However, establishing a statistical link between technology, productivity, and quality of life has proven difficult. Statistics can’t accurately measure quality and diversity of choice, and, in any event, the lag between the introduction of a technology and its full impact on the economy is often long. The effects are variable and usually apparent only when social and political institutions have changed, and this takes time — it took 50 years (from 1870 to 1920) for electricity to penetrate 50 percent of houses and factories in the U.S. because it was just too expensive to incorporate it into anything other than new facilities. Electricity was what others have called a “yeast” technology, speeding up processes in many areas of the economy. Ms. Coyle argues that computer and information technology, with their associated developments such as bio- and nanotechnology, are also “yeast” rather than “mushroom” technologies (which have more limited effects in specific industries).
This book is not an easy read and badly needs some summary sections. Ms. Coyle introduces us to numerous commentators from many fields; at times the reader feels a bit like a gold miner crushing tons of rock to extract nuggets of wisdom. But there are plenty of nuggets. She cites with approval the late management scientist Herbert Simon’s comment that “information consumes … attention. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Similarly, Plato bemoaned the spread of writing because he felt that people would lose their memories. And he was right. Although the supply of information has increased exponentially, its consumption has risen hardly at all — we don’t have the time. Thus, paradoxically, relationships and trust — social capital — become even more important in the new economy than in the old one.
All of which brings us back to Jack Welch. Effective managers don’t ponder paradoxes: They engage them. In the case of leaders like Mr. Welch, they embody them: The poor kid from Salem who made it big time; the incumbent who thought like an insurgent and tried to rally the intensity and passion of a small organization with all the resources of a big one. Mr. Welch clearly revels in the imperial trappings of Corporate America — the first-class travel, the great golf courses — but one senses that his Salem alter ego is always whispering over his shoulder, “Don’t forget where you came from, Jack.”
There’s no recipe for managing paradox: Every embodiment must be unique, a creative integration. It seems to take an ability to focus on the present while using a vision of the future — not as an end in itself, but as a means to improve performance here and now. The secret is to be able to stay in the present, which is the only place, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, where past and future can be drawn together.
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David K. Hurst, [email protected]
David K. Hurst, a regular contributor to strategy+business, is the author of Learning from the Links: Mastering Management Using Lessons from Golf (Simon & Schuster Inc., Free Press, 2002). A speaker and writer on management, Mr. Hurst also wrote Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995) and was a visiting scholar/practitioner at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., in 1998–99. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications.