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The Postmodern Workplace: Teams, Emotions, and No-Collar Work
The idea of the “postmodern organization” suggests the rejection of the principles of the modernist,
bureaucratic organization that has been the benchmark for corporate and government structures for
the past 100 years (Bergquist, 1992; Clegg, 1990). Where the modern organization embodied principles
of stability, predictability, hierarchy, rules, and clear structure and function, the postmodern
organization is organized around such issues as constant change, instability, flexibility, and
empowerment. Business gurus speak of “thriving on chaos” (Peters, 1988) and “managing the art of
irreversible change” (Bergquist, 1992). Furthermore, the postmodern organization is less about
producing things and more about providing services, harnessing information technology, and developing
brand identities (Klein, 2001). According to most business commentators, over the past 30 years we
have shifted from a production-based to a service- and information-based economy. And because of the
association of the old modernist, production-based organization with Henry Ford and his use of the
moving production line, the new organizational form is often called “post-Fordist” (Harvey, 1989).
Clearly, this shift in organizational form has profound implications for both the people who work in
those organizations and the consumers who buy their products and services. Many commentators have
argued that the new organizational form has led to greater worker empowerment and participation,
greater job satisfaction, and a more balanced view of the relationship between work and leisure
(Bergquist, 1992; Roth, 2000). On the other hand, some scholars argue that the postmodern
organization simply represents an increase in the level of organizational control that can be exercised
over employees, albeit in a more subtle and unobtrusive fashion (Barker, 1999; Collinson, 2003; Deetz,
1992b, 1994b, 1994c; Knights, 1990; Kunda, 1992). Whichever view is true (and, as we’ll see, there are
elements of truth to both sides), the picture of the postmodern, 21st century organizational form is a
complex one. Indeed, the complexities and paradoxes of contemporary work life are summed up by an
issue of the New York Times Magazine devoted to the new workplace, titled “The liberated, exploited,
pampered, frazzled, uneasy new American worker” (2000).
In recent years, however, this “new” American worker has earned another title—the precariat
(Kalleberg, 2009; Ross, 2008). The title applies to workers in all segments of the workforce who find
themselves in extremely precarious economic environments and are constantly under threat of losing
their jobs, which are often “outsourced” to other companies in other countries. This phenomenon is
heavily tied to the process of globalization, which we will address in some detail in Chapter 13.
It seems important, then, that we gain a better understanding of the changes in organizational life that
have reshaped the landscape of the contemporary workplace. Indeed, whatever the truth about the
postmodern organization, it is important to keep in mind that as current and future members of the
workforce, you will be faced with many of the issues that will be discussed in this chapter.
First, in the next section, we will discuss the perspective on power that is typically associated with
researchers who adopt a postmodern perspective on organizational life—disciplinary power. In
particular, we will examine the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose view of power has
strongly influenced how scholars think about contemporary organizational life. Then, after comparing
the Fordist and post-Fordist organizational forms, we will look at three specific features of the postFordist organization and how it shapes our everyday work lives.
DISCIPLINARY POWER AND THE POSTMODERN ORGANIZATION
The postmodern perspective we discussed in Chapter 1 provides a new way of thinking about power and
control, particularly as conceived in the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. Stuart Hall (1997b)
argues that Foucault’s writings enable researchers to develop more sophisticated conceptions of how
power operates in society. Rather than viewing power as something that is imposed on people from
above (a modernist view of power) or that emanates from a single source (e.g., a dictator or the
capitalist class), Foucault views power as widely dispersed in society, functioning like a network (or, as
he puts it, in a capillary fashion). Furthermore, Foucault argues that power should not be viewed
negatively (i.e., as oppressing people) but, rather, as productive. As he states, power “doesn’t only
weigh on us as a force that says no, but … it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasures, forms of
knowledge, produces discourse” (Foucault, 1980b, p. 119).
