14- The Interlocking Systems of Postmodern Communities

October 27, 2008

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

[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?


13- The Interlocking Systems of Postmodernism

October 20, 2008

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

[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?

Physical scientists have suggested several different labels for the diverse—diverging, interlocking and unpredictable—systems that Peter Drucker and many postmodernists describe. Many physical scientists would consider these systems to be chaotic. These systems are justifiably identified as chaotic because behavior inside each system and between systems is neither predictable nor readily described. In recent years, however, the term chaotic has been reserved for systems that are much less coherent and structured than the world’s political and economic system described by Drucker and the postmodernists. The three-sphere world of Peter Drucker is more accurately identified as a complex or turbulent system in which domains of order (the dynamics operating within any one of the three spheres) are intermixed with domains of chaos (the dynamics operating between the three spheres). Highly complex systems are perhaps even more difficult to comprehend than chaotic systems, given that they seduce us with moments of rationality and clarity only to dart away into other moments of insanity and confusion, when their orderly subsystems collide with each other.

Dynamic Systems and Computer Modeling of the World

This recognition of complexity in the contemporary world system—and the accompanying interplay between globalization and segmentalization is perhaps most vividly represented in the attempts that have been made over the past four decades to create accurate computer-models of the economic, political and environmental dynamics of our world. Many of the high powered computer-models of our world (the models developed by Jay Forrester and his colleagues at M.I.T and Dartmouth College) have been highly successful in predicting and describing the general trends in our postmodern world.

They have not been very successful, however, when it comes to predicting the precise impact of global events (such as the availability of food or temperature changes) on specific geographic regions or societies in the world. Global computer-based models have now generally been replaced by models that acknowledge broad worldwide dynamics, while also recognizing that each of these dynamics plays out somewhat differently and at a different rate in each of several geographic regions of the world. While Forrester and his colleagues (notably Donella and Dennis Meadows) attempted to build a unified, world-based model of various ecological dynamics, Mesarovic and Pestel described and modeled a world in which subsystems offer their own distinctive, self-organizing dynamics.

We have been similarly unsuccessful in using global models to predict yet another complex and turbulent system—namely, the weather. We are not much better at making predictions that we were twenty or thirty years ago. Specific, localized aberrations or rogue events (what chaos theorists call the butterfly effect) that can neither be predicted nor adequately described apparently have a major influence on the weather that occurs in other, remote parts of the world. In North America we have seen the influence of El Niño (a small body of water off the western Central America coast), much as we recently witnessed the impact which conflicts in very small countries (Kuwait, Kosovo) or a sexual misadventure (the Monica scandal) has had on the entire world community.

Troubling Ambiguity: Shifting Boundaries and Multiple Roles

In his penetrating and controversial description and analysis of the postmodern world, Frederic Jameson speaks about the troubling ambiguities of the boundaries that exist in this new era. This troubling ambiguity exists at all levels—personal, group, organizational and societal. At the personal level, the postmodern world has helped to produce a sense of rootlessness—a pervasive sense of not quite belonging anywhere. One of the Tarot cards contains a portrait of the charioteer. This person carries his home on his back. He is always in transition and depends fully on the specific context in which he finds himself to determine what he believes and even who he is.

The postmodern charioteer is also without permanent holdings or tangible possessions. She may be wealthy, but her wealth is often quite transitory and based to some degree on smoke and mirrors rather than on anything one can touch and hold. The massive wealth that was made from the sale of stock in new e-commerce companies that had not even turned a profit yet – or the overnight losses in companies’ value and their employees’ net worth when unexpected bad news is made public – speak to this sense of impermanence, as do the many “virtual possessions” that people can now buy which are so readily disposable.

The Unbearable Lightness of Postmodern Being

Milos Kundera is often identified as one of the leading postmodern novelists. His perhaps most famous book is titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It describes the new forms of anomie (loss of identity) and alienation (sense of separation from everything and everybody) that was pervasive in Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation. Many social observers of our time suggest that this novel speaks not just to the Soviet culture, but also to the postmodern culture to be found in many contemporary societies. Projecting this into our new century, Bill Joy would seem to be in support of this conclusion. He has rather cryptically suggested a pervasive weightlessness in our postmodern society:

George Carlin observed humorously that our houses are the places where we keep all our stuff, and that if we didn’t have so much stuff we could just wander around. As digitalization [of many commodities] drives the weight of things to zero, we are becoming much more nomadic. .  .  Physical retail spaces are getting replaced with virtual e-commerce places, eliminating the physical stores between the warehouses and the customer; college campuses for continuing education are being replaced with distance learning, eliminating the classrooms; buyers and sellers can find each other in online auctions, proving much more efficient markets. The encompassing trend is that most complex systems with centralized control are giving way to simple distributed systems. . . .

