Editor's note: The essay following here was written by a former ALSG employee, Linda Lyle, as part of a dissertation submitted in 1998 to the University of Tennessee in satisfaction for her PhD in Communications. The dissertation (clickable here in its entirety) deals with non-verbal channels of communications within, and across, business entities, it being her thesis that trend-setting contributions in one company can reverberate across an industry, affecting other companies in the same field sometimes imperceptibly, but powerfully nevertheless. The company she took as her model was the seminal American student travel company, ALSG, pictured here at a 1977 company reunion which took place only months before certain important ALSG employees would leave the company to form a competing but very similar organization, ACIS.
Markle, the founder of ALSG, and of the rock 'n' roll countryside recording studio Long View Farm, was just about to depart for a trip to India.
Linda Lyle's words are republished here with her permission. The archive photographs have been added by the editor, and do not necessarily identify any personalities treated by nearby text.
..."Historical" truth was one of the more interesting concepts uncovered and was described by one informant as those values, modes of operation, and ways of thinking and behaving that were "present at the creation." That "creation" — whether informants view it as largely positive, largely negative, or relatively neutral — is consistently identified as having occurred in the company ALSG and more specifically, is "credited" to ALSG's founder, Dr. Gilbert Markle (and in part to its co-founder, Dr. Theodore Voelkel). This is somewhat a curious phenomenon, especially considering the fact that ALSG was not the first or even second company to engage in "student" travel. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, informants refer to ALSG when they talk about their own history, and few make reference to the companies who came before ALSG. Typical descriptions of the ALSG/Markle-Voelkel culture include the following:
Discussions of "historical truth" are layered in complexity, however, as a result of most informants' strong feelings with regard to Markle himself: some talk about him as if he were a god-like figure and some as if he were just the opposite. The most striking performances are those that describe both extremes, within specific temporal frames (e.g. "historical" vs. "contemporary" or "then" vs. "now").
However, the same informant also opined that
To extend the root metaphor, these performances — and others like them — describe Markle in language that suggest the eternal paradox, the embodiment of both truth and apostasy, a Miltonian view of good and evil, as it were. In fact, the very existence of these antithetical performances is reminiscent of Nietzsche's circulus vitiosus deus, of the buddic and astral planes, of heaven and hell, and of similar embodiments of the "eternal struggle" between opposing forces.
Other informants describe ALSG/Markle as the source and/or scourge of truth in somewhat more pragmatic language, that nonetheless retains religious overtones of the root metaphor:
Another informant is more explicit in using the deity-image:
Perhaps not surprisingly, "younger" informants (in terms of their companies' ages) tend to dwell upon the "dark side" of ALSG/Markle. Moreover, informants from all companies tend to describe their own "truths" and practices as exemplary of the "new testament" to truth or "new covenant" (as opposed to ALSG/Markle's "old covenant") with the client, using language that suggests a "redemption" motif; i.e., that they have "redeemed" themselves from ALSG's shortcomings.
Thus, each company tends to see itself as the most valid source of truth, per se, or to put it another way, as a model of contemporary business practice in this industry. One observer has labeled this attitude as illustrative of a tendency towards "self-delusion" on the part of industry executives; regardless, it is a theme that occurs throughout the data.
Finally, there are those who simply dismiss Markle's influence altogether:
While this perception is valid for those who hold it, the fact is that at least one of the non-genetic companies hired one of ALSG's former executives to — in the executive's words — "show them [the non-genetic company] how to market this student travel concept." Thus, bedrock cultural assumptions endemic to the ALSG culture may have been "adopted" by a non-genetic entity. At the very least, it is clear that the former ALSG executive had an opportunity to transmit ALSG's "special way of doing things," along with its "special way of talking about" (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983, 124) what it did, to a non-genetic entrant into the industry. A content analysis of this entity's early marketing documents suggests that if this is not the case, then another explanation must be found for the obvious and striking similarities found in the language used by this entity and by the rest of the industry at that time — all of which reflect the language used in contemporaneous ALSG documents.
In any case, the concept of historical truth leads inevitably to the concept of "contemporary truth" — commencing with the founding of any post-ALSG entity. In examining the data surrounding this issue, one is confronted once again with the notion of "improvisation" or "management by high-wire-ism" as a bedrock source of truth for most industry informants. In fact, one informant remarked, "I've always felt that there were those who went to Harvard Business School and then there are those of us who actually do what those guys sit around talking about" (X, 1-3).
More specifically, this improvisational motif may be articulated in terms ofcurrent truth's being engendered by collective corporate ingenuity, emanating principally from each company's circle of elites, but with welcome contributions from "worker bees" (N, 1-25) as well; thus, for most informants, truth is procreated by individual inventiveness, as opposed to its being reposit in "experts" or "theory" or even in "traditional practices" — which is an interesting paradox, in and of itself. In this regard, one informant described the early (ALSG) culture in virtually the same kind of language that most informants used to describe contemporarypractice:
Note the juxtaposition to descriptions of "current" origins of truth:
Thus, "current truth" emanates from "improvisation," which is a modus operandi that seems to be rooted in ALSG's early culture. Moreover, and more to the point, it should be noted that with striking consistency, comments about contemporary truth are normally made to contrast the younger company with ALSG/Markle, to demonstrate that the new entity is "better" than its predecessor. Thus, it may be argued that the very fact of reference itself — of using ALSG/Markle as an "anti-benchmark" — is a de facto acknowledgment of ALSG/Markle as a source of truth, both historical and contemporary, whether that truth be perceived to be valid or invalid. Indeed, when taken together, the language of these performances suggests that the "dark side" of ALSG/Markle (synonymous to some with "historical truth") is in fact a Phoenix-like source of contemporary truth, regardless of the form in which the latter is manifested.
Finally, in discussing the application of these "contemporary truths," a few informants acknowledge the "gravity" of industry culture; that is to say, in their own company's "search for the truth," they have found it impossible to be too innovative, to stray too far from "home," because previously established industry assumptions and practices (e.g. historical truth) exert a compelling force on their own company's actions. This phenomenon implies, among other things, that some "truths" may be eternal, and that bedrock assumptions may remain basically unchanged, regardless of fluctuating perceptions, and perhaps regardless of the manner in which contemporary truth is made manifest. For example, one company tried to be very different from the rest of the industry, but it just didn't work:
While discussions of this nature may well be expected to take place within genetically related companies, even non-genetic companies acknowledged antecedent origins of at least some truths, especially with regard to assumptions about the external environment, marketing, and product-related issues. Unfortunately, these companies' informants cannot be quoted here, to preserve their anonymity. However, "industry gravity" is also evident when one compares the descriptive prose in current non-genetic catalogues, not only to that of "genetic" entities, but most interestingly, to similar prose gleaned from quondam ALSG catalogues. To repeat one informant's description of these similarities:
In sum, it seems clear that ALSG/Markle (and to some extent, Voelkel, who in fact is the author of a significant amount of ALSG's prose) are widely assumed to have originated what the industry today accepts as "truth" — even though in many cases they are not consciously credited with having done so. Moreover, the root metaphor is continued throughout these performances, in language that suggests (1) an "eternal struggle" between the "evil" of history and the "good" of the present time and place, as well as (2) "redemption" from the industry's historical transgressions, as evidenced in the younger companies' "new covenant" with their clients.
All dissertation material copyright © Linda Gayle Lyle, 1998. All rights reserved.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.