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?

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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.

 


12- A Fragmented, Paradoxical Image: Globalization and Localization

October 13, 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?

According to the postmodernists, our world is becoming progressively more global, while it is also becoming progressively more segmented and differentiated. Though many of the postmodernist theorists spoke of this contradictory trend in our world at least ten to fifteen years ago, it is remarkable how contemporary this perspective seems to be, given the developments in Europe (and elsewhere in the world) over the past decade. While European countries are moving toward a unified common market and community, we also see the movement (particularly in Eastern Europe) toward increased nationalism and factionalism among specific national, ethnic and racial groups.

Globalization is Alive and Well

From one perspective, globalism thrives. Corporate executives throughout the world share values and language more common to them than to the nations they hail from. Western business culture is studied and emulated in the remotest of regions, playing out the value systems of the first world with great commercial success. And studies show that the world by and large likes the prospects of individual prosperity that globalization seems to hold out hope for.

We are increasingly successful in saying a few things that are universal for all people. Walter Truett Anderson suggests a list of “ordinary ideas” that are held by most people in the world:

The commonality arises in part from shared experiences, which in turn are the product of the electronically-mediated global community of which Marshall McLuhan spoke prophetically over many years ago. We can create world-encompassing computer-based models that predict the flow of resources, the growth of population and the decay of our ecology with frightening accuracy. Similarly we can now trace worldwide trends in fashion, movies and other expressions of popular culture. This point is vividly confirmed in the specter of a young man in China or a young woman in Iraq, wearing a T-Shirt with a picture of an American sports hero or comic character, trying to either defy or defend a culture that is radically different from our own. We now have global life styles and many more intersect cultures that readily cross and borrow from many different societies and social values. The bohemian, international society of Paris during the 1920s was replicated in the 1990s in many urban settings, ranging from Hong Kong and Singapore to London and even Moscow.

At a much deeper level, there is even the possibility (or is it only a hope?) that countries with differing levels of economic development are drawing closer. On the one had, there is a growing awareness in at least some Western countries that “cultures, non-European, non-Western cultures, must be met by means other than conquest and domination.” In the Nonwestern world on the other hand, there is growing recognition that issues of ecology and the environment are not just capitalistic or imperialistic artifacts, nor primarily a matter of politics. There is a deepening sense that the ecological perspective itself offers a penetrating critique of the modern way of life which the developing world both wants and does not want to embrace.

Localization is Also Alive and Well!

The picture gets more complex – and fragmented. New ways to divide the world are springing up. Robert Barnett is developing a cult following both among “the flags” (generals) and C-SPAN viewers, the crowd who gets its news “straight” and doesn’t like what they perceive as the spin of other channels. Barnett sees the world breaking into “core” and “gap” countries, the first being largely democratic and not warring with each other, and the second representing countries with lower levels of education, GDP, women’s rights and overall political participation. Are these two groups inevitably fated to collide in a “war of civilizations,” as Barnett asserts and Samuel Huntington prophesied before 9/11? 

Thomas Friedman similarly described the simultaneous strengthening of a global, high technology society (symbolized by the “Lexus” car) and a resurgence of nationalism and local traditions (the “Olive Tree,” the nurturing and nourishing symbol of belonging]. He suggests that the contemporary political conflicts and threats of terrorism throughout the world can be attributed in the final analysis to the tension between these two contradictory forces, often played out within the same community and even one individual. Think of the global manager, who speaks English all day, video-conferences with colleagues all around the world,  manages resources for the profitability of the firm, and then spends his evenings and vacations speaking his native tongue, participating in religious and ethnic communities that think and judge life from a very different perspective than his day-time environment.

In recent years, Peter Drucker has tried to make sense of this interplay between globalization and segmentalization by focusing on the “growing incongruence between economic reality and political reality”:

[B]usiness—and increasingly many other institutions as well—can no longer define their scope in terms of national economies and national boundaries. They have to define their scope in terms of industries and services worldwide. But at the same time, political boundaries are not going to go away. In fact, it is doubtful that even the new regional economic units, the European Community, the North American Free Trade Zone (NAFTA) or MercoSur, the proposed economic community in South America, will actually weaken political boundaries, let alone overcome them.

