Friday, March 11, 2005

Work, Wonks and Worship 2

Saying in “Work, Wonks and Worship” that state government might benefit from some legislators with corporate experience doesn’t mean the House and Senate should be over-populated with corporate types. Large organizations are not always the model of collaborative excellence, either. Whether organized in corporate tisk teams or executive blur ribbon commissions, concentrated corporate brainpower is equally capable of grinding on to irresolution and irrelevance.

But well-run organizations do have the benefit of a clear mission, vision and culture to help them manage complexity and achieve their goals. The monolithic Microsoft and Wal-Mart march inexorably forward, the Kool-Aid coursing through their veins and piped into their “partners.” Target Corporation sheds companies instead of acquiring them. Polaris continues to innovate around a core passion for motor sports.

Meanwhile, government plugs along operating on a system of checks and balances, with adversarial parties whipsawing an entrenched bureaucracy to an even greater standstill. It’s like a giant mergers and acquisitions program, bringing together implacable foes (think Oracle and PeopleSoft) and unrelated businesses that are supposed to create synergy, led by rotating CEOs who make nice speeches but are really focused on the Big Payday. This may result in maddening inefficiency, but it slows down tyrants and reformers alike.

And that’s the way we seem to like it. As employees, we might prefer to work for an enlightened, flexible and generous enterprise. But as consumers, we vote for getting more value than we pay for. And as shareholders, we prefer ruthless efficiency and competitive predation. When it comes to government, we can’t decide from day to day if we’re buying or investing. And we sure as hell don’t want to work there.

Huhtltltltltltltltuh. [This is the sound of reeling myself back to the boat.]

Anyway, it wasn’t the titans I had in mind. They have other ways to exert their influence. I was thinking more of adding people from the middle ranks, like those smart, disciplined, decent folks at the client meeting I attended. But it very rarely happens.

During the three days of the aforementioned company conference, I heard no discussions of politics, religion or current events — not even a crack about the Michael Jackson trial starting just up the road, or the capture of the BTK serial killer. We were all too busy to be reading or watching the news, and business etiquette generally discourages raising topics that could open up rifts or strain relationships. But if a discussion were ever going to break out, this was an opportune time, with well-educated peers spending 24 hours a day together in a veritable college dormitory atmosphere.

What’s going here?

People too busy to be political. Or, to be political about community concerns. Corporate politics may already consume a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Especially in organizations under stress, people disproportionately devote their attentions to reading changes in the balance of corporate power, divining appropriate paths for proposals that never get enacted and competing for control over matters they barely have time to understand as they race from meeting to meeting. They function as diplomatic intermediaries rather than producers, and their work hangs over them in a haze of perpetual incompletion.

"Information overload" only begins to describe the scramble. They are tethered to cell phones and Blackberries, juggling to retain and retrieve information scattered among voicemail, email, electronic and paper documents, PowerPoint handouts and Excel spreadsheets, CDs, Web repositories. The meetings are inexorable. The next group hovers outside the conference room waiting for it clear, and it does because the occupants know they must scatter and hurtle on to the next. Outlook says so.

The technology aids promise freedom. Instead, people find themselves yoked to the trivial, and the work commands ever more of their consciousness.

They respond to their messages at 11:00pm or 6:00am, when the children are in bed. They speed through work documents on airplanes, multitask in automobiles, and cut through the backlog on weekends. They compartmentalize with a vengeance and sometimes return to find the compartment empty. It’s difficult for organizations to retain their institutional memory — not just because of turnover — because memory is not a product of reflection, not archiving.

But there is no time for reflection. Farmers, factory workers and philosophers had time to think. But the farmers who are left have second jobs in town. The factory jobs have flown and union halls are becoming ghost towns. Teachers are social workers and traffic cops, counting the days. Knowledge workers need their brains available to nurture political thoughts. But what if the brain cells are otherwise occupied, or so deadened that only Fox or Hollywood or the NFL can gain admission?

Then we look for nostrums we can consume, not ideas that require us to work some more.

While workers may exhibit less loyalty to a specific employer, their income, healthcare, retirement and family benefits are more than ever dependent on the success of corporate interests. Any savings are likely to be invested in corporate securities — not so much securely put away as bet on the market. So they accept the vague equation of freedom for business equals personal freedom. They rely more and more on corporations for products, services and entertainment — and less on local farmers, retailers, craftsmen and artists. Wal-Mart may have decimated local merchants, pay lousy wages and send profits out of town, but the stuff is cheap, so what the hey?

Why wouldn't people be sympathetic to interests they spend most of their wakefulness advancing? It's understandable to support policies favoring your employer's competitiveness and stock's performance — even if those policies don't favor the environment, the local economy, the safety and quality of products or the supply of well-paying jobs in the future.

As others have pointed out, our real social struggles are not over gay marriage or abortion or religion in the public realm. These are sideshows. The more fundamental and far-reaching divide is whether we will invest in community or in the stock market. Whether we are in this world all together or as hermetic family units. Or, as Don Herzog asks in Market Fundamentalism: "The real question, I think, is:  what are the proper boundaries to the market?  What do we want to buy and sell, and what do we want to allocate in other ways?"

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