it directly to hundreds of CEOs of notable corporates.
In the audience were representatives of Urwick Orr, who liked the SOFT approach in isolation of the holistic planning system that was presented. Believing it to be somehow protected with either a patent or trademark, they changed the acronym to SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity and Threats) and published it for their own gain, effectively stealing SOFT at the time.
The rest as they say is history. SWOT became the “quick n dirty” audit, performed by ordinary folk at all levels in an organisation. It has become taught in every business school on the planet and today remains woven into our education systems as a cornerstone of planning.
Albert Humphrey once told me, “it is a ridiculous idea that the four box product provides anything more than discussion and few good ideas maybe, restricted only to those people around the table contributing.” Although, he did concede that the SWOT acronym sounded better than SOFT.
But what of the ownership question?
The research that concluded in the 1960s was completed by 1970, and SRI disbanded the team. They had produced a planning system that was robust, inclusive, holistic and ground breaking. It was named Participative Planning, and Humphrey was gifted the Intellectual property in 1970. He then updated the programme from Participative Planning to Team Action Management and legally protected it.
In 1971 he came to England, at the request of the shareholders of WH Smith and Sons. He settled in the UK, working with the leaders of UK industry such as Adrian Cadbury (Cadbury), Don Sanderson (Allied Foods) Jim Kelso (Roche Products) and the list went on.
Humphrey died in on 31 October 2005, and had already legally assigned his life’s work, the SRI intellectual property and the TEAM ACTION MANAGEMENT programme, to me, as his disciple of 15 years, with the promise to maintain and extend his work to enable other CEOs and Directors to know about and to benefit from his work.
This IP has been licensed to The SWOT Team, who are able to replicate this planning system as well as deliver the concepts of solid business knowhow to others.
So, SWOT has an owner or, as I would rather describe myself, a caretaker of the Intellectual Property that gave rise to SWOT. The original research notes are preserved from the 1960s and show the evolution of what was to become the best known business acronym on the planet.
As for the effectiveness of SWOT?
Synonymous by its absence rather than its presence I once heard an expert say, “but the inclusion of SWOT shows an attitude of planning which is to be upheld as best practice.”
SWOT as a product, is only a small piece of the original powerful solution of company change planning, but it’s a start nonetheless.