Drucker pushes the image of complexity and even contradiction further by suggesting that there are actually three overlapping spheres in our contemporary postmodern world:

There is a true global economy of money and information. There are regional economies in which goods circulate freely and in which impediments to the movement of services and people are being cut back, though by no means eliminated. And then increasingly there are national and local realities, which are both economic, but above all political. And all three [spheres] are growing fast. And businesses—and other institutions, for example, universities—have no choice. They have to live and perform in all spheres, and at the same time. This is the reality on which strategy has to be based. But no management anyplace knows yet what this reality actually means. They are all still groping.

Globalization author Stephen Rhinesmith warns that to operate globally, today’s executive needs both a very high level of intellectual sophistication as well as an evolved capacity to work across cultures and in matrix structures, with reporting lines and conflict resolution processes that require continuous negotiation between remote teams and individuals.

We see the interplay between globalization and localization played out on a much smaller stage each day around the world. It is played out in the use of language. While English has become the language of global commerce and political debate, local languages have re-emerged in importance in many corners of the world. English is not the first language for most people; rather it is the third language —the first language being each person’s local language (e.g. Taiwanese in Taiwan) and the second language often being the formal, national language (Mandarin in Taiwan).

Thus, while the postmodern world is noted for its diffuse boundaries, this new World Order is also composed of a set of discrete, competing entities whose clash of values and priorities will never allow global tranquility to exist. We have seen the reemergence of small nation-states and of nationalities within countries. While efforts are being made to bring people together and to minimize differences—as in the creation of a unified European Community—there is a simultaneous movement toward articulating and even exaggerating differences in religion, politics, culture and language. At the heart of this emphasis on differences and national character is the remembering of values and social purposes at both a national and organizational level. Does this emergence of a clear sense of distinctive intention—rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the industrial modern era—portend the return to a pre-modern emphasis on the spiritual domain of organizational life?

We find this same interplay between globalism and localism manifest throughout American society. We know of the role of the United States as the single global power in the world today and of the struggles both within the United States and within virtually all other countries in the world to come to terms with this unique global condition. By contrast, we also know of the movement back to local community and to fundamental religious and ethnic values in contemporary American life.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues write about new forms of community that are to be found in the United States. In the modern world that we are leaving behind, men, women and children lived in small, geographically contained communities (villages, towns, small cities). According to Bellah, we now find the postmodern community in “life-style enclaves.” These enclaves are constituted of people who usually don’t live near each other (except in the case of enclaves that are age-related, such as singles-oriented condos or retirement communities). Rather, members of the enclave share something that brings them together frequently or on occasion. These life style enclaves may be found in Porsche-owner clubs or among those who regularly attend specific sporting events. They are also found among churchgoers and those who attend fashionable nightclubs. Regardless of the type of enclave that someone chooses, this enclave contributes to the diversity and ultimately the unpredictability of the larger social system of which the enclave’s participants are members.

 


11- The Nature of Appreciation in a Postmodern Context

October 6, 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?

Many 21st Century societies today are faced with three challenging conditions. First, they are guided by a fragmented and often paradoxical image of their present condition and their future condition. Their present condition includes both a strong trend toward globalization and an equally strong trend toward localization. We live in a world that challenges us to be aware of and interact with other people and cultures throughout the world – Thomas Friedman’s flat world—while also challenging us to retain our local customs and loyalties (a new form of tribalism) leading to what Robert Bellah and his colleagues describe as isolating “life style enclaves.”

Second, we are faced with what Frederick Jameson identifies as the condition of “troubling ambiguity.” Boundaries of all sorts are being shattered or are shifting in unpredictable ways – boundaries between work and home, between countries, between private and public lives, between being inside an organization and being affiliated loosely with an organization.

Third, leadership is being defined in new ways—the old distinction between the task-oriented leader and the people-oriented leader is no longer sufficient, given the other postmodern challenges facing contemporary organizations and societies. Leaders are successful to the extent that they can embrace a broad repertoire of strategies and serve as learners (not just sources of wisdom), risk-takers and entrepreneurs (not just fight leaders) and servants of a compelling image of the future (not just visionaries).

Given the postmodern interplay between globalization and localization, we can expect many leaders to simultaneously play on the global stage and the local stage. We can also expect them to be deeply embedded in their own organization (as a new neighborhood) while seeking to retain a viable family and community life. The boundaries between work and home are inevitably blurred, leaving little time, in many instances, for leaders to reflect or plan ahead. These postmodern conditions confront the leader with challenges that require both courage and insight. If leadership is situational, coaching and consulting programs are called upon to provide leadership development of the most customized and “just-in-time” kind.