By calling power “productive,” Foucault is not arguing that it is good, or positive. Instead, he is trying to
move us away from the traditional conception of power as prohibiting, coercing, or preventing (a form
of power he calls “sovereign power”) and toward a view in which power is studied as a basic,
constitutive feature of everyday life (which he calls disciplinary power, as discussed in Chapter 1).
Indeed, part of his strategy is to shift our perspective away from looking at power on a grand scale and,
instead, toward examining the way power works at a “micro” level, permeating everything we do.
Foucault shows that power works in this fashion through the emergence of various discourses that both
create and provide possibilities for thinking about and acting toward particular phenomena.
For example, in his various historical (what he calls “genealogical”) studies, Foucault has examined
phenomena as diverse as sexuality, madness, and forms of punishment (Foucault, 1979, 1980a, 1988). In
each case he shows that such phenomena “only exist meaningfully within the discourses about them”
(Hall, 1997b, p. 45). Thus, modern conceptions of sexuality began to emerge only with the proliferation
in the 19th century of various discourses that attempted to define and control sexuality (Foucault,
1980a). Foucault makes the interesting point that if we use a negative, coercive model of power, then
we see the Victorian era only as repressing sexuality and “sweeping it under the carpet.” However, his
discursive, productive model of power illustrates how it is only through a general “incitement to
discourse” about sexuality during this period that it becomes definable and controllable in certain ways.
For example, it is in the Victorian era that homosexuality is first officially separated from “normal”
sexuality and criminalized. Hence, homosexuals for the first time are created as an identifiable and
separate group that can be constructed as “deviant” and hence controlled. Thus, power, through
discourse, produces a particular “regime of knowledge” that makes possible a certain identifiable form
of subjectivity, or identity (homosexuality) in order that it can be “disciplined” (to use Foucault’s term).
Thus, Foucault’s most important contribution to the postmodern study of organizations (even though he
wasn’t an organization researcher) is that he provides an insightful conception of the relationships
among discourse, power, identity, and institutions. Indeed, in recent years Foucault’s writings have been
widely used by management and organizational communication researchers alike as a way of generating
insight into the post-Fordist organization, particularly given the ways that it uses new forms of
disciplinary power to shape employee identities (Burrell, 1988; Clegg, 1989, 1994; Deetz, 1994a; Jermier,
Knights, & Nord, 1994; Kondo, 1990; Tracy, 2000). We will examine some of this research below.
THE POSTMODERN ORGANIZATION: FROM FORDISM TO POST-FORDISM
The shift to the postmodern organization implies the emergence of particular kinds of organizational
structures, processes, and sensibilities that distinguish it from the modern organization. In other words,
when we talk about the postmodern organization, we are referring to an organizational form that has a
particular, identifiable set of features, as well as a particular way of thinking about work. As is the case
with other changes in organizational forms we have discussed in earlier chapters, the postmodern
organization did not appear out of nowhere. Rather, it is a response to transformations in the economic
and political climate of industrial nations. In brief, we can argue that the emergence of this new
organizational form occurred as a result of a more volatile and competitive economic environment, in
which the relatively slow-to-change bureaucratic form was no longer viewed as functional. As such,
many organizations developed leaner, meaner, and more flexible structures that could quickly respond
to perceived changes in the increasingly globalized economic environment.
However, this shift is also political in that, beginning in the 1980s, shareholders became a much more
powerful force than ever before in organizations, and companies became increasingly beholden to their
quarterly reports (Ho, 2009). Decisions to “right-size,” reorganize, reengineer (or whatever term was
current) thus became more about short-term returns to shareholders than about the long-term health
of the organization. As we talk about this transformation, then, it’s important to keep in mind that
changes in the workplace and the nature of work and organizing are as much about power and politics
as they are about creating more efficient, more effective organizations.
