Post-Industrial Metaphors: Understanding Corporate Restructuring and the Economic Environment of the 1990s

By Champlin, Dell; Olson, Paulette | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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Post-Industrial Metaphors: Understanding Corporate Restructuring and the Economic Environment of the 1990s


Champlin, Dell, Olson, Paulette, Journal of Economic Issues


The most used and abused word of the 1990s is "change." Indeed, in the 1992 election, Americans voted for "change." Bill Clinton's challenge to Americans to have the "courage to change" echoes the refrain of corporate America throughout the 1980s. During this period, managers were advised to have the "courage to change," and many did. They spearheaded the process of restructuring, which included mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, plant closings, the relocation of production offshore, downsizing, and extensive reorganization of the workplace. Americans are being urged to change because the world is changing. We are experiencing the convergence of three revolutionary forces. First, global market conditions have changed irrevocably. Second, computer technology is continuing to change the way Americans work. Third, managerial practices are changing to reflect today's market realities and modern technologies. A recent management text sums up the current situation.

People are changing; our society is changing; competitors are changing; government is changing; technology is changing. Management must change. Now, more than at any time before, managers are being challenged to improve the way they manage [Higgins 1991, 5].

The economic position of the United States is not just different as a result of these three forces; it is said to be radically and irrevocably different. For example, the change in international markets is typically characterized as a historic shift or the passing of an era [Lawrence 1990]. According to Bluestone and Harrison [1982], we are witnessing the end of the "Pax Americana," referring to the end of U.S. domination of world markets. New technologies are also described in epic terms. Piore and Sabel [1984] herald the end of standardized mass production and the conventional assembly line. For Freeman and Perez [1988], the end of Fordism represents the beginning of the fifth Kondratiev or the "information technology paradigm." While descriptions of changing markets and new technologies evoke images of an epochal change, the language used to describe the "managerial revolution" is nothing short of hyperbelic.

The paradigm shift that Deming and Juran and Crosby and many others began is not just a revolution in manufacturing. It is a revolution in the human spirit . . . I predict that the Total Quality process will be hailed in the twenty-first century as the most important paradigm shift to come out of the twentieth century [Barker 1992, 139].

We do not dispute the fact of many changes in markets, technologies, and management practices; what we are concerned with is how they are represented in the literature. Change, in both the corporate and political arena, is portrayed not only as necessary, but as invariably positive. Change represents a "brighter tomorrow" achieved through mutual sacrifice, cooperation, and hard work. This is the message in the Clinton campaign theme, "Don't step thinking about tomorrow." These relentless optimistic assessments of the changes taking place in the U.S. economy reflect the use of a powerful metaphor of change. Like other strong, cultural metaphors, such as "the pioneer spirit" and "Yankee ingenuity," the metaphor of change is optimistic, unifying, and challenging. The metaphor erects a dualistic framework in which change is always good. We are presented with only two possibilities: progress or decline; flexibility or rigidity; innovation or stagnation. As with any dualism, the alternatives in the change metaphor are not neutral. In fact, the possibility of choice is an illusion. We do not "choose" progress, when the only alternative is decline. We do not choose flexibility, when the only alternative is rigidity. When confronted with a dualistic framework, anyone who opposed change would represent pessimism, disunity, and gridlock.

Yet in the face of all this hyperbole about change is a work force that is increasingly insecure about their jobs.

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