Families, Corporations, and the Blackberry
posted by Nate Oman
11D has an interesting post on the pressure that her husband has been getting to carry a Blackberry around with him and go to the bar with the “team” from work on Friday nights. 11D summarizes her anger thus:
Let me get this straight. He’s gone from the house for 60 hours per week. He sees his kids for an hour per day. And now he’s supposed to be checking his e-mail, while he watches his kid’s soccer game. The people that he spends 10 hours a day with are making him spend more time in the evening with them, so they can do jello shots and pat each other on the back for closing all those deals. As he’s pounding shots and head butting the other guys, the kids and I are supposed to amuse ourselves.
After I processed this information, I arranged the words, words shit, fuck and damn, in all sorts of unique combinations.
As well she might. (In particular, the notion that one gets pressure to socialize with co-workers rather than going home to your family strikes me as a bit ludicrous). The pithy conclusion to her expletive studded outrage is that “Corporate life is the enemy of the modern family.”
On one level I agree with her. The super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office career is the enemy of the family. On the other hand, I always get suspicious of big generalizations about “corporate life.” I find that one moves rapidly from the reality of corporate life (which is actually remarkably diverse) to the imaginary world of unremittingly eeeveel corporations created by humanities majors and others who think that they know what corporations are “really” like because they saw Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
Consider, the Blackberry that 11D maligns. One can think of the Blackberry as symbolizing any number of things. 11D sees it as the symbol of a workplace that recognizes no limits on the demands that it may decently make on its employees. However, one might just as easily see it as evidence of other things.
In particular, I tend to think of the Blackberry as the symbol of the triumph of networks over hierarchies. The corporation of the 1950s or 1960s was an imperial bureaucracy with clear lines of command and control that regimented and controlled the work of its employees. It was rigid, tightly-controlled information, and was structured around the basic notion of economies to scale. These were the behemoths that were torn to shreds in the hostile take over binge of the 1980s.
What has emerged to replace them are flatter more flexible organizations based around networks rather than hierarchies. The notion is that communication and decentralization are ultimately better at problem solving than command and control. I don’t want to get all business-consultant gushy about this move. Corporations are still hierarchical and to a lesser or greater extent they remain rigid. Indeed, some companies have switched back to an earlier, more rigid format after getting burned by an overly sanguine reliance on networks. Still, Ronald Coase’s basic insight about the nature of the corporation continues to bear fruit: Corporations are essentially islands of hierarchy in a sea of decentralized market activity. The hierarchy is a mechanism for dealing with transaction costs. When those costs fall — as they have dramatically in the last ten or fifteen years — hierarchies drop with them. In its place we get a more flexible workplace, where the borders of organizations are permeable and sometimes indistinct.
Which brings me back to 11D’s assertion — “Corporate life is the enemy of the modern family.” What kind of corporate life is she referring to? Does it matter? What are the real implications of daddies with Blackberries?
It seems to me that flatter organizations contain problems and opportunities for families. First the problems: They are less secure. Pensions are out and 401(k)’s are in. A life-time employer is increasingly a thing of the past. Second, they can be much more competitive, which puts pressure on workers to adopt the super-turbo-charged-24/7/365-at-the-office model. Third — to put this bluntly — they are not kind to dumb people. Increasingly, there are fewer places for dull but contented cogs. The great advantage for families is flexibility, and — at least in some places — a reward system based on results rather than face-time, the billable hour, or some other purely temporal metric of contribution to the corporation. Or at least that is the promise of the Blackberry…