In this essay and in the next three essays on this blog, we examine these postmodern conditions and begin to explore ways in which an appreciative perspective can help to not only illuminate some of these conditions but also provide us with preliminary strategies for dealing with the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of postmodern life.

The Postmodern Revolution

I cannot remember exactly when I first encountered the term postmodernism. I probably reacted to it in much the same way as I did to the various other “isms” that have come and gone over the past couple of decades, hoping that it would disappear under the weight of its own incoherence or simply lose its allure as a fashionable set of ‘new ideas.’ But it seemed as if the clamour of postmodernist arguments increased rather than diminished with time. Once connected with poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and a whole arsenal of other ‘new ideas,’ postmodernism appeared more and more as a powerful configuration of new sentiments and thoughts.

 – David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity

As leaders we are entering a changing world of relationships and ideas. It is often called “the postmodern revolution.” The postmodern world is in the midst of being born. It does not yet have clear definition, other than its origins in and difference from the modern era. Hence the name postmodern. It is still defined with reference to its mother (modernism) rather than having broken off as a free and independent movement or set of ideas and images with its own distinctive name. Even though postmodernism is young and therefore still filled with superficial, facile and often internally contradictory analyses, it cannot be dismissed, for these analyses offer insightful and even essential perspectives and critiques regarding an emerging era.

In the postmodern camp there is neither the interest in the systematic building of theory, nor the interest in warfare between competing paradigms. Rather everything is pre-paradigmatic,  i.e. there is an attempt to live and function without the scaffolding of paradigms of thought. One of the reasons for such a divestiture is seemingly the sheer impossibility of “knowing.” Tom Peters acknowledges that in the early 1980s he knew something about how organizations achieved excellence. By the late 1980s, he discovered that he was mistaken. Many of the excellent organizations of the early 1980s became troubled institutions by the late 1980s.

Other theorists and social observers have been similarly humbled by the extraordinary events of the 1980s and 1990s. They just haven’t been as forthcoming (or opportunistic) as Tom Peters.

“Postmodernism at its deepest level,” notes Andreas Huyssen, “represents not just another crisis within the perpetual cycle of boom and bust, exhaustion and renewal, which has characterized the trajectory of modernist culture.” Rather, the postmodern condition “represents a new type of crisis of that modernist culture itself.” Many futurists (especially those who focus on the environment) similarly speak of a crisis-of-crises. This crisis-of-crises and the ambiguity, the paradoxes and the irony that accompany this era of grand questioning are founded in the interplay between globalization and localization and, even more fundamentally, in the interplay between order and chaos as we are beginning to understand them. We turn in our next essays to a more in-depth analysis of these crisis-of-crises.

 


10- Postmodern Perspectives on Organizational Life

September 8, 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 Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: 21st Century Leaders Are Faced with the Difficult Challenge of Working in Postmodern Organizations

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach within highly challenging settings that require the use of new strategies as well as the return to the old strategies and images of both premodern and modern societies?

In the previous essay on this blog I summarized the essential differences between organizations that exist and operate within premodern, modern and postmodern societies. In this essay, I focus specifically on some of the most salient characteristics of 21st Century organizations that face the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of a postmodern world.

On The Edge

The postmodernists tell us that boundaries and edges are the primary source of activity and information in any system. Furthermore, we can best understand an organization by examining its edges and the ways in which it interacts with other elements of its environment. They encourage us to consider the edginess of the emerging postmodern era not simply as a restatement of the modern “age of anxiety” but rather as a sign of the rich potential that confronts us in our information-rich world.  Postmodernists encourage us to identify differences that truly make a difference in our world. We must discard that which is superficially interesting but transitory and determine that which we individually and collectively should attend to at any point in time. Information that is solicited from the identification of differences becomes critical to any leader or manager in a postmodern organization.

Many organizational theorists of our time are coming to recognize the importance of detecting change and difference. It is often too late to respond when change and difference is very gradual or when it is noticed after considerable delay. Delay in the flow of information and slow response-time often leaves an organization in a vulnerable position. We have only to look at the American auto industry or, more broadly, the world’s ecology to appreciate the devastating effect of delayed recognition of a problematic change.

Interplay between Order and Chaos

In considering the organizational dimension of size and complexity, postmodernists often find themselves addressing a more basic issue concerning the interplay between order and chaos. Sometimes organizations seem to make sense. The policies and procedures look right (at least on paper) and things seem to be moving along in a predictable manner. At other times, everything seems to be fragmented and chaotic. Nothing makes any sense in the organization and one wonders if the center can hold. Postmodern theorists (especially those who are studying chaotic systems) suggest that these seemingly contradictory observations are actually a result of examining the organization at different levels.

