14- The Interlocking Systems of Postmodern Communities

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[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Pacific Soundings Press, P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]

Theme: The Postmodern Condition

Fundamental Question

What are the paradoxes, whip lashing contradictions and dizzying changes of which our world is made, and how might an appreciative perspective assist in responding to the challenges of this postmodern condition?

In our previous three essays we have explored the complex dynamics of our postmodern condition with regard to interlocking system and the simultaneous movement toward globalization and localization. We find this postmodern confusion and complexity regarding boundaries abundant inside 21st Century organizations. Probably the most dramatic instances of this blurring of boundaries are to be found in the new company towns that have sprung up in many high tech environments. Young knowledge workers seem to live-and-breathe their work in these exciting, fast-moving organizations. And the companies have accommodated their all-consuming passion for work by providing everything the knowledge worker needs right on site. Like the old company towns of the coal-mining era, the new company towns provide all the worldly goods.

New Company Towns and New Neighborhoods

Unlike the old company towns, however, no one is being forced to buy from the company store. Much more subtle forms of coercion are applied. One demonstrates loyalty to the company by working long hours, which in turn requires (for the sake of one’s sanity) the simplification of life away from work. One also finds one’s identity and sense of meaning in life and purpose in the organization; and the all-embracing company town offers a constant reminder and reinforcement of the core identity and values being proffered by the organization.

What do these company towns tell us about the diffusion of boundaries in our emerging postmodern society? First, they tell us that the traditional distinctions between work and home are crumbling. Thanks to computers, Faxes and cell phones we are bringing our work home and now, thanks to the company towns, we are also bringing our home into the workplace.

There is a second implication that may be of even greater importance: Our workplace is becoming our new neighborhood. We find our friends at work rather than on the block where we live. We don’t invite people to our home or even out for dinner. We now invite them to walk down the hall with us to the company restaurant. New life style enclaves (to use Robert Bellah’s term) are created: “clubs for chess, genealogy, gardening, model airplanes, public speaking, tennis, karate, scuba diving, charity and the like.” We even court and fall in love with our co-workers—a dangerous proposition given the potential for charges of sexual harassment: “The result [of the company towns] can be a weird sort of intimacy.”

The third implication may be even more disturbing. Work is now becoming the place where we find our own identity and sense of self-worth. One can thus live and breathe the organization without ever having to confront alternative realities or competing senses of self. We have both coached executives who behaved like compulsive workaholics: unable, even when their career and work conditions allowed it, to tear themselves away from the office or the computer. Sadly, deeper conversations often revealed how much more complicated and emotionally unpredictable life outside the office felt to them, and how scary. Do we stay at the office to avoid facing an unhealthy relationship, an aging parent or an exasperating ADHD child? Or is it because we spend so much time working (i.e. problem-solving) that we feel unable to handle the more subtle and patient interactions required outside the company town, especially when they won’t yield (as work can) immediate visible “success?”

Here is where the company town comes to our apparent rescue. It offers everything for the new knowledge worker (though at a rather substantial if subtle price). The organization in which we work has become our community of reference and the place many of us most want to be. Ilene Phillipson, a Berkeley psychologist recently noted that:

. . . none of the people I see want to spend more time at home, because work has become all sparkly and glittery, and home seems kind of empty and colorless. It’s frightening to see what their lives are like. I’m always trying to suggest that they pursue some new interest, that they get in touch with dreams they had as a kid. But they can’t think of anything! None of them. It reminds me of the women in the 50s who invested all of their identities in their husbands and then divorced. Where were they?  For many women of that era, it was really the end of their lives.

Blurring of Home and Work

Even if we are not part of the new company towns, we often still don’t know if we are inside or outside an organization. Given the proliferation of car phones, home computers, and home-based Faxes, it is often hard to determine if we are at home, on the road or at work. Automobiles become mobile offices that are equipped with cellular phone, pager, dictation machine, laptop computer (for the traffic jam), car fax machine, and cassette player (books on tapes). Given this gadget-filled vehicle, when do I begin work each day? Is my commute a time of day when I can recollect my thoughts, make the transition from home to work, and perhaps even daydream a bit, or is this the start of my busy work day?

The automobile has even become a part of our home. We find some quality time with our children as we transport them to school, or build close friendships with the men and women with whom we car pool. The automobile even becomes a setting for microwave ovens and all of those other remarkable domestic chores that we observe people do while driving—ranging from having breakfast to changing diapers to paying bills by phone, to buying gifts, to putting on their make-up or flossing their teeth.

Even when we are out of town, our motel or hotel room becomes our office—to an extent that the traveling salesman of the early Twentieth Century could not have possibly imagined:

Welcome to the world of bits, bauds, modems, laptops, taxes, E-mail, on-line data services, logon names, voice mail, pagers, cellular phones, and an electronic cornucopia of new hardware. An adventurous breed of top managers and professionals—call them the wired executives—stay on top of business wherever they are, anywhere in the world, with highly portable computers and telecommunication devices that liberate them from the constraints of the office. Universally, these peripatetic executives praise their newfound freedom. More than that, their use of electronic devices has made them enormously more productive and has saved them huge amounts of time in the office, on the road, and at home.

We must wonder about the long-term consequences of this newly found freedom and productivity. On the one hand, we can individually and collectively achieve more than any generation before us in less time. We enjoy world-wide experiences, friendships and knowledge. We can test our wildest ideas, wield enormous influence, and have great fun! Our needs for achievement and challenge are more than fulfilled, and this gives us a great sense of personal satisfaction. The community we create at work is not just a substitute. It’s a genuine crucible of interpersonal growth.

However, when does the executive relax, at the end of a hard day on the road? Not many years ago, we could all relax when we finally settled into our seat on an airplane, knowing that there was little we could do other than read, sleep or jot down a few notes. Now we can bring along our portable computer and can make use of the sky-phones and cell-phones to keep in close contact with our office. Is this a good thing? Is the edginess of the postmodern era a result of continuing confusion about what is work, what is home and what is leisure? What happens to the time that we save with our wonderful new devices? What happens to the time that we take away from our own lives and the lives of people with whom we don’t work (our friends and family)? Is the appointment that we are least likely to keep the one that we have made with ourselves? Or don’t we even bother to make this appointment, given all of the other demands on our time?

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