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
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
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."
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
- 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
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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