Organizations (like virtually all other systems) contain layers of chaos and order. When confronted with a seemingly chaotic and unpredictable organization, we have only to move up one level (to greater abstraction), or down one level (to greater specificity), if we wish to find order. Thus, for instance, the behavior of a specific person may begin to make some sense once we begin to examine overall dynamics in her department rather than just look at her individual behavior. Organizational theorists tell us about the deskilling of managers or subordinates that often occurs in organizations and the ways in which this deskilling contributes in some manner to the maintenance of stability in this department.

Similarly, we can move up or down levels of analysis to find chaos in an organization that seems to be orderly. The operation of a ballet or theater company, for instance, may look very orderly from the audience’s perspective. At a higher level, however, everything may look quite chaotic (inadequate funding, props that never arrive, recalcitrant performers)—just as at the level of the individual performer we will find stage fright, confusion, rivalry and other forms of non rational and chaotic behavior that are never seen by the appreciative audience. Similarly, in many large organizations, the customers (and perhaps even corporate board members) are never allowed to witness its pervasive chaos. We polish and rationalize (public relations) decisions that have been made in highly irrational ways and in complex, unpredictable settings.

Organizational Anchors and Forms

Postmodernists also have something to teach us about the mission and boundaries of the organizations in which we find ourselves. They employ rich and provocative metaphors to describe the distinctive ways in which organizations operation. Postmodernists, for instance, point to the need for anchors that provide both stability and flexibility to organizations as they negotiate with an unpredictable and turbulent external environment. These anchors exist at both the individual level (often called career anchors) and at the organizational level (often called organizational charters).

The postmodernists also speak of the differences between more traditional organizations that resemble maple trees (with deeply rooted identities and highly complex and differentiated structures), and some of the newer organizations that more closely resemble palm trees (with highly flexible and replicable structures but shallow root systems and short lives). The maple tree organization grows and changes very slowly, for each growth phase or change on the part of one branch on the tree ultimately requires a readjustment of all the other branches of the tree. By contrast, change in the palm tree organization is readily introduced, for each unit of the organization operates independently and need not adjust appreciably to changes in other parts of the organization. Both types of organizations make sense in the postmodern world. One must decide, however, which is appropriate to one’s own organization, or risk organizational dysfunction and death.

Spiritual Leadership

The third postmodern topic to be considered is the spiritual aspects of leadership. Leaders of the postmodern world must navigate a treacherous white water environment, which is filled with unpredictability and the need for short-term survival tactics, as well as long-term strategies based on broad visions and deeply embedded values. Leaders must be sources of integration in post-modern organizations. They serve in this integrative role primarily through the creation and sustenance of community and through serving in the role of servant to those with whom they work.

The notions of community and servanthood, in turn, lead us away from the traditional (both premodern and modern) notions of a society based on dominance, to a society based on partnership and collaboration. These styles of leadership have often been more commonly found among women than among men. The sacred model of leadership calls into question much of the traditional managerial training of leaders and many of the motives that guide men and women to seek positions of leadership in our society.

Organizational Bifurcation and Groping

The fourth theme to be addressed concerns two processes associated with institutional change: bifurcation and groping. These processes share a common emphasis on the systemic, yet often unpredictable, nature of any change process (the layering of chaos and order about which we have already written). The process of groping or bifurcation (splitting) focuses on the role played by specific, critical events (often called rogue events) or by shifts in the status of an established component of an organization (often described as self-organizing criticality).

Relatively minor change (at the right time and the right place) has a profound impact on the long-term trajectory of the organization. These minor changes can be tipping points for major organizational and societal transformations. There is unpredictability in the case of any form of planned change—especially when the change involves a transformational shift in the level at which a problem is being addressed or in the basic operating patterns of an organization. These transforming (second-order) changes are increasingly common in our postmodern world and require new modes of problem solving and learning.

Organizations as Relationships and Conversations

Conversation is the fifth organizational perspective to be considered in a unique and provocative manner by various postmodern theorists. The flow of energy or material resources is dominant in most material systems. By contrast, human systems (and organizations in particular) rely on the flow of information which, in turn, is embedded in a complex network of relationships and conversations. Some postmodernists (especially those who identify themselves as “de-constructionists”) consider organizations to be nothing more than a web of relationships and conversations. Even the structures and products of an organization are secondary in most contemporary organizations to the conversations that occur regarding these structures and products.

