Transitions Between Societal Forms

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): “. . . 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.”

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