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

August 25, 2008

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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.

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07- The Tale of Three Societies: I. The Premodern

August 17, 2008

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

I. The Premodern

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?

We now live in a world that supports three different types of social structure. One of these social structures has been present for many centuries. A vast majority of the people now living reside in this type of social structure. This structure goes by many names: “traditional,” “primitive,” “developing,” “third world,” “agrarian” and “neo-feudal.” I have chosen to use the term premodern in identifying this social structure, in large part because the other terms tend to be value-laden or restricted to non Western countries. Throughout this book we will identify many positive features of premodern societies and certainly do not wish to consider it less “developed” than other social structures. Furthermore, many social structures that exist in the Western World are clearly premodern. They do not just exist in the “third world” nor are they found only in societies that are dependent on agriculture.

The second type of social structure is so prevalent in the world in which most of the readers of this book live that it is taken for granted. This is the modern society that has existed in Western Europe since the beginning of the industrial era (early 19th Century), in North America since the early years of the 20th Century, and in urban settings in other parts of the world since World War II. We would suggest that there is now a third type of social structure that (for want of a better word) I shall identify as postmodern. This social structure now exists in many parts of the world and is rapidly assuming a prominent role at the start of the 21st Century.

We propose that the profound nature of the transition that premodern societies have made in their shift to modern social structures is being matched by the profoundity of the transition that is required in the shift from modern to postmodern social structures. Furthermore, I propose that the transitions from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern are essentially irreversible. We can never go back to a former world—though (as we have noted throughout this book) we can (and inevitably will) borrow from previous social structures as we seek to create new forms to meeting emerging needs and serve new functions. While the past fifty years might best be described as an era of adjustment (the modern day organizational pendulum), we are now entering an era of fire. In this new era, old organizational forms, structures and processes will be consumed and new forms, structures and processes will emerge, like the mythic Phoenix, from the ashes of fiery consumption. This new era will not be composed entirely of new organizational elements. Rather it will offer a hybrid of . . .

  • very old, premodern elements of our society,
  • modern day elements of our society (as exemplified in many organizations that reached their zenith during the second half of the Twentieth Century), and
  • newly emerging elements that bear little similarity to either their premodern or modern day precursors.

We will briefly describe each of the three social structures to make some initial sense of these rather sweeping generalizations and will focus on the general economic and social characteristics of each type of society. A description of the first social structure is contained in this blog. The second and third social structure will be described in my next blog.

Premodern Societies

These societies are economically based in the extraction or cultivation of natural resources: agriculture, mining, forestry, fishing, ranching and related activities. It is also founded in craftsmanship—these crafts ranging from the production of tools to the creation of artistic works. While some premodern societies are very loosely structured and formed around nomadic patterns of living (the gathering rather than extraction or cultivation of nature resources), most premodern societies that exist today are founded in small villages or other closely-knit communities. The loosely structured forms of the premodern society are most likely to exist in regions of the world where there are harsh climates and sparse natural resources (e.g. Siberia, Alaska, North Africa, Central Australia).

The premodern society is also typically dependent on strong and enduring extended family systems. This extended family (usually consisting of grandparents, parents and children) serves not only as the primary economic unit of the community, but also as the primary source of most social services (health, education, child care, and so forth). While the community (and in particular the church or other philanthropic organizations) is available to support the family in an emergency (for example, loss of property or unanticipated death of family member), family members are expected to provide most of the social support. There are no medical plans, disability plans, retirement plans or social security systems in premodern societies—family members are expected to take care of their injured relatives and aging parents.

Bartering is the primary unit of economic exchange in the premodern society. Working within the context of a trusting and norm-enforcing community, men and women exchange commodities (such as tables or seed) or services (such as home construction or plowing of a field) for other commodities or services. In such a community there is little need for money or legal institutions. One natural resource—gold—that comes from a premodern extractive process (mining) does become a medium of exchange in most premodern societies, as do certain other natural resources (such as silver, pearls, spices and art works) that are prized for their beauty or scarcity. Given the absence of any elaborate trade system or of any way in which to preserve perishable commodities (other than through a salting or drying process), the primary focus in most premodern societies has been placed on the cultivation or extraction of sufficient resources to sustain life and on high quality craftsmanship (quality rather than quantity).

Governmental institutions are typically minimal in size or scope—usually focusing exclusively on the protection of national boundaries against invasion. While there may be a rudimentary community government system (village council or town hall meetings), the primary authority resides within the family and in the informal control exerted by the most economically powerful families in the community. Even today, we find that many premodern societies are essential feudal in nature, with power residing with a few members of the community who, in turn, assume overall responsibility for the welfare of the community and all of its residents.

While most premodern societies are established in small communities, relatively large cities obviously existed throughout the world long before the 19th Century advent of industrialization in Western Europe. Premodern cities such as Paris, Rome, London, Cairo, Istanbul, Bombay and Peking were usually not much more than very large (and often quite unwieldy) extensions of the small village. Minimal government existed in these urban centers and tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods took the place of the village community. Extended families still played a dominant role and bartering was prevalent. The premodern city played a critical role in supporting limited international trade and the more sophisticated crafts (such as printing and the construction of large buildings). They also typically housed the central administrative offices of the only two organizations of any significant size in the premodern world—namely, the military and church. A large cathedral or temple usually dominated the central core of the premodern city, while the military typically provided protection at the outskirts of the city: the gates to the city, and/or the towers and walls surrounding the city.