BOSTON, March 16, 2016— Norman A. Berg (MBA 1958, DBA 1964), a member of the Harvard Business School’s active faculty from 1963 until 1998 and one of its pioneers in developing the field of business strategy, died unexpectedly in surgery in Boston on March 8 at the age of 85. At the time of his death, he was the School’s Class of 1958 Professor of Business Administration Emeritus.
Throughout his long career, Berg developed and taught general management courses in the School’s MBA and Executive Education programs. His research focused on the strategic and organizational problems associated with diversified firms as well as the global competitive issues facing American business.
Working with his colleagues C. Roland Christensen and Kenneth Andrews, he helped develop courses in what was initially called business policy. These later evolved into a panoply of offerings that fell under the rubric of strategy, including a required course in the School’s first-year MBA curriculum. In the last decade of his career, Berg taught in and chaired the Owner/President Management Program (OPM), the School’s executive program for business owners and entrepreneurs. This was another pioneering venture, since in those years, according to conventional wisdom, the business of America was big business, and unlike today, entrepreneurial activities were seen as much more on the margins of this country’s economy. Berg also taught in the School’s Advanced Management Program (AMP) for senior executives and the Program for Management Development (PMD) for mid-level managers.
As chair of the popular OPM program, presented in three-week sessions over three years, Berg developed a strong rapport with the participants, many of whom he stayed in touch with long after they had completed the program. In 1997, he served as the host of the first OPM all-class reunion, where he spoke of “the relationships and sense of family that have been such a distinctive and valuable characteristic of the program since its inception” – characteristics that he helped foster. He continued to teach at these reunions for many years after he retired.
“Norm was deeply involved in the early stages of two streams of work that are today synonymous with Harvard Business School,” said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, “namely, corporate strategy, which takes the long, overarching view of a company’s direction and growth, and entrepreneurship, the process of pursuing opportunities beyond the resources currently controlled. This kind of groundbreaking research has influenced generations of MBA, Doctoral, and – for Norm in particular, who was a beloved teacher in our Owner/President Management Program -- Executive Education participants who have gone on to influence companies and economies around the globe.”
“Norm combined the best of both worlds,” added his colleague Michael Beer, the School’s Cahner-Rabb Professor of Business Administration Emeritus. “He had the intellectual rigor of an academic along with wonderful personal qualities. He was a true gentleman, a kind and compassionate human being.”
Berg was the author of five editions of Policy Formulation and Administration, a general management text and casebook, and the coauthor of General Management: An Analytic Approach. He also published a number of articles related to conglomerate management and was a prolific producer of case studies.
His best-known case focused on the Lincoln Electric Company, examining the strategy and management practices of the Cleveland, Ohio-based arc welding equipment manufacturer, which pays employees on a piece-by-piece base – a system that enabled many productive employees to bring home lucrative paychecks. Written in 1975, the case is still regularly taught in classes at HBS and many other business schools and ranks among the best-selling cases of all time. In addition, a number of years ago it helped inspire a “60 Minutes” segment in which Berg was interviewed on campus by CBS News correspondent Leslie Stahl.
In a 2005 interview, Berg expressed some surprise about the ongoing popularity of this case about a company in an obscure industry. "I think its durability comes from the opportunity to discuss the basic management issues it raises—the value of clear and consistent approaches to strategy, organization, and what motivates workers,” he said.
Norman Asplund Berg was born on Dec. 18, 1930, in Erie, Penn., the son of Norwegian immigrants who came to this country in the 1920s unable to speak English. Before too long, however, his father was filing patents related to the steel industry. The Great Depression hit the family hard, but they persevered thanks to help from The Salvation Army.
After graduating from high school, Berg went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1953 and then worked for several years as an engineer for U.S. Steel. Drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he served in an intelligence unit in Germany.
After his discharge, Berg entered the Harvard Business School MBA program in 1956. Among his classmates were Anthony Athos, Stephen Greyser, David Hawkins, William Poorvu, and Bruce Scott – all of whom eventually became professors with him on the HBS faculty – “a number that is not likely to be matched,” said Greyser, now the School’s Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus.
With his MBA degree in hand, Berg worked for a year as a financial analyst at Texas Instruments before spending a year in Switzerland conducting research at the IMEDE Management Development Institute in Lausanne, now part of the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), a leading international business school. He then returned to the United States to earn his doctorate at Harvard Business School. In addition to his various Harvard teaching assignments, Berg taught in other executive development programs in the United States and abroad.
He also served on the boards of several firms, including American Bakeries Company (now Interstate Bakeries Corporation); Grant Capital Management Corporation; Instrumentation Laboratory, Inc.; and the Northland Company.
Berg was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1980, had a cancerous kidney removed in 1985, and later had three lung operations when the cancer metastasized to his lungs. According to Professor Scott, who was his roommate in the Harvard MBA program, “With all these diagnoses, Norm was told he wouldn’t survive. Thankfully, he did and lived life to the fullest. But those health concerns hung over him for more than thirty years. Teaching, particularly in the OPM program, took his mind off the diagnoses and gave him considerable pleasure. He was a master at ensuring a balanced discussion in the classroom, focusing on the analytical process rather than the outcome.”
Berg is survived by his wife of fifty years, Cynthia (Pearson), and their two sons, Christopher, of Berkeley, Calif., and Eric, of Arlington, Mass.
Burial will be private. A memorial service will be held at the First Parish Church of Weston, 349 Boston Post Rd., on Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m., with a reception to follow.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Berg’s honor to the Salvation Army, PO Box 390647, 402 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139 and/or The Fellowship Program Endowed Fund, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, PO Box 849168, Boston, MA 02884-9168.