Stated in somewhat different terms, most people, resources and attention in present-day organizations are devoted not to the direct production of goods or direct provision of services, but to the use of verbal and written modes of communication about these goods and services. These extended conversations are required if large and complex organizations are to be held together. The center will hold in major organizations only when a significant proportion of the resources of the organization are devoted to integrative, indirect services (such as quality control, coordination, cost monitoring, planning and record keeping) rather than direct services (such as production, sales and repair). Except in small organizations, most of the time is spent by members of organizations in communicating with other people in the organization or outside the organization. We must rethink the ways in which we lead and influence the direction of these information-based entities if our organizations are nothing more (and nothing less) than extended conversations.

Story telling and narrative are central to the postmodern condition. Stories are the lifeblood and source of system maintenance in organizations. The construction of stories about organizational successes and failures is key to the processes of personal and organizational transformation, much as the role played by remnants and enemies is central to the preservation of continuity and openness in the turbulent postmodern environment. We must find ways in which storytellers, remnants of a former era and even our enemies can become honored participants in organizational improvement efforts.

Covenant and Culture

The final postmodern topic concerns the establishment of commitment and reflection within organizations. Building on the concepts of organizational conversations, rogue events and transformations, and leaders as spiritual guides, this postmodern perspective on work and its value emphasizes the role of reflection in the improvement of individual or collective enterprise. While organizational transformation often seems thunderous, individual men and women walk silently into the world of personal transformation. Postmodern conditions usually require small steps toward renewal rather than elaborate plans. These conditions also require a shift to different levels of understanding and new modes of learning.

In the modern world, boundaries (and identities defined by roles and rules) served as containers of anxiety. In the postmodern world, we must look to an inner sense of self and to an outer structure of support and community for shelter, stability and insight in an edgy and turbulent world. At the heart of this process is a search for sanctuary. Sanctuaries may be found in physical locations (a retreat or mountain cabin), within one’s local surroundings (“a room of one’s own”) or within one’s self (a moment for reflection). Regardless of its location, a sanctuary involves the creation and maintenance of temporary settings in which people can reflect on and planning for second order changes, try out small first order changes, and experience supportive and renewing community.

As we note throughout this series of essays, leaders must find commitment within the postmodern world—even within the context of faith and doubt. Each of us—whether in the role of formal leader or faced with moments of temporary leadership—must discover ways in which we make commitments and take action, while keeping a relativistic stance in a world that no longer allows for a stable ground of reference. We must often look to that which is old and that with which we disagree to find the balance and the kernel of truth that we need to navigate successfully in our turbulent and confusing postmodern world. We return to the wisdom found in virtually all premodern cultures concerning the facade of progress and the ephemeral nature of planning. While standing on the edge of a postmodern world, we must discover wisdom in the patience and persistence of premodern man. We must return to premodern perspectives regarding the sacred nature of human organizations and once again listen to enlightening stories regarding our own human history and destiny. Only in this way can we successfully tend the complex and irreversible fires of the postmodern world.

Reference


Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. 


09- The Tale of Three Organizations

September 2, 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 me at P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]

 

Theme: 21st Century Leaders Are Faced with the Difficult Challenge of Working in Three Different Kinds of Organizations

 

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach with in widely differing settings in which organizational culture varies and organizational structures and processes vary so widely?

 

In my two previous essays on this blog I described the fundamental nature of societies that might best be assigned the labels “premodern”, “modern” and “postmodern”. In this essay I briefly, but systematically, review many of the elements of three types of organizations and suggest several perspectives and strategies by which the leaders of contemporary organizations can survive in and even help to co-create our emerging postmodern world. Eight dimensions are commonly used by contemporary theorists and practitioners as focal points for their investigations and analyses of organizations: size, complexity, intentions, boundaries, communication, capital, worker values and leadership. Our analysis of the emerging postmodern organization will center on these eight elements. In the case of three of these dimensions we have combined two separate, but closely related, aspects of organizational life. Size and complexity tend to be closely related. Intentions and boundaries directly bear on one another, as do capital and worker values—especially when consideration is given to shifts in each of these dimensions during the premodern, modern and postmodern eras.

 

In essence, we have been proposing in this essay that major shifts have occurred in each of these dimensions as our world has moved from a premodern era (based in the extraction of natural resources and craft work) to a modern era (industrial and human-service based). Shifts of a similar magnitude are now occurring throughout the world (and particularly in the Western world) as we move into a postmodern world.

