by Mike Rose
If that venerable debunker of inflated language, George Orwell, were alive today, he would gleefully be ripping into the lingo of the “new economy,” particularly taking aim at the gaseous hyperbole associated with digital technology.
To be sure, the last half-century has been a time of significant changes in the organization and technologies of work, and these changes have had huge consequences for workers. But the typical depictions of those changes misrepresent the complex nature of work and the workers who do it. The standard story line—found in political speech, opinion pages, and countless popular books on the new economy—is familiar to the readers of this blog.
John F. Padgett and Walter W. Powell. 2012. The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Innovation in the sense of product design is a popular research topic today, because there is a lot of money in that. Innovation, however, in the deeper sense of new actors—new types of people, new organizational forms—is not even much on the research radar screen of contemporary social scientists, even though “speciation” (to use the biologists’ term for this) lies at the heart of historical change over the longue durée, both in biological evolution and in human history. Social science—meaning mostly economics, political science and sociology—is very good at understanding selection, both at the micro level of individual choice and at the macro level of institutional regulation and lock-in. But novelty, especially of actors but also of alternatives, has first to enter from off the stage of our collective imaginary for our existing theories to be able to go to work. Our analytical shears for trimming are sharp, but the life forces that push up novelty to be trimmed tend to escape our attention, much less our understanding. If this book accomplishes anything, we at least hope to put the research topic of speciation—the emergence of new organizational forms and people—on our collective agenda.
It’s About the Work, Not the Office
by Jennifer Glass
(This article was originally published in the New York Times. The original version can be read here.)
THE recent decision by Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, to eliminate telecommuting for all workers brings her company back in line with most of corporate America, where working from home is more illusion than reality. Although many — some estimate most — American jobs could successfully be performed at home, only roughly 16 percent of American employees actually telecommute in any given year. And that figure is reached only by using a very generous definition of telecommuting — working from home at least one hour per week.
The idea behind the Yahoo announcement, as well as a more limited announcement from Best Buy this week that will add restrictions to its telecommuting policy, was that bringing workers back to the office would lead to greater collaboration and innovation. This is despite numerous studies showing that telecommuting workers are more productive than those working on-site.
Yet a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation. Two outdated ideas seem to underlie the Yahoo decision: first, that tech companies can still operate like the small groups of 20-something engineers that founded them; and second, the most old-fashioned of all, that companies get the most out of their employees by limiting their autonomy.
I recently wrote a blog post on The Mythology of Steve Jobs, in which I noted what I take to be a fairly standard understanding among sociologists: that technical innovation is generally the outcome of collective labor and that major innovations are generally produced by well-funded teams of researchers working in places protected from market forces.
The upshot is exactly the opposite of the standard story on innovation we get from mainstream economics. According to the latter, innovations are the result of individual entrepreneurs and are best fostered by intense market competition. But this simply does not fit the history of major innovations. This is shown very clearly in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Jon Gertner on the history of Bell Labs.
The article is a bit long, but very insightful and well worth a read. Let me just note a few highlights. Gertner explains that the researchers at Bell Labs were given “years to pursue what they felt was essential. One might see this as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world.”