First, let’s compare and contrast the features of the modern, Fordist organization and the postmodern,
The Fordist Organization
Fordism can be characterized by the following features:
A highly bureaucratic organizational structure. This involves a clear chain of command, rigidly defined
roles, and an extremely centralized decision-making system. The military is the archetypal example of
such a bureaucratic form, where strict adherence to chain of command is imperative for the execution
of military strategy. In civilian life, government agencies tend to be highly bureaucratic in structure.
A highly differentiated labor process. In the Fordist organization, most production jobs are generally
unskilled or semiskilled, with the labor process itself broken down into its basic components. Workers
may have little or no knowledge of how the entire production process operates. For example,
McDonald’s produces a 700-page operations manual that dictates in minute detail every employee task
and organizational function. Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times is a classic parody of work on the
Fordist assembly line.
Large economies of scale. Many Fordist organizations are designed along mass-production principles,
with huge levels of investment in plants, machinery, and a large workforce. Profitability is based on the
ability to produce goods in large quantities, cheaply and efficiently. For example, the Foxconn company
in China—a major outsourcing firm that makes iPads, Kindles, and Xboxes, among other products—
employs more than 800,000 workers. Despite small profit margins on its products, its net income in
2010 was $2.2 billion, due mainly to its sheer size and large economies of scale.
Standardization of products. The more standardized a product is, the more cheaply and efficiently it can
be produced (because the work process does not have to be changed constantly to adjust to product
variation). Henry Ford once famously said that the consumer could have any color car he wanted, as
long as it was black!
Stable, lifetime employment. While this characteristic varied from industry to industry, the employment
norm in the 1950s and 1960s (the height of the Fordist organization) was for employees to spend their
entire working lives with the same organization. A social contract between workers and employers
ensured job security and benefits in exchange for company loyalty.
The transfer of these Fordist principles to society as a whole. In this sense—and particularly after World
War II—Fordism became not just a system of production but also a lifestyle for people. This meant mass
consumption of standardized products, homes in the suburbs that all looked alike, and the creation of a
mass popular culture. One of the reasons why Henry Ford introduced the $5, 8-hour workday in 1914
was to help stimulate the economy by providing workers with sufficient disposable income and leisure
time. Ford also tried to make sure that his employees were responsible workers and consumers;
employing an army of social workers, he monitored their home lives for signs of “deviant” behavior
outside the workplace (drunkenness, immoral sexual behavior, etc.).
Of course, the Fordist organization is not obsolete. Many corporations still produce large quantities of
standardized goods, and some industries are relatively immune to changes in the economy. However,
there has been a significant shift in the past 30 years to a post-Fordist, postmodern organizational
The Post-Fordist Organization
The basic characteristics of post-Fordism are as follows:
The development of a more flexible organizational structure. Geographer David Harvey (1991) has
outlined three dimensions of flexibility that characterize the post-Fordist organization. These include (a)
flexibility in relation to the work process itself (e.g., job enrichment, work teams, decentralized decision
making, etc.); (b) flexibility in labor markets (the extensive use of subcontracting and part-time and
temporary employees); and (c) greater geographic mobility, including the development of
telecommuting and the shifting of manufacturing to wherever labor is cheapest (i.e., outsourcing).
The development of a “dedifferentiated” labor process (Clegg, 1990). Post-Fordist organizations have
increasingly recognized the importance of their “human capital” (i.e., employees) and tap into the large
stock of knowledge workers possess about the work they do. The “knowledge worker” thus takes center
stage; work is not divided among many deskilled workers but comes together in the knowledge worker.
Hence, employees are not provided with a narrowly defined job description and set of rules and
guidelines; rather, they are encouraged to use their initiative to carve out their own sphere of
responsibility and competence (Stark, 2009). For example, in his study of Gore Company (makers of
Gore-Tex), Mike Pacanowsky (1988) describes how new employees are not given a job description but,
rather, are encouraged to develop their own networks and define their own roles in the company.