 

Size and Complexity

We find in the premodern era the dominance of simple organizational structures (usually based in the family unit) and an emphasis on gradual growth. By contrast, in the modern era, emphasis is placed neither on the process of growth itself nor on the gradual expansion in organizational capacity, but rather on the outcome of growth, i.e. large size and an accompanying increase in organizational efficiency and market share. Organizational structures are no longer simple in the modern era. However, these structures are usually uniform within and between organizations (being bureaucratic in nature). Furthermore, these structures are compatible with hierarchically based forms of leadership and authority, and with the highly energy-intensive and technologically driven processes of mass production.

 

In the movement to a postmodern era, emphasis tends to be placed not on growth and largeness, but instead on keeping things small or of moderate size. Structures are neither simple nor uniform—despite the emphasis on smallness. Rather, fragmentation and inconsistency typifies the postmodern organization. It is comprised of differing organizational structures, policies and procedures. While many people view this fragmentation and inconsistency as transitional in nature—between the modern era and some new, as yet undetermined, era—there is reason to believe that this will be a much longer- term condition of postmodern organizations.

 

 

 

PREMODERN

 

 

MODERN

 

POSTMODERN

 

 

 

SIZE

 

 

SMALL

 

ORGANIC GROWTH

 

 

LARGE

 

ECONOMY OF SCALE

 

 

VARIABLE SIZE

 

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION

 

 

 

COMPLEXITY

 

 

SIMPLE

 

UNDIFFERENTIATED

FAMILY-BASED STRUCTURES

 

 

RELATIVELY SIMPLE

 

UNIFORM POLICIES AND PROCEDURES

 

 

 

 

HIGHLY COMPLEX

 

HYBRID ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURES AND PROCESSES

 

 

 

Intentions and Boundaries

The premodern organization typically has tacitly held boundaries (particularly between work and family life) as well as tacitly held intentions. This doesn’t mean that boundaries and intentions are unimportant; rather the intentions and boundaries are taken for granted and rarely discussed.  There was little need for an explicit definition of organizational intentions since family members primarily performed the work of the premodern organization. Furthermore, their intentions focused almost exclusively on the provision of sufficient nutrition and shelter. Furthermore, even among those working in the trades, a formal statement of intentions was unnecessary since the product spoke for itself. A system of bartering and exchange of goods and services (for example, the farmer’s market) eliminated the need for any substantial monetary system.

 

In the modern era, boundaries are quite clear, while statements of intention have tended to remain rather unclear or inconsistent. In modern organizations, clear distinctions are made between the places where employees work and where they live, relax, and worship. We know when we are entering and leaving a modern organization and often define this organization by its sheer existence rather than with regard to its specific intentions. Thus, in the modern era, large organizations can buy up other organizations with relatively little regard for the compatibility of organizational intentions, and can diversify their enterprises primarily with regard to monetary or market gain, rather than with regard to some founding purpose or cause. In many cases, the mergers and acquisitions have resulted in impressive short-term financial gain and even in the rebirth of organizations that have been poorly managed or become stagnant. Longer-term consequences, however, have often been much less positive or even destructive to both organizations.

 

Frequently, the absent of a clear statement of intentions in modern organizations has been hidden behind the facade of fiscal accountability. The organization exists to produce a profit for the owner or the shareholders. Such a statement of intentions in the modern world heightens confusion or inconsistency in the identification and maintenance of long-term goals and sustaining values. While profits are often essential to the existence of a modern organization, they should not be the reason for its existence. Furthermore, profits rarely provide sufficient guidance to steer the leaders of modern organizations through the increasingly turbulent waters of our emerging postmodern world.

 

Postmodern conditions have precipitated a crisis with regard to both intentions and boundaries. In order to survive, most postmodern organizations have formulated clearer statements of intentions, in part because they usually no longer have clear boundaries. As specialty shops in postmodern corporate and human service malls, these organizations must find distinctive niches and become more adaptive in the manner in which they market, produce and deliver products and services. The leaders of organizations in the postmodern world repeatedly must re-examine their intentions, for the world in which they operate is constantly changing and demanding new and different products and services. Without a clear sense of intentions, these organizations soon splinter or become aimless vagabonds or scavengers that feed destructively on other organizations and segments of our society.

