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The Future of Work

April 21st, 2004 · No Comments

David Kirkpatrick interviews Tom Malone and writes about his new book “The Future of Work”:

[Malone’s] new book posits that the central transformative development of our time is the radically decreased cost of communications caused by the Internet, wireless voice and data, and cheap long distance, among other new technologies. It is all fundamentally changing the nature of work, Malone says: “This change may be as important for business as the change to democracy has been for government.” He stopped by the office the other day to talk about the book, published this month, and his ideas.

Malone sees a parallel between the evolution of human society and the evolution of business. “For millenia,” he says, “all human societies were organized as small, autonomous, egalitarian groups called bands. Then we saw the rise of bigger and bigger, more centralized societies called kingdoms. Only in the last 200 years have we seen the rise on a large scale of the third way of organizing human society-democracy.” Each of those stages, Malone says, can be explained by a change in a single factor–the cost of communication. In his view, writing is what enabled hierarchically organized kingdoms to arise. Printing led to democracy.

Likewise, he says, “until a couple hundred years ago businesses were still organized like bands. It was only when new communications technologies like telegraph and telephone and even the Xerox machine made communication cheap enough to coordinate larger groups of people that we saw the rise of the centralized corporation–the kingdoms of the business world.” I like the way this guy thinks.

So where are we now? It’s the revolution, he says. “Near the end of the 20th century, it became possible for the first time to exchange the detailed kind of information necessary to coordinate a business on a very large scale even as lots of individuals made decisions for themselves. When communications costs fall it becomes possible for vastly more people to be well-enough informed to make decisions instead of just following orders from their uniquely well-informed superiors.”

For most of our lives, Malone says, “the big message of business history was that getting bigger and more centralized was the way you succeed. But now you can have both the economic benefits of bigness and the human benefits of smallness.”

He cites all the small companies that now can sell around the country and the world via the Internet: “They’re no longer limited by being in a certain region. They can buy and sell anywhere.”

Here is an excerpt on Decnetralisation from the book on HBS Working Knowledge.

Tags: Management

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