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The Problem with Harmony

by Michael Maccoby

Printed in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 38 No. 3 May-June, 1995. pp. 55-57.

The R&D executive's job is not so much to predict the future of the company as to create it. Arno Penzias, vice president for research at the AT&T Bell Labs tries to do this and more. In Harmony (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), he sketches a future not only for his company, but for information age industry in general. His thesis raises large human issues concerning the future of work and management.

Unlike those breathless futurists who promote a gee-whiz multimedia home based amusement park, Penzias presents a more hopeful vision of the next paradigm, what he calls the second information revolution, as an era of "harmony".

The key shift is from individual products to integrated services. This is the direction already being taken by AT&T in developing interactive, multi-media capabilities within the network, through partnerships with Lotus, Novell, Intel, Kodak and others. The harmony era, as described by Penzias, also makes the customer a partner in value creation by participating in "design" at the point of sale.

Penzias predicts tremendous improvements in productivity, the promise of automation realized. He writes that while the quality revolution has produced a plethora of goods, it has also made people feel stupid as they fumble with VCRs and computers. Furthermore, it has not solved the problem of environmental deterioration. He believes that "since true productivity implies the creation of value, we must remember that products and services exist to improve the quality of human life rather than as ends in themselves. Stuck in the old paradigm, too many products - and too many producers - compete in glutted markets. Instead we can expand our horizons to recognize unmet needs for products and services." (p.XIV).

Penzias gives a few examples of the products and services that can emerge in the era of harmony. They include smart medical cards held by patients that eliminate tons of paper work and protect the patient's privacy. To improve the environment, Penzias describes a rationalized transportation system that unclogs highways. And to facilitate employment, he proposes on line, interactive interview and hiring services. But along the way, his vision raises human problems of management, displacement of workers and the likelihood of an increasing discordance between those people adapted to harmony and those who lack the skills to be part of the new paradigm.

Management for Harmony

In his managerial role at Bell Labs, Penzias has had to reorient experts to design for manufacture and customer usability, rather than adding features that confuse users but gain prestige for the designers. He writes that "most designers pay more attention to plaudits from their colleagues than to the real needs of nonexpert users. Results range from personal anxiety at one's lack of 'computer literacy' to spectacular system failures generally attributed to 'human error.'" (p. 12).

Penzias sees the organization for Harmony as a kind of architectural firm, with intense customer interaction and cross-functional teamwork. A major problem of getting there is changing the values of technical experts, to focus on customers. He writes "Recasting first-level management roles has proved the most challenging undertaking. Experienced researchers themselves, managers had worked hard to ensure the best possible research in their organizations. But 'best' as they defined it: the world's most powerful laser diode; a record-breaking transmission experiment: the 'best paper' award at a major professional conference.... Since the researchers saw themselves as guardians of traditional excellence, they naturally regarded new criteria as a lowering of standards. But over time, the new ideas took hold. Building a manufacturable record-breaking laser presents a far greater challenge than building one that just works long enough to get a paper published, after all." (p.72)

A major difference between the Quality and Harmony paradigms is that the latter requires systems thinking. While Penzias does not discuss the development of systems thinking in Harmony, he has responded to my article "Raising the Level of Management Thinking" (RTM, Vol 37, No. 5, September-October 1994). That article proposed four levels of management thinking: analyzers (traditional experts who are problem solvers and manage by formulas), energizers (analyzers who motivate by emotional appeals to the competitive spirit), synthesizers (interactive systems thinkers), and humanizers (whose systems include improving the quality of life).

Penzias whose vision of Harmony requires leaders who are humanizers, wrote that my, "intriguing article" had "got him thinking." He asked me two questions:

1) "How do the different styles progress up the ladder and what obstacles do they uniquely encounter at each step. As you say, adaptation-leaders (or innovators as you call them) move to the energizing stage rather quickly and then bog down

2) "If, as you assert, and I would like to believe, the information age calls for humane employee treatment, why do our most technologically advanced companies (a noted software company comes to mind) thrive on burning out their people?"

