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Technology, market change and the privatisation of communications in Britain

Edward A. Smith (Wokingham U3A, Wokingham, UK)

Journal of Management History

ISSN: 1751-1348

Article publication date: 18 August 2021

Issue publication date: 9 March 2022




What are the trade-offs between public and private ownership in the business and how does this impact industries responsible for providing and offering services on critical national infrastructure? The privatisation of British Telecom (BT), the UK telecommunications provider that was initially part of the British Post Office, is used to explore this question. By broadening the business perspective beyond the political goals and economic consequences of privatisation; this study aims to approach management history provides new perspectives of the benefits and challenges offered by both public and private ownership.


To fulfil its purpose, this paper examines how the UK telecommunications incumbent proactively adapted from being an organisation shaped by its unique position within the public sector, to one embracing the challenges offered by the private sector. The analysis is synthesised by linking an understanding of the customer’s requirements, services and technology with surveys of the secondary literature, supported where applicable by archival material, combining perspectives from authors both within the organisation and external to it. Sources include specialist and more general academic material and contemporary and reflective publications from practising engineers and managers; supplemented by material held at the BT Archives and the Guildhall Library in London. It links the debate on ownership to the evolution of the market under study and provides a balanced view across the business, its market, competition and technology.


The arguments surrounding public or private ownership, are complex, in particular, it is difficult to separate effects due to liberalisation and privatisation. Whilst the former provided the impetus for beneficial change, the latter reduced the level of detrimental entanglement with government policy and enabled the technology and structural changes that took the market forward.


A new and balanced view of the privatisation of BT is taken, with an emphasis on how the company needed to change to thrive in a liberalised market, noting how technological change both required organisational change and enabled it. In contrast to many studies, the emphasis is on what was driving the organisation rather than the policy of privatisation and its effectiveness.



The author would like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers from the Journal of Management History for their helpful thought provoking and insightful comments.


Smith, E.A. (2022), "Technology, market change and the privatisation of communications in Britain", Journal of Management History, Vol. 28 No. 2, pp. 215-235.



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