8.4 Technology and Business Organizations

In the hunter-gatherer and agricultural civilizations, people who were engaged in commerce were an integral part of their community, and their social status reflected that fact. The village blacksmith, for example, had a specialized function, and that function defined a total role in the community, dictating much of the life and expectation of family members as well. One of the effects of industrialization has been the fragmentation of work into many highly specialized job tasks, many of which are only a small part of some major enterprise. Since such specialties are not the means by which their practitioners relate to the community as a whole, many people have found themselves dividing life into a series of roles, each depending on the situation in which they have found themselves. This personal fragmentation has been one aspect of a pervasive societal one; people play at religious and moral roles in scattered fragments just as they conduct all their relationships with the community in this way. Even language can be fragmented into a series of registers for different life contexts so that one becomes different people speaking different dialects for various discrete roles.

For example, an industrial-age entrepreneur might play the role of business owner to the community, philanthropist to a church, customer to suppliers, boss to employees, rival or friend to peers, partner to mate, and parent to children. However, the connections among these roles are often incidental and tenuous. In each of the various contexts, this might as well be a different person--little need is seen for an integration of the aspects of life into a whole. Such lack of integration extends to the moral/ethical realm as well. Different roles are seen to call for different ethics. Thus, the generous philanthropist might also be a ruthless business practitioner and merciless employer, and no one see any contradiction in this. Likewise, she may be unfaithful to her marriage partner and not detect an ethical issue in the situation. The woman who is a Children's Bible School teacher on Sunday might pirate software for her employer on Monday and use her employer's machine to view pornography on Tuesday. The politician who takes a high moral stand on integrity in government during the day might cheat on his wife by visiting prostitutes in the evening and not consider this a contradiction

The work of any employee in a dull and repetitious job might be even more fragmented from life as a whole, for that job defines no role in the community and provides little satisfaction to the worker. Such work is unlikely to have little to do with family relations, for the children of such workers are usually not encouraged to pursue such a job but to better themselves and move up the socioeconomic ladder.

The advent of the techniques of the information age suggests that individual workers will know about and operate more of their enterprise. Very highly specialized and repetitive jobs are those most likely to become automated, and human beings are more likely to find themselves either unemployed, controlling a large number of these automatons, or working in the service or information sectors instead. That is, new techniques not only change existing business organizations and bring new ones into being, but they also create new organizational forms. The demand of technique is always for greater efficiency, higher productivity, more automation, more profit, and fewer workers. Up to the early 1980s, this had the greatest effect on the blue-collar worker on the assembly line or plant floor. Better mechanical devices have gradually reduced the need for such jobs, and the payroll has shifted to white-collar workers in secretarial and middle management positions.

However, the computing and information technology now available is causing a similar automation to take place in the office as well. Fewer secretaries can have a higher output if they have word processors. Senior management can get information summaries done to order without needing their juniors to do research for them--such work can be done easily, quickly, and automatically. The result is a new round of job displacement in what had previously been some of the fastest growing employment areas.

In general, organizations are becoming leaner and more efficient, and even very large enterprises can be operated by fewer people with each passing year. One result is an expectation of rapidly rising productivity and efficiency, that creates a stress with which not every worker is equipped to handle. That stress can sometimes be reduced by diffusing or networking responsibilities among all the workers (see Chapter 12). Another result is that the average amount of training and experience that a firm has invested in employees is increasing rapidly as the responsibility and knowledge expected of each increases. Still another result is that it once again becomes possible to define one's total role in the community by one's job because it is a profession or a craft--not merely an hourly drudgery for someone else.

The employees who remain under such circumstances become progressively more essential to the operation and more difficult and expensive to replace. For this reason, many firms have turned to stock options and profit sharing to lock in loyalties and high performance through part ownership. When this continues, the employees over time are the company, for they eventually become partner-owners of the whole enterprise. This model has worked well for professional firms of lawyers and accountants in the past and is likely to be adapted in the future by many others. Possible candidates for future conversion to employee ownership include many public facilities now operated by the state, such as hospitals, road maintenance, schools, social services, and even tax collection. For those who promote this model, the potential benefits for the quality of goods, service and employee satisfaction are so great that many public and private services--and even some manufacturing--seem likely to become professional collectives in the future.

