Moving beyond the industrial society

February 25, 2010
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201002242149.jpg Noted psychiatrist R. D. Laing said “we live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.” We live in a world that is on the leading edge of a major business (or maybe that’s societal) transformation, but like any widespread change, the shift away from the industrial model will take time. The change to social business is cultural and as such, threatens a great many concepts that we were brought up believing. It’s ingrained in our education system, our organizations and our businesses. As Seth Godin points out “our entire education system is designed to prepare people to work in factories, consume stuff, and believe this makes us happy.”

Without turning this blog into a history lesson I do think we need to do a quick refresher on the Industrial Revolution. There’s some disagreement on when it started but the transformation from an agrarian society generally ran from the 18th century to the 19th century and started in the United Kingdom, eventually spreading across the world. As farming became more efficient

201002242149.jpg Noted psychiatrist R. D. Laing said “we live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.” We live in a world that is on the leading edge of a major business (or maybe that’s societal) transformation, but like any widespread change, the shift away from the industrial model will take time. The change to social business is cultural and as such, threatens a great many concepts that we were brought up believing. It’s ingrained in our education system, our organizations and our businesses. As Seth Godin points out “our entire education system is designed to prepare people to work in factories, consume stuff, and believe this makes us happy.”

Without turning this blog into a history lesson I do think we need to do a quick refresher on the Industrial Revolution. There’s some disagreement on when it started but the transformation from an agrarian society generally ran from the 18th century to the 19th century and started in the United Kingdom, eventually spreading across the world. As farming became more efficient people had to look for other ways to earn a living and turned at first to cottage industries and eventually to organized factories, mines, and support businesses around those activities. The change was enabled by the technological advances in machines and manufacturing process. If you want to read more, try this Wikipedia article. So my point is this, the industrial revolution happened because several factors aligned at the same time. Old ways of working became outdated or unavailable at the same time that technology shifted to provide alternatives that were not just appealing but met a growing basic need. Culturally as people moved from one lifestyle to another and congregated around industrial centers for work, society changed. The support systems of a society shifted to support the new economy and the new way of living. Education modeled and taught how to function effectively in the industrial environment. Societal norms shifted from supporting the feudal and disbursed agrarian culture to supporting a centralized, crowed factory centered environment in cities. As the industrial society grew up we began to create a self perpetuating model of produce / consume / produce. There are of course, all sorts of nasty repercussions to this social model from environmental to behavioral but for this post, I’ll stay focused on the topic at hand.

So we’re an industrial society with all of the supporting educational, economic and social structures in place and ingrained, except once again, as they did at the beginning of the industrial revolution, many factors are shifting. In North America particularly, but not limited there by any means, we have become a service based and information based economy. The majority of the population does not produce “stuff” anymore. Factory automation, off shoring, outsourcing all have reduced the need for widespread participation in the direct production of “stuff”. Rampant consumerism is also starting to shift. Once it was believed that the “boomers” would retire with wealth to spare and would continue to or maybe even increase their consumption of goods. The economic crisis / recession of 2008/9 have pretty much taken care of that idea, wealth across the population has been significantly reduced. Across all generations we’re starting to hear the words “downsize” rather than “buy”. The workforce is disrupted, unemployment is extremely high and more and more people are choosing to (or for many its the only choice available) work for themselves and downsize to make that possible.

The social web has changed interaction models and the expectations of employees and customers. Customers are learning that they don’t have to accept the old models of company controlled interactions, they control their relationship. Employees are learning new tools, have new and better user experiences and are starting to approach work like they do their personal lives by choosing to “bring their own” tools when the company provided tools do not provide the experience they want. Control and management models are starting to be questioned as employees look for more opportunity to participate and share control. There’s still a lot of resistance to change of course, especially among the groups most threatened, middle and upper management for example. We still see over half of the companies in the US “blocking” social tools (or at least living under the delusion that they can block them). The threat to hierarchy and control models are probably the most acute as shared control and transparency gain momentum. The cultural shift in many organizations starts from the bottom up and many companies that believe they are not participating in the use of social tools are in fact “unconsciously social” already.

The technology is in play, there is significant pressure from a wide set of the population (employee and customer), business has changed from industrial without changing it’s management models, we’re seeing more and more negative outcomes from the consumerism of the past, everybody and everything is more and more connected…all of these changes seem to point to a major shift in business and society that rivals the industrial revolution in its magnitude. When? Well, the time cycles driven by technology are more compressed than ever but there is and will continue to be great resistance to this deep of a cultural shift. I see a small number of companies starting to make conscious decisions to move down the path to social business, but that is evolving slowly. There are lot’s a barriers, management, legacy technology, infrastructure, education, etc. and we’re only just starting to understand what the changes might mean when implemented. As Arnold Bennett said, “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.”