Online Edition - March 2000
The Hunt For Next November
--At 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2000 we both breathed a sigh of relief and simultaneously attended a coronation. Our relief was that the TV worked, ATM machines kept delivering cash, and the streetlights stayed on. The coronation was that the technology and economics maintained their ruling supremacy over modern culture. The coronation may have been more significant than the relief.
--New Year’s Eve was a triumphant moment for the computer chip and information technology. It proved the computer is immortal. Human beings have been looking for the fountain of youth for centuries, and where we have failed, the computer has been victorious. Dot Com was able to compensate for her own shortsightedness, reprogram herself, and more importantly, demonstrate she was worth $1.5 trillion to stay healthy. If only we had been so loved.
--The Y2K drama, then, was not just a technical event, it was a watershed cultural event. It affirmed technology’s final, game ending victory as the archetype and symbol of our times.
--In our search for a new story we have had at least two contenders. One is often called The Universe Story. It is a creation myth that has us spiritually evolving towards greater consciousness. It is about the Spaceship Earth, the human interconnectedness of all people, the presence of God in all things, the limitless possibilities of the human spirit. It views the millenium as a transformation into an Aquarian Age.
--Along side the Universe Story has been the story of technology and economic growth. It is the story of the Information Age, the New Economy, the Global Economy, the Information Superhighway. The belief that technology is the key to our future. The marriage of physical science and computer technology can solve the problems of scarce resources, poverty, illness and eventually death. Some even believe that technology will bring us greater peace and democracy.
--Up until December 31, 1999 at 11:59 p.m., these two stories have been in contention. When the clock struck midnight and the TV stayed on, the contest was over and technology was declared victor.
--The implications for the workplace of this victory are clear. There has been a growing swing in organizations away from customers, employees and participation and towards consolidation, technology and economics. The Y2K coronation made it conclusive.
--Coronations are expensive. The $1.5 trillion price tag of the Y2K conversion is one of the minor costs. The larger cost is to the narrative about the importance of the human being. This cost is particularly high to those of us in the people business; participation, quality, organization development. It is time to publicly acknowledge that we are in a recession when it comes to people. This recession gets little news coverage, it will not appear on the nightly news, it doesn’t even seem to interest national public radio. It has no numbered index like the NASDAQ or Dow Jones Industrial Average.
--But it is a recession and for the sake of our own sanity, we need to acknowledge this. The ideas that lifted us in the 1980s and early 1990s no longer have popular currency. This recession is particularly difficult because it is one we blame ourselves for. We feel it locally and privately and we think it is unique to our own particular workplace. It is not. The recession is really about the declining value of the human being.
--This means that services based on values of participation, empowerment, the nobility of labor and the democratization of the workplace, are selling into a shrinking market. No one argues against these values, it is just that they are off the collective radar. The only people questions remaining are how to find the right people, get rid of the wrong ones, what to pay the new ones and how to shrink the cost of the old ones.
--Now you may think this line of thinking is cynical, or pessimistic or lacks hope. Not so. We find strength in naming events for what they are. Here are thoughts on what a reasoned response might entail.
Don’t Buy the
--- Second, don’t abandon the work or its purpose. Becoming more business literate, speaking Dot Com’s language, engaging in your own Y2K conversion won’t help. A web site is not a magic elixir. Even if we have one, only our friends can find it. An electronic college degree misses most of what we learn in college, which was about our social development and our love for the teacher and the learner. Long distance learning is an oxymoron. Change is social, a relationship based occurrence.
--- Third, don’t buy the story that technology will bring us together. Internet intimacy is not a path to love. Globalization is fundamentally a strategy of economic domination, it is not a strategy for human understanding. Granted, communicating across time zones is made easy and everyone has more data and access to the marketplace than before, but as stated beautifully by Neil Postman in his book, “Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century,” what we have is information, not knowledge or wisdom. The idea that the Internet equalizes power between the large and the small is a myth to make the new technology based oligarchies more palatable.
What to Do
--- Instead of softening our message to make it more digestible—strengthen it. Don’t let the media or top management define reality for us. Be a stronger voice for the primacy of the person, for the human cost of technology and the tragic dimensions of the new economy. We will not get rich or famous, but we will be a magnet for the people whose voice for human welfare is now quiet, but has in no way disappeared.
--- In the selling of our services, we need to reduce our claims. Recapture our credibility. We are not going to transform cultures, turn businesses around, plant new paradigms and instill the behaviors that will prepare the world for a chaotic and entrepreneurial future. Promise more depth, not more speed. Tell the truth about how difficult change is, how long it takes and that there is a cost to it that is greater than we can now know.
--Remember that recessions and expansions are cyclical. In a recession you lay the groundwork for the next expansion. The Universe Story is as true as the New Economy Story, it is just in remission in the marketplace. It is strong in our personal lives and in our conversations with each other. We have attended the coronation, we can admire the new Gatesian ruler, but don’t call it progress. Call it a useful tool, but just a tool, not an answer. Speed and economics are not worthy statements of purpose. Legitimate purpose always centers on the well-being of the human being. It is just a purpose that is operationally unpopular now and so we have a right to be a little cranky.