The Hidden Medium of the Modern Workplace: Speculations On The Digital Economy

Richard Sennett's short new book The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (Norton, 1998) explores the disorienting effects of the modern workplace.

Symbolic Perspectives On Popular Culture
The GreatHouse Company
May 5, 1999 | Number 15 | Sonoma County California

Richard Sennett's short new book The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (Norton, 1998) explores the disorienting effects of the modern workplace. While many propagandists of the new digital economy talk of the benefits of the new flexible work environment, the networking and its concomitant short-term teamwork, Sennett sees a much darker picture. He compares the rigid, hierarchical world of work, last seen in the 60s, where careers often lasted a lifetime, to today's "drive-by" careers which come and go with the shortness of "Entertainment Weekly" cover subjects.

The book is an anomaly among the seemingly endless procession of books by pundits and self-styled gurus putting "happy faces" on the new virtual economy. From a type of "crow's nest" position above this parade he warns of dark storms ahead. This is more than another book proclaiming cutting edge theory with a "know-it-all" attitude.

Yet Sennett is a sociologist and many might be tempted to pigeonhole this important new book in the sociology area alone. This would be a mistake because there are strong direct relationships between Sennett's ideas and key trends in the "zeitgeist" of our modern economy which are not immediately apparent from the book. One indication of the book's importance is the decision of the Harvard Business Review's Senior Editor Nick Carr to review the book in the upcoming April/May issue of the Harvard Business Review. With this in mind, a few short speculations beyond the sociological orbit of the book are in order.

Modern Workplace And The Loss Of Narrative

One of the leading candidates for a new business paradigm is based around the concept of entertainment and stories. Ours is a time when work and leisure, business and entertainment, are increasingly mixed together into a common cultural stew documented in best-selling business books like The Experience Economy (Harvard Business School Press, 1999) and The Entertainment Economy (Times Books, 1999).

Behind entertainment is the story form of narrative - that old, familiar linear method Sennett sees as an endangered species in the new workplace. As The Entertainment Economy author Michael Wolf observes, entertainment is ultimately "about stories that move us, characters we can root for, ideas that transform the cultural landscape..." Beyond this, entertainment and stories may also have a relationship to leadership, a notion suggested by Harvard's Howard Gardner who conducted a major study of outstanding leaders. One of his key findings was that "leadership involves the creation of powerful narratives, narratives that are much more than mission statements or messages." (Strategy & Business, First Quarter 1999).

The above is relevant to Sennett's book because one of the major effects of the corrosion of character is a loss of the ability to create a story narrative for one's life. Enrico, the janitor Sennett studied 25 years ago, had little money or power in life but his life did possess the continuity of narrative. As Sennett notes, Enrico "became the author of his life, and ... this narrative provided him with a sense of self-respect."

In a world where individuals still need stories but can no longer create them, has this fallen to the world of entertainment and its new relationship with business? Will the ability to create a corporate "narrative" become a critical leadership element in the new economy?

Emergence Of Employees As Products

In Sennett's brave new world of short-lived relationships and flexible work styles, corporations may be creating a need in their employees to see themselves as products or their own companies, perpetually marketing themselves to the virtual market place. In this new workplace, the ability to manage and sell oneself takes on new meaning.

The growing metaphor of employee as product or "personal company" is seen by a number of key management thinkers today. In "Managing Oneself" from the March-April 1999 HBR, Peter Drucker argues the need for each "knowledge worker" in the new economy to think and behave like a chief executive officer. One of Drucker's key reasons for this relates to the "mobility" of the modern workers. In a large sense, Drucker's "mobility" is another word for Sennett's "flexibility." Top career counselor William Bridges echoes this theme in his book Creating You & Company by reminding employees they are all CEOs of their own company. Tom Peters writes about a "brand called you" in a well-received August-September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.

The possibility of a connection between Sennett's new workplace and the need for employees to brand and market themselves as products should be a concern for all managers. Wharton's Peter Cappelli addresses this concern in his book The New Deal At Work (Harvard Business School Press, 1999) providing advice to managers in dealing with employees in this "market-driven workforce."

Fall Of Boundaries And Rise Of An External Perspective

The perspective of "looking out" for oneself (rather than "looking in" for oneself) may also have strong connections to popular workplace activities such as networking and project teams. It may also have a strong relationship to the concept of a "boundaryless corporation" hailed by General Electric's CEO Jack Welch as well as the "open source" architecture of Linus Torvald's Linux operating system.

Peter Drucker relates this external perspective to the information age in general terms when he says, "We can already discern and define the next, and perhaps even more important task in developing an effective information system for top management: the collection and organization of outside-focused information. All the data we have so far, including those provided by the new tools, focus inward. But inside an enterprise - indeed even inside the entire economic chain - there are only costs. Results are only on the outside." (Forbes, August 1998) In the end, we need to ask if Sennett's conclusions are the words of an aging "homeless" liberal from the 60s with limited application to our society, or, the prophetic voice of a "whistle blower" to the empty-handed boosterism of late 20th century capitalism. Might Enrico and Sennett symbolize more than a janitor and aging liberal but rather the entire fading generation of our fathers? Are their "stories" quickly disappearing in today's mass amnesia characterized by a continuous stream of "now more than ever" business pundits?

Workplace As Medium?

Beyond these speculations, there seems a certain subtext to the book suggesting the new workplace is a type of McLuhanesque "medium" creating its own type of hidden, subliminal "message." In effect, between its lines the book suggests an extension of media theory to the work environment. The possibility that this extension has already taken place may in fact be the reason for the increasing association of business with entertainment narratives.

Should we spend a few hours reading a book that might not be as "entertaining" as others which "now more than ever" bark for our attention? The Harvard Business Review's Nicholas Carr thinks so. At the end of his review "Being Digital" Carr asks "As we spend our days toiling in virtual companies, are we fated to become virtual men and women, efficient and adaptable but without substance?"

After the tragic events in Denver, we might also want to ask if we are fated to also become virtual parents, efficient and adaptable but providing little substance to our children.

© 1999 - John Fraim

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John Fraim is President of GreatHouse Company a research, consulting and publishing firm centered around the symbolism of popular culture. His articles have been published in a number of leading publications. His book Spirit Catcher won the 1997 Small Press Award for best biography.
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