Joy further suggests that the new digital revolution not only encourages us to become weightless nomads. It also invades our privacy—further disrupting the boundaries between self and other:

As the wireless network makes us more nomadic, we clearly will have the power to remove bothersome space and time constraints from our lives. Yet the same technologies that make possible wireless ubiquity and nomadism threaten our privacy. . . . We are likely to find ourselves living in a world where every action will be watched the way the actions of celebrities are scrutinized today. The vulnerability and anxiety that we feel as our lives become electronic is already the stuff of Hollywood movies like The Net. . . .

Joy is not very optimistic about our changes of successfully addressing this potential invasion of privacy given our track record during the modern era:

The tendency will be for the new digital landscape to leave its inhabitants too exposed—cell phones ring in the theater, miniaturized Web cameras and microphones observe us clandestinely, data-mining reveals our habits and predilections. Will digital design save us by restoring some sense of privacy and anonymity? History suggests we can botch it badly. The last major man-made overlay on civilization’s landscape was the automobile. Even though we love our cars, we did a horrible job with them—they pollute, they isolate, and they have changed the landscape in ways that make them both incredibly frustrating and absolutely essential. If we are to build a new digital overlap on our world, we must do better this time.


04- Poised on the Edge of Order and Chaos

July 27, 2008

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

[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[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 Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging the Role of Chaos in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

In a 1991 article in Scientific American that has become a classic in the field, Stuart Kauffman introduces a new concept of chaos and order. He describes three different categories or states in which many systems can be placed. One of these states is highly ordered and structured. Kauffman draws an analogy between this state and the solid state that water takes when it is frozen. A second state is highly chaotic. Kauffman equates this state with the gaseous form which water takes when it is evaporating. The third (most interesting) state is one of transition between order and chaos, which Kauffman equates with the liquid state of water. The differentiation between solid, gaseous and liquid networks can be of significant value in setting the context for any discussion of postmodernism in organizations—and, in particular, the irreversibility of many organizational processes. We must look not only at ordered networks—the so-called solid state—and at chaotic networks—the so-called gaseous state—but also at liquid networks that hover on the brink of chaos, if we are to understand and influence our unique postmodern institutions.

The third (liquid) state holds great potential when we examine and seek to understand confusing and often elusive organizational phenomena such as intentions, leadership and communication. Turbulent rivers, avalanches, shifting weather patterns, and other conditions that move between order and chaos typify the liquid state. Liquid systems contain chaotic elements as well as elements of stability. There are both quiet pools and eddies in a turbulent river. Mountain avalanches consist of not only rapidly moving volumes of snow but also stable snow packs on top of which, around which, or onto which the cascading snow moves. Stable and chaotic weather patterns intermingle to form overall climatic patterns on our planet.

The liquid state is one that is filled with edges and shifting boundaries. A liquid, edgy state is also filled with the potential for learning. A liquid system has the capacity to adjust and rework itself into an orderly, solid state. At certain points, however, the solid state (the eddy, the snow pack, or the stable weather pattern) reaches a super-critical state and can no longer adjust to the addition of another change or variant in pattern. At this point the system becomes fluid and an avalanche occurs. Portions of the system take on a very different form, and the system can once again adjust to the addition of a few changes or alterations in pattern. We would suggest that most organizations live on the edge, in the liquid state, poised on the edge of chaos. Furthermore, organizations are dynamic systems that can adjust based on quick and accurate feedback systems. This is first-order change. Yet, at a super-critical stage, organizations can no longer adjust. They can no longer accept any additional change or crisis. The one additional piece of straw has broken the camel’s back. An avalanche begins and the organization changes in a profound manner. This is second-order change. (see our initial description of first and second order change in essay 1.2)

The theory of self-organizing criticality (or weak chaos) and edginess suggests that small events (first order changes) such as a shift in leadership will usually produce only minor alterations in the structure and dynamics of the organization (the snow pack will get a bit wider or a bit higher). However, a change in leadership sometimes will create a major second-order alteration (an avalanche). Furthermore, while the outcomes are dramatically different, Bak and Chen have proposed that the same processes are involved in the initiation of both the minor and major changes, and that the onset of the major event can not be predicted—in part because the same process brings about both outcomes.

The liquid state and the edge are places of leadership and innovation (“the leading edge”). They are settings where things get done—yet often in the context of a very challenging and exhausting environment (what Peter Vail describes as a white water world). Edges have no substance. They come to a point and then disappear. Perhaps this is what the new postmodern edginess is all about—what Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being.” We need to learn how to live and work in this new environment of edges. If this is the case, then perhaps we need to listen to the architects and prophets of postmodernism, for they may provide some valuable clues as to how this world might best be faced. These architects and prophets come in many different forms: deconstructionists, feminists, chaos theorists, structuralists. This blog is devoted, in part, to the examination of these postmodernists as they might help inform and revise our assumptions about the nature, purpose and dynamics of those organizations in which we live and work.