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Published: August 25, 2004

 
 

Post-capitalism's Drop-out Prophet

The erosion of trust and alienation of consumers is not confined to the commercial sector. The boom in charter schools and homeschooling — the number of children being homeschooled has more than doubled since the 1995–1996 school year, to more than 1.7 million — is led by parents who think they can provide a better education than either traditional public or private schools. In their retreat to Maine, Shoshana Zuboff and Jim Maxmin have themselves chosen to homeschool their two children.

Professor Zuboff’s research also suggests that even some of the most admired leaders in the public and private sectors are failing to find permanent fixes for their organizations’ difficulties. In the two years following her epiphany on Today, Professor Zuboff conducted research on eight companies in which “heroic” CEOs at progressive companies were trying to leverage technology and distribute information to create new organization structures, to flatten hierarchies, and to democratize their organizations through more effective sharing of authority and control.

“One by one, I saw each of them, over the period of about a year, hit a wall,” she says. Among those CEOs was her husband, Jim Maxmin, who resigned from Laura Ashley in 1994 after he had engineered what was considered a successful turnaround.

“Heroic leadership may work from time to time, but it is not a systemic solution for the kinds of problems organizations are facing today,” she says.

Alternative Lifestyle
Professor Zuboff is adamant that both she and her husband are “too conceptual” in their thinking to let even powerful personal events and decisions shape their outlook on capitalism. Their ideas, she avers, flow out of a great deal of research and empirical observation.

Still, it is hard not to connect their experiences and history to their economic philosophy. Her maternal grandfather, Max Miller, was an auto mechanic with an eighth-grade education who invented the servomechanism for the vending machine and became a successful entrepreneur. The daughter of a pharmacist and a homemaker, Professor Zuboff spent much of her free time as a child with Mr. Miller at his factory in Windsor, Conn., observing his mechanical know-how and his relationships with employees. The entrepreneur, who tooled through the factory aisles on a golf cart, knew all of his workers and their families.

“My grandfather never saw anyone in a role hierarchically. I shared those values with him,” says Professor Zuboff, a slim, striking 53-year-old woman who has a mane of leonine hair and dark eyes, and who favors deep red and hot pink lipstick.

When she wasn’t trailing her grandfather at the Windsor factory, Professor Zuboff, a self-avowed bookworm, devoured National Geographic magazines. As a teenager, she traveled to Argentina, where she spent some time living on the Altiplano, and once tended a small herd of llamas. She later returned to Latin America, where she landed a job as an organizational change consultant to the Venezuelan telephone company, CANTV. She spent two years on the consulting project in Venezuela while also conducting research for her doctoral thesis in social psychology at Harvard.

Her research in Venezuela was an important catalyst for writing Smart Machine. She interviewed workers raised in the rain forest who felt wrenched from their cultures to work in a modern city and bureaucracy. She said it did enormous emotional damage. “One man broke down and talked about how he had buried the child of the rain forest to work in the city. It was like living through 150 years of industrial revolution during the first half of your life,” Professor Zuboff recalls.

In 1981, she joined the faculty at Harvard and began to work on Smart Machine. In 1987, a year before the book’s publication, she met Jim Maxmin when he hired her as a consultant at Thorn EMI. In 1991 he took the helm at Laura Ashley, and the two became a trans-Atlantic couple, with households in Boston and London. As he commuted, she was putting in 18-hour days at Harvard, caring for their first child, Chloe. A son, Jake, was born in 1995.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. Art Kleiner, “The World’s Most Exciting Accountant,” s+b, Summer 2004; Click here. 
  2. “New Pact to Ease Hassles of eBay,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2004
  3. “Laura Ashley and Federal Express Strategic Alliance,” Harvard Business School, December 4, 1996. Case Number 9-693-050; Click here. 
  4. C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy, The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers (Harvard Business School Press, 2004)
  5. Thomas W. Malone, The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life (Harvard Business School Press, 2004)
 
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