08- The Tale of Three Societies: II. The Modern and Postmodern

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

II. The Modern and Postmodern

Theme: Leaders are Embedded in Three Worlds

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach in such widely differing social systems that now exist in our 21 Century world?

In my previous blog I described the fundamental nature of societies that might best be assigned the label “premodern.” In this blog I turn to two other societal structures: the modern and postmodern.

Modern Societies

The modern society is a byproduct of Western industrialization. As machine were being invented and built that enabled mass production, there was an increasing need for centralization of both capital (for the machines were very expensive) and a work force (to run the machines). Extended families from premodern communities were broken up as the younger members of the family were lured by the prospect of money and material possessions to the new urban centers of industry. Of even greater importance (especially in modern American life) was the creation of a new form of community—called the suburb. Often identified as “the sultans of sprawl,” William Levitt, James Rouse and Robert Moses led the way following World War II by creating the first large-scale housing developments (Levitttown, New York), commercial malls (Rouse) and expressways (Moses) to connect the suburbs to one another and the urban centers that employed the suburbanites.[i]

The new industrial workers discovered a new commodity: money. They soon substituted wages for the production (or bartering) of their own food or commodities. With the shift to a money-based economy came the vast expansion of financial institutions. While banks exist in premodern societies (primarily to serve the upper class), they play a much larger role in modern societies, serving not only as a safe repository for saved money, but also as a source of unearned money. The modern worker soon discovered that banks would enable them to spend money that they had not yet earned and to take out long-term loans to make major purchases (especially homes). Modern societies inevitably become communities of debt and money becomes the most valued entity in these societies.

Industrial workers also substitute employment in modern organizations for their premodern reliance on the extended family. The organization becomes their new source of security and they look to their work site for friendship and a sense of purpose and community. Increasingly, the modern worker also began to look to the government for basic social services: education, health, retirement. Thus, we find in the modern society not only expansion in the size of private industrial organizations, but also in the size and scope of public institutions. Public education, social welfare and medical services for the elderly became the givens of modern societies. Citizens no longer looked primarily to their family or to their church or other philanthropic organizations for support. Rather, government became the new guarantor of health and happiness. Government soon also entered the much more controversial arenas of organizational operations (labor law and affirmative action), family life (protection of children against abuse) and private morality (the right for women to abort an unborn child).

With mass production came a shift in focus from quality to quantity. Industrialization (and an accompanying capacity for widespread distribution of products) shifted the focus of economics to productivity. Industries (and the workers in these industries) were considered successful if they were highly productive. High levels of productivity in turn led to the need for marketing and a new emphasis on sales. Profit could only be derived from large volume sales (to make up for the initial costs associated with purchase of the mass production equipment). Productivity without sales yielded nothing but a costly surplus of goods. The modern era (in conjunction with the move to suburbia) brought about the department store, the franchise fast food industry, and the abiding concern about crab grass and lawn fertilizers. Thus, the industrial revolution became a Commercial Revolution.

While the premodern craftsman typically only made a product when it was requested and tended to custom make each item, mass production processes called for uniformity of product and for interchangeable parts. The new emphasis on uniform production and marketing and sales set the stage for new organizational roles that were not directly connected to the production process. These non-production roles in marketing, sales and production control were soon complimented by another set of organizational roles—those associated with the overall coordination of organizational functions. These roles (called “management”) soon came to dominate the culture of the modern organization and provided much of the leadership for 20th Century organizations. Thus, the industrial and commercial revolutions produced yet another revolution: the Managerial Revolution.

Postmodern Societies

The new social structures into which the more privileged people of the world are moving offers a remarkable mixture (hybrid/pastiche/mosaic) of the premodern, modern and postmodern. New communities are being formed that in some ways resemble the premodern villages of olden times—yet these new communities are formed around electronic communication systems and the new digital economies of the 21st Century. We are returning to bartering systems, but are now negotiating exchanges over the Internet rather than down at the Town Square. The big businesses of the modern era continue to exist, but are now competing or cooperating with the small e-commerce businesses of the postmodern world. We are returning to premodern rituals and spirituality, while proclaiming our modern-day independence from superstitions and dependence on science and technology. In a futuristic image offered by David Gelernter in Mirror World, the new world will be one in which the premodern sense of an intimate community is interwoven with postmodern technology:[ii]

Imagine that when you are in town, the town is aware of your presence, and of who your friends are and where they are. You may be driving along and be told that someone you haven’t seen for a while is having coffee just over there (and there is a parking space out front, too!) Simple things like this may begin to restore the human scale to our now-so-large cities.