Those opposed to the privatization of government services, on the other hand, worry about potential declines in quality and universality of services and the lack of direct control by central authority. However, the necessary accountability to meet these concerns can be established in many ways--and these may be much more effective than in the past.

The adversarial relationships that have characterized management/labour interactions in the past are an industrial age phenomenon that seems not to fit easily with the new paradigms. Confrontation results as much from a lack on information as from different ideologies. Information sharing promotes (but does not guarantee) collaboration. In all business and government enterprises, the trend to collaboration may become pronounced; this seems to be a required characteristic of an information society. Of course, there will likely be organizations and places where for ideological and emotional reasons this does not happen; it is a truism that familiarity can breed contempt as much as it can cooperation. Thus some will still fight old battles for control of dying enterprises; but such people seem destined to become footnotes to history, for such engagements will know no working survivors.

Both within and without organizations, therefore, there will at least have to be a network of relationships, responsibilities and authorities rather than a strict hierarchy as in the past. A few companies in high-tech and other industries already operate with networked rather than hierarchical structures. These are characterized by minimal or no job descriptions and complex reporting lines, which may at times be reciprocal (One person is the boss for some things, another for others). All employees become a part of the management of the total enterprise and accountable for its success. In the future, there may be an understanding that the various professionals contribute to a common cause differently, and need not do so equally in monetary terms to be given equal respect. Although high technology does not require networked models of authority, it does make such models possible on a large scale by providing distributive communication methods. These are generally more versatile and comprehensive and may therefore supplant the relatively inflexible top-down methods that characterize a hierarchy.

Another model is that of the flexible organization, where teams are formed for specific projects, and then disbanded afterwards. For the purposes of one such team, it could choose to have a hierarchy during its lifetime; the same people on a new team at a later date might mind themselves in a different hierarchical relationship, or forming a network instead. One could go further still, and suggest--in the Metaperson model--that a professional/contract model for work suggests that employers per se will become less important, and that individuals will band together on their collective initiative to form corporate entities for specific projects, and not be permanent employees of anyone else.

The whole range of possibilities is shown on the chart below--the original of which was used to show the four civilizations in overview in Chapter 2.

In this overview, there is a near linear relationship depicted from lower left to upper right--the direction of the apparent trend in organizational structure and emphasis. As individual-oriented structures ought to be in some sense more flexible, this makes sense. Structures off this line are perhaps not only inappropriate for their time, but probably also inherently unstable. As can be seen in the next chapter, such instability may indeed be characteristic of certain styles of government. It should also be noted that the style, not the size of an organization alone, determines where it would be placed on such a scale.

The organization gains in the shift to greater flexibility because there is more uniformity of goal, purpose, and technique, and this is by mutual agreement of the professional participants. The individual partner-employee also gains professional status, a degree of autonomy, control over personal job conditions, and a voice of influence in the whole organization. A consequence is that much attention will continue to be paid in the future to organizational cultures, for the relationships of the employees to one another and to the organization as a whole, as well as the commitment of the group to the perceived mission of the enterprise, will be the keys to success in the information age.

At the same time, improved communication facilities have made it more feasible to work at home, and increasing numbers of people are already telecommuting. As observed in the last chapter, this could change the home environment and even effect house design. It could also affect the office, for at least some of the workers in an enterprise will have little incentive to be with their fellows for much of the week. Since this is a potentially fragmenting and isolating trend, means may have to be found to overcome it by making the work place more attractive--perhaps even as a place to live. Some interaction with fellow professionals is necessary, and it may be that the majority of work done at home is contracted out to professionals who are not part of the organization but are free-lancers.

In the next chapter, some of the concepts developed here will be extended to society as a whole. For now, it is time to turn attention to the methods of financing and ownership of the typical information-age enterprise.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises