Monday, July 30, 2007

Toffler's Magnificant Metaphor for Institutional Change

Every now and then you get a great writer who gives you a metaphor that is intriguing as well as instructive. This is how I see the comparison of institutional change metaphor of Alvin and Heide Toffler in their new book “Revolutionary Wealth.” The chapter on “Clash of Speeds” deals with institutional “leaders and laggards.” This post is a paraphrase of what they say in terms of what is happening to key institutions in America (likely Canada too) and the rate of change they are “driving” as we move to a 21st century economy.

The Tofflers ask you to consider nine key institutions like cars “speeding” down the highway of change and to consider their capacity and experience and their rate of change.

First at 100 mph, the fastest change agents are companies and business, which Toffler says “actually drive many of the transformations of the rest of society.” They use technology to blast ahead and force suppliers and distributors to make parallel changes all due to intense competition.

At 90 mph we have civil society who they “consider collectively, and packed like circus clowns into that second car.” This is a burgeoning sector of thousands of groups “churning and changing” in pro and anti business ways, includes NGOs, professional groups, coalitions and even sports federations. “Because NGO led movements tend to be small, fast, flexible units organized into networks they run rings around large corporate and government institutions.

At 60 mph is the “American” family that has morphed in the face of industrialization where it shrank and abandoned the old style nuclear model of a dad, a stay-at-home mom and 2 kids under 18…fewer than 25% of North American homes fit that designation today. Family is now embracing single parents, unmarried couples, multiple remarriages and blended families, geriatric families, gay unions either civil or marriages. Now the home is more than a castle or a sanctuary and it is about to “in source” as tele-workers stay home and work from the family environment.

Clocking at 30 mph is the labour movement slowed by the change of “muscle work to mind work, from interchangeable skills to non-interchangeable skills and form blindly reputational to innovational tasks.” Temporary teams and projects dominate the new work groupings while unions languish in 1930s organizational models and expectations.

“Sputtering along in the slow lane are government bureaucracies and regulatory agencies” running at 25 mph. “Skilled at deflecting criticism and delaying change…the pyramidal bureaucracies run the day-to-day affair of government…slowing the pace of change for government and business.”

Coming along at ten mph even bureaucrats can see these folks in their rear view mirror…the schools systems. Toffler bemoans the lack of competition and an educational institutional culture persisting that was designed to serve an outmoded factory-style industrial age. He asks, “Can a ten mile per hour education system prepare students for jobs in companies moving at a 100 mph?” Hummm?

Chugging along at 5 mph are the big scale world based dysfunctional international global governance inter-governmental institutions like the UN, NATO, IMF, WTO to name a few. Perhaps the challenges to national sovereignty that are now in play will emphasize how dysfunctional these institutions really are.

Next a 3 mph Toffler tags political structures in rich countries, earmarking (sic) Congress and the White House to political parties themselves. No reason to believe that this designation would not apply equally to Canada to my mind. Designed for a more relaxed and leisurely debating society, they are hard pressed to respond to the faster action and high complexity and the new world reality of knowledge based globalized societies.

Lastly, the tortoise time change magic of 1 mph is captured by the slowest changing institution in modern society, todays the legal system. While law firms are quick to adapt with new responsive specialties and technologies, the pace at which the system operates is still glacial, that is pre-climate change glacial by the way. Toffler says “The body of law is said to be ‘living’ –but only barely so.” Sure the law needs to change slowly and to act as measure of predictability and an application of a judicious brake on overly rapid economic and social change. Toffler rightly asks, “But how slow is slow?”

Something to chew on for sure.