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strategy and business
 / Fall 2004 / Issue 36(originally published by Booz & Company)


Post-capitalism's Drop-out Prophet

Still, Professor McCraw praises Professor Zuboff for the thorough multidisciplinary scholarship that is a hallmark of Smart Machine and The Support Economy. “She fearlessly took on half a dozen different disciplines — sociology, psychology, economics, business administration, and technology. She is willing to spend years and years closeted with these thick texts, and then go out and talk to hundreds of people to find out what’s going on” on the front lines of companies, he says.

However, he believes the latest book goes too far in predicting the demise of managerial capitalism. “She and Jim probably tried to do too much,” he says. “The central message, the primacy of the consumer, is well done. And there’s tremendous merit to the idea of distributed capitalism. But to speak of the end of managerial capitalism, that’s simply wrong. It’s the same criticism I had of Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.”

Other critics see her unorthodox ideas as impractical, even utopian. F. Warren McFarlan, a retired Harvard senior associate dean and an expert in management information systems, counts himself a great admirer of Smart Machine, but has not read The Support Economy. He notes that his “greatest frustration” is that Professor Zuboff could have done more to help get reengineering right the first time, noting that she has the knowledge of the “practical problems” to achieve “the depth of organizational transformation needed to make [Michael Hammer and James Champy’s] original ideas work.”

Professor Zuboff would counter that you can’t make inherently inwardly focused corporations adopt a customer-focused approach to business process reengineering, which is what Hammer and Champy originally intended.

She also strongly resists another frequent criticism, that The Support Economy isn’t relevant for low- and middle-income families and workers. She insists that within distributive capitalism there will be room for many types of federations, those delivering high levels of support that, presumably, would be more expensive, and those where the support will be less expensive. Dr. Maxmin has already been contacted by a not-for-profit low-income housing organization in the U.K., with which he has discussed the possibility of establishing a supported-living federation for low-income residents. He envisions a quality-of-life federation that, in addition to providing low-income housing, would provide residents with access to smoking-cessation or drinking-cessation services and to special rates for necessities, such as food, electricity, and transportation.

Based on the strength of her work on Smart Machine, Professor Zuboff received tenure at Harvard (she was among the first women to achieve tenure there) and an endowed chair. Until her retirement in summer 2004, she was Harvard’s Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration.

Professors McCraw and O’Mahony were the only two faculty members contacted by strategy+business who had read The Support Economy and were willing to speak favorably about it. Two other faculty members, speaking off the record, were vituperative. “She’s just impossible to work with,” said one who, when asked whether he had read her latest book, replied: “No. And I don’t intend to.” Another called her a “prima donna.”

Nevertheless, the animosity she has engendered seems tied to her decision to buck the old-boy culture at HBS in order to take maternity leave and, as she puts it, “take a U-turn out of the rat race.” Her arrangement for the past several years was to be paid a part-time salary for teaching a five-week executive education program, conducted on and off campus, on midlife transformation and career renewal. Characteristically, Professor Zuboff brings to the program, which is known as “Odyssey: School for the Second Half of Life,” intensity and a multidisciplinary perspective. The program is highly rated, and she has a loyal following among Odyssey alumni. But she has paid a heavy personal price for being a trailblazer. Although she worked full time writing The Support Economy, her absence from the campus, and unusual arrangement as a part-time professor with tenure, clearly rankled some colleagues.

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  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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