Limited production runs and the development of “niche” markets. While the post-Fordist organization
has shifted toward dedifferentiation of the work process, it has moved in the opposite direction in the
area of consumption, targeting specific groups of customers. Such an orientation to the market can
succeed only if companies develop flexible and adaptable systems of production. This involves the use of
“just-in-time” (JIT) production methods (i.e., the maintenance of minimal inventories that speed up
production and allow fast retooling for new products) and the employment of information technologies
to allow companies to adapt quickly to changing consumer patterns. Thus, it is fairly routine these days
to be able to order items ranging from sneakers to automobiles that are tailored to the specific desires
of the consumer. For example, I suspect a number of you have ordered sneakers online for which you
designed your own color scheme and perhaps added a stitched, personalized message.
The increased commodification of everyday life and the creation of products as lifestyles (Hall, 1991).
While Fordism is a production-based economy, post-Fordism is a consumption-based economy with a
massive shift toward the creation of services and lifestyles for people. As such, the brand takes center
stage in post-Fordism. While we will devote Chapter 12 to branding and consumption, it’s important to
note here that while branding of products has been around for 150 years, it has taken a particular turn
in the past 20 years, as companies increasingly shape people’s everyday lives and identities through
branding (Klein, 2001). In this sense, people are increasingly defined (and define themselves) as
consumers rather than as citizens. Moreover, in a consumption-based economy, everything is
potentially brandable, from individual people to water. This shift from a production-based to a
consumption-based economy is perhaps best encapsulated by Nike Chairman Phil Knight’s invocation of
the mantra, “Brands, not products.” In other words, post-Fordist companies do not sell products but,
rather, lifestyles and systems of meaning.
Increasingly unstable, insecure employment. Workers in the post-Fordist organization face an
increasingly precarious work environment, as companies constantly adapt to changing economic
conditions and the need to stay competitive in a turbulent marketplace. Few industries provide the
stable, lifetime employment of the Fordist era, with workers changing jobs an average of 11 times
during their working lives. Part-time and temporary work is increasingly the norm, and companies
frequently outsource work to countries with lower labor costs and less-restrictive labor laws. Moreover,
the shift to a consumption-based economy has led to a decline in blue-collar manufacturing work and an
increase in low-wage pink-collar (female) and white-collar work in the service sector (Kalleberg, 2009).
A blurring of the modernist distinction between work and home. Along with the increasingly precarious
employment picture are greater demands on employees’ sense of self. Although companies no longer
provide stable employment, they frequently demand a level of commitment from employees that goes
well beyond 9 to 5. Post-Fordist organizations often not only expect employees to take work home but
also try to create the home at work. For example, corporate campuses are self-contained worksites that
often provide all the amenities (child care, Bible study, medical facilities, gyms, etc.) for a “wellrounded” life (Mansnerus, 1999; Useem, 2000). Richard Florida (2003) has stated that, in many respects,
the implicit statement to employees behind such work culture engineering is, “No need to go wandering
off; stay right here at work” (p. 123). In other words, many of the distinctions between work and other
aspects of our lives (including family and social life) have been subtly and not-so-subtly eroded by the
post-Fordist work environment. Although many of these perks have disappeared with the long-term
economic recession, companies still try to create employees whose sense of self is intimately tied to
their professional selves. If we add to this picture the communication technologies that enable work to
be performed almost anywhere, then it is clear that a corporate logic and value system pervades all
spheres of life in the post-Fordist organization. As we discussed in Chapter 7, the idea of “corporate
colonization” (Deetz, 1992a) effectively characterizes this increasing blurring of the corporate world and
the social world of self, family, and community. What happens, then, when the company we work for is
the primary provider of the sense of community that makes us human? What are the consequences of
privatizing community? If corporations are creating branded lifestyles for us as consumers, and creating
communities in the places where we work, what’s left of our lives that is not a postmodern corporate
Now that we have compared the Fordist and post-Fordist organization (see Table 8.1 for a …
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