 

 

 

PREMODERN

 

 

MODERN

 

POSTMODERN

 

 

 

INTENTIONS

 

 

TACIT/IMPLICIT [IMPORTANT BUT ASSUMED]

 

 

RELATIVELY UNIMPORTANT

 

INTERNAL:

PROFITABILITY (BOTTOM LINE)

 

EXTERNAL:

PUBLIC RELATIONS (WHATEVER SELLS)

 

 

VERY IMPORTANT

 

CHARTERING:

MISSION

VISION

VALUES

PURPOSES

 

POSTMODERN GLUE/ANCHOR

 

 

BOUNDARIES

 

 

TACIT/IMPLICIT [IMPORTANT BUT UNACKNOWLEDGED]

 

 

VERY IMPORTANT

 

UNIFORM POLICIES AND PROCEDURES [THE BUREAUCRACY]

 

WORK VERSUS HOME

 

 

RELATIVELY UNIMPORTANT

 

CUSTOMER-FOCUS

PARTNERSHIPS AND ALLIANCES

 

TROUBLING AMBIGUITY

 

 

 

Communication

Oral forms of communication were dominant in the premodern world. Small, simple organizations allowed men and women to freely communicate face-to-face with one another. A strong sense of community and homogeneity of interests and values minimized the need for written documentation. With the emergence of industrialized and highly specialized modern organizations, there came an increasing need for written communication (contracts, letters of agreement, recordings of transactions and so forth) as a substitute for direct interpersonal contact. Rather than seeing and listening to another person, one reads her memorandum or written proposal. Other visual modes of communication also prevailed: television, film, graphics, and icon-based computer programs.

 

The postmodern world tends to be orally based—and in this sense more closely resembles the premodern than the modern world. In the postmodern organization we call each other and leave voice messages, rather than writing letters. We eliminate our secretaries and clerks, and seek to reduce paperwork. The Internet provides an opportunity for information and spontaneous communication to take place that seems more like extended conversation than a formal office memo. As computers are made available with even greater capacity and speed, we are likely to find that the written e-mail is replaced with the visual e-mail, making this mode of communication seem even more like face-to-face conversation.

 

In the postmodern era, short-term, face to face meetings, ad-hocracy, task forces and temporary systems have replaced long-standing bureaucratic structures that were dependent on written rules and the documentation of policies, procedures and program ideas. In this orally based world, gossip and story telling take on new relevance and appreciation, as does the interplay between communications and relationships. Words intermingle with nonverbal expressions of concern or happiness. People learn how to quickly bond together in temporary groups and then just as quickly disengage so that they can move on to different groups and different projects.

 

 

 

PREMODERN

 

 

MODERN

 

POSTMODERN

 

 

 

COMMUNICATIONS

 

 

ORAL

 

INFORMAL:

BASED IN FAMILY AND COMMUNITY

 

 

WRITTEN

 

FORMAL:

BASED IN LAW AND BUREACRACY

 

ORAL:DIGITAL

 

INFORMAL:

BASED IN INTERACTIVE NETWORKS

 

 

 

Capital and Worker Values

Land and other natural resources (for example, gold, oil, and timber) are the dominant and most tangible forms of capital in the premodern era. Ancestry and reputation are two less tangible, but equally as important forms of premodern capital. The divine right of kings prevails. The Catholic Church has emphasized property and prohibited the use of money to make money, hence one could not charge interest on a loan. Thus, an emphasis was placed on property rather than money. Workers, in turn, tended to focus on shelter, food and water—and quality of life. They readily conformed because they looked outside themselves for the essentials of life. They looked toward people in positions of authority to provide both guidance and sustenance and asked for little in return.

 

The modern forms of capital, by contrast, have been money and buildings. Reputation and ancestry have become less important. The new wealth and new bourgeoisie is more liquid and more volatile. Rich men come and go. This new form of capitalism was supported by Calvinistic doctrine and by the Protestant churches that became more dominant and influential (at least in middle and upper classes) during the modern era. One’s worldly success (as manifest in the non-conspicuous accumulation of monetary wealth) is a sign of one’s predestined salvation. Thus, poverty is considered in some very basic sense to be sinful and a sign of one’s damnation, as is laziness and a questioning attitude about the dominant social order. This Protestant Ethic has dominated European-American notions about the meaning of work and capital for several centuries.

