Monday, August 02, 2004
Here's the draft of a somewhat controversial piece I'm working on. Enjoy.
The Death of the Corporation
I�m going to try and inject a fresh viewpoint into the stale debate over outsourcing. So far, it�s basically the same old debate between capitalists and workers. The former argues that business can be made more efficient, freeing up resources here for cooler, fresher uses; the latter argues that the pain involved isn�t worth any potential gains, and around and around we go.
I say: Let these jobs go � we don�t really want them. Let these jobs go to places where people are not just eager to do them, but to places where people find some hope and meaning in them. They stopped giving us that long ago. So let them go to places where they represent the future. Our future is to help find the future.
My argument isn�t an academic one. It�s purely anecdotal. Here�s what I�ve seen: for the last 10 years or so, our culture has ridiculed, made fun of, and even scorned the kinds of jobs that are being outsourced now. In the movies, books, TV shows, and art that reflects what we think and feel, the kind of work that�s being outsourced has repeatedly represented for us negative things, not positive things: the loss of meaning, the loss of creativity, and Kafkaesque mechanization. These jobs have been objects of derision to us � not objects of hope, happiness, and value � for a long, long time.
Need evidence? It�s there in droves. Mike Judge�s Office Space, where a bunch of disgruntled code-slaves revolt against the total vapidity of their jobs at what looks suspiciously like an anonymous suburban systems integrator. Seinfeld�s recurring subplot of Costanza looking for an office-drone job where the bureaucracy can simply absorb him, so he can do nothing. The term �McJob�. The Matrix, where Neo, fed up with the total intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of his �day job�, doubles as hacker by night � and eventually, takes the red pill. How many of us can relate to these examples?
But nowhere, and here�s the interesting bit, do we see any glorification of the kind of jobs that are being outsourced. Nowhere. But there are many jobs that are glorified and lionized by our culture: the forensic scientists in CSI, the plastic surgeons in Nip/Tuck, the casino owner in Las Vegas. In a sense, what I�m saying is a truism: we think there�s little to lionize about a call-center operator. AT&T may try and do it in cheesy ads, but do we really believe it? On the other hand, being a call center operator is something that�s lionized in the Third World. It�s work people are eager to do not just for the money, but because it gives them hope � hope for the future.
I think there is a deep truth in our collective scorn of certain kinds of work � as furious as we are when it�s taken away from us. Perhaps it�s because we feel devalued when we do it. Such work has one thing in common, beyond the fact that it�s often automatic and repetitive: it�s not intellectually, creatively, or spiritually challenging. I think we scorn such work because we know we can and should do cooler and better things; because we know that when we do it, we aren�t building the future, we�re clinging to the past.
Our macabre fascination with outsourcing, and the slow but sure cultural devaluation of specific kinds of work � these are the surface rumblings of a deeper tectonic shift. If we think about it, it�s the corporation - not outsourced jobs � that�s been the target of our collective cultural contempt. This tectonic shift is nothing less than the death of the corporation.
What�s really being outsourced is really the corporation itself. It�s slowly being rebuilt � lock, stock and barrel � in other parts of the world. The legal seed is planted in Bermuda. The human cogs and gears run in India. The assembly lines chug along in China. The corporation is multiplying like a virus, and finding a new home in a less harsh environment it can more easily adapt to. Remember all that stuff about heterarchy replacing hierarchy? About adding new voices to stale old boardrooms? Well, this is how it happens � slowly, painfully � but as sure and steady as time itself. The revolution sounded cool when Tom Peters wrote about it; but it�s a hell of a lot scarier now that we�re actually on the operating table.
So where does that leave us? Well, where we�ve always been: as the folks who came up with all this wonderful stuff in the first place. What we � all of us � have to do now is to invent the post-corporation. Actually, that�s not entirely accurate: thinkers like Hamel, movements like open-source, and startups like Google have already been hard at work doing it. So what we really have to do is finish reinventing the corporation. That�s more than a little scary, and it will involve more than a little pain.
All this means that the upside of outsourcing is quite different from what you�re used to hearing by now (that �retraining� is the key to scoring a new job with a fatter paychceck). The upside is that we � not India, China, or Russia � but we, get to define and build the grand new machine that will power the economies of the 21st century � the post-corporation. This is a huge upside: we get to invent the future for the rest of the world. We get to invent the next great machine that will power everyone�s economy and impact everyone�s life.
What will this machine � the post-corporation � look like? Well, it�s a work in progress. A few things are likely: the post_corporation will care more about truth than marketing, more about inclusion than exclusion, more about all stakeholders than only financial markets, and more about innovation than protecting obsolete business models.
But perhaps the most valuable part of the upside is that � unlike when the corporation was invented � we all have a say in how the post-corporation is invented. You can write a book, start a blog, go to shareholder meetings, write an op-ed, become a business prof, lawyer, accountant, activist, or even toss it all in and try and start your own post-corporation. Now, of course, all of these entail different levels of risk � if you want to have a say, you�ve got to take a risk. But that�s why our system works so well: it rewards risk and innovation, and so sorts out the best ideas from the better ones.
This is not an inconsequential task, to build the next great thing. Are we up to the challenge? I think, like so many times in our past, we have to be. If we want to continue to maintain the legacy our ancestors handed to us � as the world�s innovators, leaders, and builders � we�ve got to begin by having the courage to admit what we�ve been trying to tell ourselves: let these jobs go � we never really wanted them. Instead, we�ve got to begin building the future.