27 September 2005

The Next Project: The Future of Corporation

I'm in Sweden this week, doing my annual lecture series at Högskolan för lärande och kommunikation i Jönköping. I lecture and do playshops with first year students in the school's media and communication program, focusing on the theory and practice of Marshall McLuhan. The ground is, of course, one of developing a critical sensibility to media study and media theory, directing the students to its application to social justice praxis. For those of you who have been asking, here is an exceedingly brief outline of the thinking the underlies my next research project.

Despite the best efforts and intentions of organization development practitioners to create a more humanistic workplace, a credible and critical argument can be made that such practices are intended to yield more productive – perhaps even placid – workers to fill the jobs that have been created according to functional requirements. Contemporary communication technologies enable workplace social network dynamics that lead to seemingly progressive organizational initiatives such as ad-hoc workgroups, “teleworking,” and “virtual organizations” of global scope. However, these dynamics are invariably constrained by the structure, metrics, power dynamics and psychology that defined the so-called modern corporation of the 19th century – its fundamental structure and operating philosophy arguably unchanged since its inception – in an almost quixotic quest for organizational effectiveness in the 21st century.

As Price observes in his 1968 work, Organizational Effectiveness: An Inventory of Propositions, a comprehensive theory of organizational effectiveness is elusive at best – and perhaps even unattainable – since the management literature has not yet discovered a way of aligning critical business issues and measures such as performance, success, survival, recovery, and turnaround with the amorphous notion of effectiveness. Even Quinn’s widely cited “competing values model” of organizational effectiveness merely acknowledges that management must balance the tensions among dichotomous forces that define aspects of an organization’s “culture.” This model as applied, however, does not necessarily address, measure or evaluate the totality of effects that an organization intends to create in the context of its total environment – one that necessarily has global reach and effect because of ubiquitous and instantaneous communication technology. Is it possible to conceive of, and design, new structures, dynamics, and operating philosophies that are both consistent with the extreme acceleration of world-wide contemporary industry, and will align with the effectiveness – that is, the overall desired effects – of an organization relative to its integral environmental context? Further, is there a mechanism whereby the articulation of the overall desired effects of the organization is itself an emergent – one might say, organic and aware – process?

Essentially, I submit that the various management schools of thought that have attempted to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of Frederick Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management have each ultimately proven to be ineffective in accomplishing that end. In spite of sometimes lofty goals and idealistic objectives, the organization itself inevitably manages to subvert and co-opt more humanistic practices to serve the nominal aim of organizational efficiency. The consequences are well-known – overwhelming numbers of employees on the brink of burn-out, the subversion of corporate responsibility and governance mechanisms by unscrupulous executives and managers, and the dissonance among corporate and humanistic objectives.

Drawing from the work of Marshall McLuhan, I have observed that accompanying each communication nexus “point” (of approximately 300 years’ duration) throughout the history of Western civilization, there have been fundamental reversals in the effects of society’s major institutions, including those involved in the collective organization of work and enterprise. This, then, suggests a final probe: Is it possible, to conceive of a new theory of organizations that eliminates the Tayloristic ground, and are enabled by modern technologies that create ubiquitous connectivity, pervasive proximity, and their consequential emergent effects?

My Ph.D. research will focus on articulating an integral, emergent model for organizations in the 21st century that radically departs from the fragmentary, mechanization-model of the 19th century. The approach itself will be radical, as I intend to apply principles of feminist theory, critical ethnography and institutional ethnography to discover exemplars of apparently revolutionary and counter-intuitive practices that are, nonetheless effective, organic and aware, in the context of their total environment. My research program seeks to make what I hope will ultimately be considered as a seminal contribution to management praxis for the 21st century.
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1 comment:

Nui said...

Mark, have a look at Magaret J. Wheatley's work on organizational management. I loved her book "Leadership and the New Science". I've got her on my bookshelf alongside Harrison Owen's "Expanding our Now: the Story of Open Space Technology". This latter book is interestingly linked to McLuhan, because Harrison describes how he stumbled on this new way of organizing through tribal/aural experiences in Africa and India.