The 21st century is still young, and management gurus are sounding positively Aquarian. They proclaim that the future of work lies in creativity, flexibility, and individualism—broken molds and smashed time clocks. They say that organizations of the future will have to adapt to their employees, not the other way around.
Funny thing, though. As fresh as this message seems, it's not new at all. There were people predicting much the same thing a century ago, foreseeing a day when workers' spirits would no longer be crushed by Henry Ford's assembly lines and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth's time-and-motion studies. Yet hierarchy has persisted, in one form or another, to the present day.
Don't expect the workplace to go abruptly New Age in the next decade, either. Yes, there's more of a premium on individualism today. But relatively few of us will get away with freelancing from a berry patch in the Adirondacks. Even in a creative economy, hierarchy will remain indispensable for getting the work done. That's because in many situations, a well-oiled corporate machine will beat a roomful of free thinkers. "You still have to do what the boss expects you to do," says Harold J. Leavitt, a retired professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, who wrote Top Down: Why Hierarchies Are Here to Stay and How to Manage Them More Effectively. "There's a veil of humanism," Leavitt says. "We call each other by our first names. But when the chips are down, the boss says: You're fired.'"
In other words, the Organization Man isn't extinct or even endangered. "I'm wary of being carried away by the somewhat exaggerated and at times gaseous swirls of optimism about a new and better day that lies just on the horizon," says a leading scholar in the field, Sanford M. Jacoby, a professor of management, policy studies, and history at the University of California at Los Angeles. Jacoby says that what he calls "system-centered thinking" will remain a potent rival to the "people-centered thinking" that imagines nearly unlimited freedom to work as you wish.
Hierarchical, system-centered thinking, while not warm or fuzzy, has produced enormous benefits over the last century, and more gains are likely to be in store. Its single-minded focus on maximizing efficiency has driven productivity in manufacturing and much of the service sector higher and higher. Such gains would have been hard to achieve if managers gave workers free rein.
A company that reengineers its processes won't get good results if it leaves individuals to define their own roles, wrote retired Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Chris Argyris in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article: "Managers love empowerment in theory, but the command-and-control model is what they trust and know best." Employees are often ambivalent about empowerment, too, he wrote: "It is great as long as they are not held personally accountable."
The people-centered workplace, which is seen as a humanistic alternative to the system-centered approach, is actually built on the continuing victories of system thinking. For example, the computerization of the workplace has freed people from the drudgery of pushing paper, leaving them more time for creative endeavors. And because of globalization—a system-centered project par excellence—Americans are doing fewer and fewer of the boring, regimented jobs of the past, such as answering phones and working on assembly lines.
What's more, system thinking isn't the crude, man-as-ox discipline it was a century ago. It's used by companies as enlightened as Intel Corp. (INTC ) Executives at the chipmaker welcome individual initiative, but in the context of an engineering mentality that emphasizes continuous process improvement. The people-centered approach has advanced as well. It draws on the latest psychological research to break down barriers to collaboration and fresh thinking. "The sophistication of each side has grown tremendously," says UCLA's Jacoby.
But while times have changed, the hammer of authority remains close at hand. If it's human nature for workers to seek freedom, it's also human nature for bosses to withhold it. "How many managers sweat bullets when they feel like they're not in control?" asks Peter M. Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, an influential management book. Senge aspires to improve hierarchy, not kill it. "We see hierarchy in all kinds of organisms," he says. "If it occurs again and again in nature, it's not going to go away very quickly."
By Peter Coy