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 / Winter 2003 / Issue 33(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2003: Values

Organizations are unable to understand these “new individuals,” as the authors call them, or the business opportunities they represent, because, for all the protestations about putting individuals first, managerial capitalism is just not adequate to the task of providing the “sanctuary, voice, and connection” — also an echo of Thomas Stewart’s words — that workers now desire on the job and at home.

The paradox is that managerial capitalism and its inventions and range of choices gave birth to the “new individual,” but because managers are so focused on the institution’s performance, they aren’t up to the care and feeding of individuals. Zuboff and Maxmin prescribe a Copernican inversion of managerial capitalism, which would put individuals rather than the business organization at the center of our endeavors, and then imagine a world where everything works toward satisfying people — whether they are producers or consumers. To deliver goods and services, they propose a federation of agile, responsive, accountable support networks, which they call “the support economy.” In this “distributed” economy, they write, “markets are no longer targeted, attacked, penetrated, or saturated by corporations. Instead they are self-selected and self-defining.” Marketing is replaced by dialogue between customers and companies.

Workers delivering the support that makes this happen will be as satisfied as the consumers because they will be operating by a new managerial canon based upon collaboration and coordination instead of supervision and administration. Instead of surrendering important personal values like common sense, judgment, and empathy to organizational demands, the institution will honor each employee as a whole person by enabling him or her to apply personal values in delivering support to customers. Interestingly, the women fleeing corporations are often doing so in order to form businesses that are more human-centered, less hierarchal, where employees don’t feel bound by exacting organizational needs but still do their jobs well and have full lives.

The end of corporations? The rise of a federation of support networks? Marketing replaced by dialogue? Readers might wonder at first what Zuboff and Maxmin are smoking. Yet their ideas are not science fiction; already there is a marked trend toward specialization and away from vertical integration that sounds a lot like the way their federation idea would work. As economist Virginia Postrel announced in the New York Times in June, “From payroll management to movie special effects, vertical integration is out. Specialization is in.” She quotes business historian Alfred Chandler, who saw “the visible hand of managerial coordination [replacing] the invisible hand of the market,” an observation that’s at the core of Zuboff and Maxmin’s argument: Let the market and not self-interested organizations respond to the “new individual.”

A New Corporate World
The authors of The Support Economy bring to their work an impressive breadth of references, and, best of all, a capacity for thinking outside the box. Having followed the authors in imagining a system that favors the individual and not the organization, the reader will find it hard not to see possibilities everywhere for linking individual satisfaction with wealth creation. In Zuboff and Maxmin’s vision of a new corporate world, Kate Reddy’s problems at work and home, for example, would disappear; she’d eat up a support economy. Po Bronson’s subjects would find the workplace transformed from meanly aggressive to beneficially progressive, with responsibility shared, with room to maneuver and to nurture talent.

All this, of course, is blue-sky thinking. But, still, it might not hurt us to climb out of our “cognitive bunkers” and consider these ideas. We’ve been talking now for a long time about how to bridge the professional and personal divide, but more often than not we reach an impasse. It’s time to make it happen. We have to acknowledge, as Zuboff and Maxmin emphasize, that people have changed much more than the organizations that depend on them. It’s time for business to catch up.

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