 

Modern workers no longer owned the business in which they worked, nor did they have a close familial (paternal) relationship with the person who did own the business in which they worked. Workers were now confronted with large, faceless corporations in which responsibility for worker welfare was absent or at best diffuse. As Marx suggested (at the start of the Modern era in Europe), workers were now alienated from the profits for which they toil. They no longer “owned” the products and services they were employed to provide. Thus, the primary motivators for workers in modern organization concerned assurance regarding job, wages and health. Modern workers wanted three things: job security, adequate pay and benefits (a living wage) and a safe work environment. They often unionized in order to obtain assurance in these three areas.

 

The new capital of the postmodern era is information and expertise. Approval (and its inverse, shame) are components of the new capital. Values of the postmodern worker compliment this new capital. Emphasis is placed on three motivating factors: the meaningful of the work, the ability to influence the work environment and the quality of interpersonal relationships among those working in the organization. The three modern motivators (job security, wages and safety) are still important. They must be addressed in a satisfactory manner prior to addressing postmodern motives. However, assurance regarding job security, wages and health is no longer sufficient. Increasing attention is given to the meaning of work and to recognition derived from colleagues and one’s boss(es) regarding the quality of one’s work. Quality of Work Life programs and Social-Technical Systems dramatically increase worker involvement in the design of production systems and even in daily decision making regarding purchase of equipment, composition of work teams and increased worker safety and security. The new values of the postmodern worker begin to border on the spiritual domain, as greater meaning, purpose and ownership is sought in one’s work and affiliation with an organization.

 

 

 

 

PREMODERN

 

 

MODERN

 

POSTMODERN

 

 

 

CAPITAL

 

 

LAND AND NATURAL RESOURCES

 

REPUTATION

 

 

MONEY

 

KNOWLEDGE

 

INFORMATION

 

 

WORKER VALUES

 

 

NUTRITION

 

SHELTER

 

QUALITY OF LIFE

 

 

JOB SECURITY

 

COMPENSATION (SALARY AND BENEFITS)

 

JOB SAFETY

 

 

MEANINGFUL

WORK

 

INFLUENTIAL IN WORKPLACE

 

INTERPERSONAL WORKING RELATIONSHIPS

 

 

 

Leadership

Leaders in the premodern era tended to be great men and women who were selected for their character and education. Great men not only led organizations, they also influenced history and established societal values. Leaders were either born to greatness or provided with an elitist program of liberal arts and mentorship. They tended to exert authority through a paternalistic concern for the welfare and proper education of those who depended on them. By contrast, the more democratic modern era tends to emphasize structures, processes and procedures that ensure the appropriate expression of leadership and influence. Events and structures—not great people—determine the course of modern history, and values are identified as products of the system and bureaucracy rather than as products of any specific individual(s). Emphasis was thus placed not on identifying or producing a great leader (as in the premodern society), but on constructing a great system. Those who head modern organizations typically define themselves as managers rather than leaders. They were to manage and be worthy stewards of the great system that had been created by other people (the nameless and faceless designers of bureaucracies). Modern authority is expressed through the autonomy of rules, regulations, roles and organizational structures.

 

The postmodern world has called both the premodern and modern notions of leadership into question. The postmodern leader is neither inherently great nor is she merely a product of a great system or bureaucracy. Greatness in a postmodern society involves interaction and great alignment between potentially great people and a potentially great system.  The postmodern leader can be found at any level of an organization. Individual leadership can be effectively exerted and will be influential if applied at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner, and with regard to the right problem or goal. This contextual model of leadership requires careful consideration of both individual and organizational character and style. It also requires a tolerance for ambiguity, recognition of the need for one to learn from his or her mistakes, and a clear sense of personal aspirations. It is ultimately spiritual rather than secular in nature.

 

 

 

PREMODERN

 

 

MODERN

 

POSTMODERN

 

 

LEADERSHIP

 

 

THE GREAT PERSON

 

WISE

 

BRAVE

 

VISIONARY

 

 

THE GREAT SYSTEM

 

CENTURY OF THE MANAGER

 

DELEGATION/

SUPERVISION

 

COMMUNICATION/

CONFLICT-MGMT/

PROBLEM-SOLV/

DECISION-MAK

 

MOTIVATING/

GOAL-SETTING AND MONITORING

 

 

THE GREAT

CONTEXT

[PERSON AND

SYSTEM IN

INTERACTION]

 

LEARNER

ENTREPRENEUR

SERVANT

 

RIGHT PERSON AT RIGHT TIME IN RIGHT PLACE

 


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

August 25, 2008

[© 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.

References

[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.