How do analyzers become synthesizers? This is hard to answer, since so little effort has been made to develop analyzers into synthesizers. In my experience, it involves a combination of conceptual, and emotional-experimental learning.

Conceptual learning. Managers should learn to conceive of the organization as a social system with a goal and stakeholders. They need conceptual models that describe the alignment of the system parts. An example is the 7s model described in "Raise the Level of Management Thinking."

Emotional - experiential learning. The analyzer tends to be an expert who not only works for awards, but also who treats peers as competitors for approval by authority figures. This locks him or her emotionally into hierarchical, authoritarian-egocentric relationships. Synthesizers tend to be more egalitarian and enjoy reciprocal relationships. They are open to learning from subordinates and colleagues as well as from authorities.

As organizational structures change from functional hierarchies to cross functional, customer focused, heterarchical teams, authoritarian-egocentric thinking will be dysfunctional. Reciprocal thinking, putting oneself in anothers place, will facilitate systems thinking.

Following Russell Ackoff's guidelines, analyzers can learn to think like synthesizers by designing an ideal future for the organization with the goal of balancing the needs of the three main stakeholders: customers, employees, and owners. This has been done in some of AT&T's business units as part of Workplace of the Future. The ideal design has been explained to process teams and frontline units which have interpreted it and used it as a tool for re engineering their work. This interactive dialogue among the participants cuts across levels and functions. Analyzers are stimulated to think systemically. Everyone learns what each stakeholder needs to succeed. Together, they align the processes, measurements, and training that support the organizational strategy. Through this interactive process, they learn that each part of the system must be evaluated and designed to further system goals. I have worked on a similar process with The MITRE Corporation and ABB of Canada.

Managers start to become humanizers when they understand and respond to the diverse needs of the stakeholders. They discover that by becoming humanizers,they are better able to optimize the social system and gain support of people. The only reliable humanizers are also synthesizers. This contrasts to the energizers who employ humanistic rhetoric, cause unrealistic expectations and ultimately feed cynicism when inevitable conflict occurs and they go back to being hierarchical analyzers.

The Challenge to Jobs

As Penzias points out, many existing jobs will be automated in the era of Harmony. Even now AT&T's manufacturing units need 15 percent fewer employees each year to produce the same output. Where will the surplus workers find employment?

Those with the skills and style adapted to the Harmony era will likely find many opportunities. But the new paradigm demands people able to learn continually, with a high degree of active interest in understanding both how things work both how things work and what motivates people. To produce in cooperation with others, they must be productive people. This is the opposite of the addictive character whose passivity may be fed not only by drugs that blot out consciousness, but also continual entertainment that blunts active thinking. Are we developing productive people in our homes and schools? Does the new information technology stimulate students to be analyzers, synthesizers, and humanizers, or does it provide quick escapes into fantasy and video games?

The danger is that the second information revolution will speed up the formation of two classes, would-be producers and escapees. The most dangerous group will be the first - people with energy who want to be producers but do not fit in the new economy. They are the ones most likely to feel resentful and look for someone to blame. They are the ones most vulnerable to being led by the charismatic demagogues who provide the targets to blame, such as immigrants and minorities. Penzias writes, "A truly healthy economy - healthy for everyone, not just for the fortunate few - demands that we employ people and technology to bridge gaps within human society itself." But we have large gaps and Harmony does not tell us how to close them.

The vision of Harmony appeals to the humanizer. Much of it makes sense in terms of developing the infrastructure of society and cleaning up the environment. We can perhaps be comforted by the view that never before in history have so many people enjoyed opportunities for learning, travel, communication and challenging work. In the past, only a small elite escaped the drudgery of rural life and even this fortunate few lacked the opportunities available to millions throughout the world today. However, the wonders of the information age also make some people feel they have become less, because so many people have more. The complex systems described by Penzias appear fragile, vulnerable to unforeseen glitches and acts of sabotage of the sort described by Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park.

In creating a more humane society, we must find better answers for closing the gaps between the beneficiaries of change and those who do not fit the new paradigm. Like it or not, we must also design and invest in systems of security to protect those in the world of harmony from those in the world of discord and to protect the discordant from each other.

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