I know that this blog must look like a bumper car competition. No sooner have I run into one topic than I go speeding off in search of another. Continuity is not a strong suit here at This Blog Sits At…
So now for something completely different. Today I want to dwell on the implications of the two most recent posts and comments thereon.
Yesterday, I wondered whether we should treat inconsistency as a new corporate objective. The day before I was talking about how senior managers are now obliged to engage in the new art of "assumption jumping" to respond property to change.
Clearly these are related. If inconsistency is a new objective of the corporation, it will take senior managers capable of new orders of "assumption jumping" to sustain the thing.
Now, I think we can say for certain that the corporation has a way of winnowing out people who are endowed with sure fire assumption jumping abilities. The corporation has been slow to hire women, minorities and creatures from the margin. It’s as if the old logic of banking that said "if we wish to be the keeper of people’s money, we must appear to be as orthodox as possible" had someone crept into the rest of corporate life…even when money or lifetime security or great risks were not issue. So you wouldn’t want someone showing up with a Mohawk or even more alarmingly, a Chelsea. I mean what would this say about their "fitness for office"?
The trouble with this culling exercise is that it eliminated people who were obliged to "assumption jump" to have any sort of mainstream existence. (Don’t get me wrong. I do not suppose that only minorities and margins have an exclusive gift for or right to this sort of thing. This is one of the most delirious and vexing notions of the post modern delirium.)
But everyone has assumption jumping abilities and the corporation had a way of discouraging even those of the people it did hire. I have worked with people who are experts, enthusiasts and participants in fields wildly distant from the corporate culture, and it can be ages before you ever have a chance to glimpse this membership in multiple worlds, or, more to the point, to see the operation of this alternate sensibility in day to day problem solving. The corporation appears sometimes to be inclined to hire "standard issue" people and then to demand of them standard issue interests. (In the 1950s, of course, we believed that this conformity and uniformity was epidemical in its proportions.)
This "flattening" effect begins early. Every so often I would ask one of my Harvard Business School students to address a marketing problem with something other than their HBS hat on and they would look at me with shock and surprise, as if to say, "but I put all of that aside when I joined HBS. I thought all that was off the table." Business schools sometimes specialize in estranging their students from the experiences and memberships that can make them especially useful problem solvers in the corporate world. (Oh, good one.)
Now before I set to thinking about this problem, I want to acknowledge the aptness of Steve Postrel’s comment on yesterday’s post. His complaint is well taken. Real inconsistency would be intolerable. And I was engaging, as a guru must, in hyperbolic rhetoric. As when people, especially in the 1990s, used to tell us that "everything you know is wrong." (Which always moved me to want to scream, "what, even this!") That’s how gurus move the furniture around, by saying things that are outrageous and a little unhinged. I mean, who is going to pay me $60,000 to say things that make any real sense. (No, I don’t make $60 k for a lecture, but gurus do. "Gurus do." Good, huh. I hear a book title in the works. Yes! "Guru dos and don’ts. " Snappy! Too bad it would only have a readership of 14 people. I have a talent for obscure topics and small audiences.)
So, no, I don’t really mean what I say. (Unless, of course, you are prepared to pay me $60k for the lecture in which I say it. Let’s be honest, for $60k I’d say pretty much anything.) But I think it is useful to move the conversation and the corporation off the present strategy that insists on a single proposition, image and "vision." It helps us to think about the corporation as a complex adaptive system, with all the messiness and multiplicity that implies.
Back to the hiring issue. How do we find people with the requisite skills in assumption jumping even as we find people who can be good stewarts of a single corporation. This is, I think, the multiplicity in simplicity that Dr. Postrel is talking about. I think the thing to do here is to resort to a Christ and Caesar strategy, to frankly both faces of the corporate employee. As it stands, we ask everyone to perform according to a single, common set of rules and regs, the good corporate citizen more or less. And this is very good, and a really wonderful accomplishment. I am often thrilled to see how much commonality a diverse group can summon on this basis. But I think it’s also time to dial up the other half of the equation, and encourage people also to be all the other people they are. I mean, these are all precious resources for the corporation, as is the ability to jump between these worlds.
We might talk about this in terms of Bell’s expressive and instrumental individualism. I believe Bell is not one of Steve’s favorite thinkers, but I think this distinction works well. We can use it to satisfy Steve’s demand for a nuanced multiplicity and inconsistency. The corporation may ask the employee to summon the instrumental individualism that now prevails in the world a day world, while asking him or her to continue repudiating or concealing the expressive individualism that does so much to form him or her in "civilian" life.
We are going to have to move some furniture to make the corporation suitably responsive to the dynamic world in which it finds itself and the real intellectual talents and cultural capitals that the employees now obscure or conceal. The old models of the corporation and the employee are wasteful and wrong. They squander talents and resources the corporation cannot live without.