Re-inventing the Corporation: Transforming Your Job and Your Company for the New Information Society, by John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, New York: Warner Books, 308 pages, $17.50
Like the new-wave comic strip character Zippy the Pinhead, John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene have one question to ask you: Are we having fun yet? The answer to that question tells you whether you are working for, or have "entrepreneured," a "reinvented" corporation. An affirmative means you're riding the wave of the future.
Re-inventing the Corporation is Naisbitt and Aburdene's handbook for business executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and baby boomers (by which label they mean young white-collar workers). It is meant to help these people prepare their companies and careers for "the new information society'' and to restore the vitality and international competitiveness of American business.
Though Re-inventing the Corporation is narrower in scope than the best-selling Megatrends, Naisbitt's first work of "social forecasting," it still cuts a pretty wide swath. According to the authors, our economy is at a turning point: "The humanistic values of the 1960's," "the demise of industrial America," and "the stiff economic competition from global rivals such as Japan" necessitate a thorough restructuring of our corporate "model." In order to attract the employees who will renew American innovation and boost productivity, international competitiveness, and profits, corporations must now "invent the corporation into a place that is equally pro-profits and pro-people." Luckily for us, "new values and economic necessity"—the same impulses behind corporate change—are "the two crucial elements for social change," and "we are living in one of those rare times in history when…[both] are present."
It's probably best to stop right now and note how soon things go wrong in this book. The authors' underlying argument is trivial: Corporate change is necessary because of the "presence" of the same things that are making it possible. This all comes out on the first two pages, and it doesn't get an better.
On these pages we are told that among our "social structures," "the corporation is often the quickest and most responsive to change," because every day it "must confront the harsh judgements of the marketplace." But then we are told that "social institutions like the corporation do not readily respond to change instituted by individuals (even…if there are a lot of them)." One is compelled to ask, If the "harsh judgements of the marketplace" are not messages sent out by individuals—a lot of them—then what are they?
In another case, Naisbitt and Aburdene say that "neither force [new values or economic necessity] is powerful enough to produce social change on its own. There must be a confluence." Within a few breaths of this proclamation, we hear that "the people-oriented values of the 1960s changed a lot of individuals—but no corporations" and then that "corporate change came instead in response to the economic necessity of the 1970s." Well, which is it? If both forces are necessary, how could corporations change in response to economic necessity instead of the new values?
These arguments, typical of the book, are literally thoughtless: devoid of content and serious reasoning. The authors use terms like corporate change, social change, and new humanist values without any precision. And their arguments proceed as if they forget what they've said from page to page.
Perhaps they thought their arguments for the necessity and historical appropriateness of corporate change didn't need to be very tight. After all, a lot of executives already see the need for some changes in the way they run their corporations. So once the superficial justification of the book is out of the way, the authors can get down to telling the movers and shakers what they must do to create or save their corporations and jobs.
Luckily again, "reinventing the corporation" is simple. Never mind the old ways of seeking out or developing cheaper raw materials, innovative marketing strategies, or new ways to manage inventory. No. What's needed is for corporations to change their personnel policies; they must adopt today's "new ideal about work"—"a widespread expectation that…work should be fun." In fact, about all Naisbitt and Aburdene recommend are changes in personnel policies: "flattening" the corporate hierarchy, giving employees lots of benefits and scheduling flexibility, and generally getting more casual about relating. Dig it.
The dust jacket of Re-inventing the Corporation promises "a bible," a "survival guide," a "blueprint." According to the introduction, the book "tells what to do." But it really doesn't. The book is mostly a catalogue—pages of lists, thin anecdotes, and "models" of novel corporate policies and practices.
The method of composition is strictly cut-and-paste. The authors take almost every example from articles in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or from business and newsweekly magazines such as Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. The apparent criterion for inclusion of any particular practice is the journalistic adage, "three items are a trend."
The fruit of this second-hand method is advice so vague as to be practically useless. Naisbitt and Aburdene tell us that many firms are doing interesting things, like letting workers set "flextime" schedules, cutting out middle managers, and offering "cafeteria benefits." But they offer no criteria for determining whether a policy would be good or bad for a particular company; nor do they say how to set up and run any particular program.
Not only is Re-inventing the Corporation irritatingly shallow, it is often erroneous and confused. The authors say that "following World War II, we had rising incomes and falling prices for several decades." For several decades? What time warp have they been stuck in? They give directly contradictory advice, praising the elimination of corporate titles and hierarchies early in the book and later praising a foundation report on education for recommending a teachers' hierarchy—complete with titles.
They say that comparable worth "sounds pretty difficult to argue against." But they treat it as just one more unquestionable, mondo-boffo "humanistic" value. Their sources of knowledge on the idea are five newspaper articles; they haven't looked into any critiques or defenses of comparable worth in more learned journals. Not understanding how wages are determined, they argue from their warm feelings.
Bad as it all is, the real agony of the book lies in having to read it just to find out how bad it really is. Because the writing itself, beyond the artless method and lack of seriousness, is execrable.
Diction is hit-or-miss: The dust jacket (which, judging by the style, must have been written by the authors) tells us that we are in a period when "divergent forces come together"; a careful writer would have noticed that "divergent forces" are, by definition, moving apart. They say that "re-invented corporations stress inordinate regard for…employees and customers," as if inordinate meant "extraordinary," rather than "unreasonable," "excessive," or "harsh."
They are blind to metaphors, so they end up with garbage ("monumental thinking slump"). The book is full of redundancies ("a shared vision that all employees embraced"). They simply cannot choose prepositions or match them with the correct verbs ("inventing the corporation into a place").
Is it harsh to criticize Naisbitt and Aburdene's writing as severely as what they try to pass off as ideas? Hardly. They devote a whole chapter to education and several pages to the teaching of writing and clearly believe that they themselves are good, creative writers. Moreover, they castigate the "traditional obsession with grammar, punctuation, and other rules of the writing game," and advocate "intuitive" writing, "fun" writing. The result is lousy writing.
I should comment on the impression of political and economic naivete this book leaves. Certainly the authors didn't set out to show how political policies can make or break the economy, so it wouldn't be fair to criticize them for not showing how, say, eliminating the corporate income tax might do wonders for our international competitiveness.
But they don't even show any understanding of or concern about such issues. It's one thing to say that new personnel policies may increase productivity. It's another thing to proceed, as Naisbitt and Aburdene do, on the silly axiom that making work "fun" is about all that matters and that the whole fate of the economy is in the hands of executives, managers, and entrepreneurs—regardless of what the folks in the swamps of the Potomac do.
It would be great to have a work of genuine value, something that could really help vitalize a few businesses. But clearly Naisbitt and Aburdene haven't given us one. Naisbitt, this time with Patricia Aburdene, has gotten away with bad work a second time: Re-inventing the Corporation also made the bestseller list. This should be a warning: Are the same American business people who can be taken in—many of them twice—by this pinheaded bestseller sort of consulting able to revitalize our economy?
David Stewart is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Megamalarky for Managers".