Our new postmodern world comes to us complete with new heroes (ranging between Bill Gates and Madonna) and new legends (such as the sagas of Elvis Presley and Nelson Mandella – to mention the extremes). It also comes to us with great promises (universal education, abundant food sources, new forms of energy) as well as daunting challenges (over population, environmental collapse, virulent plagues). Each of these promises and challenges is global in nature and scope. A level of cooperation between nation-states is required that has never been achieved in either the premodern or modern era. The new global village must look to new strategies and discover new answers, while also honoring the wisdom and values of past eras. Our emerging postmodern era is perhaps best described as an edgy experience: we are poised on the edge of both chaos and order. We know something about what is to come, yet don’t know exactly what form the new will take. As Salmon Rushdie queried in his very postmodern and life-threatening (for him) novel, The Satanic Verse:[iii]How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive extreme and dangerous as it is?”

Transition in Organizational

Forms and Roles

We propose that the transition from the premodern to the modern society has produced a comparable transition in the form that organizations take and the roles being played by people who work within these organizations. Furthermore, there are comparable changes in organizational forms and roles that are taking place with the transition from a modern to postmodern society. In many cases, technology is the common element in bringing about the transition from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern in both social structures and organizational forms and roles. New machine-based technologies created the industrial era, which transformed the ways in which people lived.

These technologies also produced the organizational transformations from premodern to modern. A new machine that can produce five thousand widgets an hour replaces low wage workers who can each mold only two hundred widgets per hour. The workers are now shifted to jobs that require monitoring of machine output or to jobs requiring the packaging of the widgets to be shipped half way around the world. Other workers obtain a high school or even college education and enter the organization as marketing experts (so that potential buyers half way around the world will come to believe that their life is unfulfilled without widgets). Others enter the modern organization as accountants (since monetary exchange has replaced bartering in a world where purchasers live many miles away). The largest proportion of workers now enter the organization as managers (for all of the other functionaries in the organization need to be coordinated, motivated and assessed). Thus, from the introduction of new technologies into an organization comes a sequence of events and decisions that produce new organizational forms and new organizational roles.

A similar case can be made with regard to the transition from modern to postmodern social structures and organizational forms and roles. Technology has once again served as the primary transformer of both social and organizational structures. We are therefore in an excellent position to learn from the previous technological impacts that transformed our premodern societies. As Justin Fox noted in a special 1999 issue of Fortune (anticipating the new century):[iv]

. . . despite the prophets of the Digital Age who depict it as unprecedented, it’s not. Just take a look at business history—which really only begins about 500 years ago. That’s when the Commercial Revolution began in Western Europe, replacing eons of stagnation with global trade, sophisticated financial markets, increasing specialization of labor—and economic growth. This was a true revolution, a complete and total break with the past built around one of the essential realizations of the age, as laid out by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations in 1776: The true wealth of a nation is measured not by how much gold it possesses [the premodern emphasis on natural resources], but by what it can produce [the modern emphasis on productivity].

This laid the groundwork for a series of technology-related revolutions—of which the Internet is only the most recent. The most important of these breakthroughs made workers (and capital) more productive, and brought us to the unprecedentedly wealthy, unprecedentedly crowded, unprecedentedly connected, unprecedentedly complicated state in which we find ourselves. Once you look back at the early days of the factory, the railroad, the automobile, and especially the harnessing of electricity, a lot of what seems new about the Internet starts looking familiar. Better yet, you begin to get a sense of how this particular shakeup might play out.


[i] Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life in the New Frontier.

[ii] Bill Joy, “Design for the digital revolution,” Fortune, March 6, 2000, p. 15.

[iii]Quoted by Edmundson. Prophet of a New Postmodernism. Harper’s 1989.

[iv] Justin Fox, “How new is the Internet, really?” Fortune, November 22, 1999, pp. 174-175.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: