Those of us who have been reading or watching the various purported “revolutions” in business for a while should have noticed a few patterns:
* Whatever decade we’re in, it’s purported to be entirely different from all decades that preceded it.
* The companies purported to be the revolutionaries all ostensibly treat their employees in novel ways.
* The employees themselves are purported to want more time with their families, want freedom to set their own schedules, etc.
* All companies eventually become authoritarian.
Does everyone remember when Microsoft was the new hotness? That was back in the 80s and 90s, when they were the anti-IBM. Microsoft eventually became — at least in the public eye — everything against which it had previously revolted. I have precisely zero doubt that Google will go the same way. Eventually the exponential-growth phase will end and Google will have to start looking like a traditional company.
I’ve been convinced for a long while that there is nothing new under the sun in how corporate “revolutions” are purported to happen. I am convinced that none of the descriptions of corporations from the start of the computer revolution through the dot-com era to now would have been out of place in a business book from the 1950s. Back then the dichotomy they presented was between “20th-century companies” and “19th-century companies”. Apparently we’re far enough into the 21st century that we can now talk about “21st-century businesses” and how they differ “fundamentally” from “20th-century businesses.” Plus ça change…
So I’ve decided to start a reading project that will approach this from a few angles:
* business-“revolution” books from the 1950s and before. I’ve got a couple Peter Drucker books from the ’60s on their way to me.
* computer/dot-com “revolution” books from the ’80s and ’90s. I’m going to reread [book: Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire], as well as [book: Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date] waiting for me at home in this vein. I remember lapping these books up when I was a wee tot, dreaming that I — who also could not get a date — would one day be a billionaire tech mogul. I read a book about Google recently that is isomorphic to any of the computer-revolution-porn books of my youth. I should reread [book: The Soul of a New Machine] to see whether Tracy Kidder describes early-’80s DEC in the same way.
* [book: False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management and Why Their Ideas Are Bad for Business Today], recommended by a friend. As the [mag: Publishers Weekly] blurb puts it, “management gurus, by nature idealistic and utopian, are uncomfortable addressing the fundamental discrepancy in American culture between [authoritarian] corporate power and [democratic] political ideals.”
* As I read Drucker and friends (Tom Peters leaps to mind), I’m going to try to work my way backwards to business books of the late 19th century.
Of course, the story wasn’t always that those companies were best which treated their employees like individuals. That may partly be a conceit arising from the notion of the “knowledge worker,” a term coined by Peter Drucker. Knowledge workers are supposed to confront vague, ill-specified problems and translate them into concrete products — unlike the mythical industrial worker, lashed to his machine and stamping out identical product after identical product until the day he dies. I strongly suspect that this is a mischaracterization in two directions. First, I doubt that industrial workers were as close to automata as the story makes them out to be; the Taylorist time-and-motion ideal exists alongside the work-to-rule strike, in which workers demonstrate how poorly a company would actually function if they followed processes to the letter. So I suspect the stereotype understates the role of creativity in “19th-century” industrial companies. At the same time, I suspect that it *overstates* the role of creativity in “21st-century” companies. Yes, projects often start with vague specifications from the customer, but there’s an awful lot of mechanical work to be done between there and the end product. We’re not all knowledge workers, and we’ve not always been automata. In part, I think this story reflects the [foreign: soi-disant] masters of the universe to whom these books are directed: “Maybe all *those* people are automata, but not I; I’m *creative.*”
Even if we *were* all knowledge workers, and had previously all been automata, my strong suspicion is that we’ve been telling this same story over and over again for at least a century. At time T, goes the story, we were automata; but now, at time T+k, for some k, we are all creative, working in “flat hierarchies” (ahh, remember that other fantastic buzzword?). If this story has always been told, then it’s reasonable to suspect that it has never been true.
Finally, there’s another part of the story, which is actually the opposite of the above. People like John Kenneth Galbraith and Alfred Chandler believed that “the market” would eventually give way to a GM- and IBM-shaped economy driven by bureaucracies indistinguishable from a government. I will need to address this strand as well; reality has not been kind to it.
My frustration with unending business sloganeering has finally boiled over. It’s time to read and eviscerate.
__P.S.__: This Bruce Sterling piece (via Cosma Shalizi) seems oddly appropriate — at least for the 21st-century globo-info-twittersphere-mega-virtual economy that all us knowledge workers are now part of.
__P.P.S.__: By the way, everyone in the ’90s was a “web designer.” Now everyone is a “social-media marketing” expert. I think 3/4 of my followers on Twitter are marketing drones whom I’ve never met and will never meet. They’re hoping that I’ll follow them back, I guess. And when everyone has tens of thousands of followers … well, something awesome will surely happen.