The disembodied corporation: Tom Peters On excellence

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FUTURIST Alvin Toffler, at a conference on the fate of Silicon Valley, proposed - only half-facetiously - the creation of an Academy of Intangible Assets Accountants. Why? Toffler says we are moving from a 'brute force economy' to a 'brain force economy'.

This change presages 'a revolution in culture, family, war, logic, causality, epistemology and civilisation,' according to Toffler, whose track record (Future Shock, The Third Wave, Powershift) puts fellow prognosticators to shame. And as a result, he went on: 'No amount of tinkering will solve America's economic problems.'

Take unemployment. The chief problem is 'not quantitative, but qualitative,' he claimed. The issue is less one of raw numbers than one of inappropriate skills - all too few of us are prepared for the brain force economy.

Toffler also took some hearty slaps at traditional organisations: 'The number one assumption of hierarchy,' he said, 'is that those at the top can pre-specify what those below need.' It is just not possible in a fast-paced uncertain world.

Toffler was followed to the podium by Bill Davidow, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who was touting the book he wrote with reporter Mike Malone, The Virtual Corporation. It would be an understatement to say that Toffler and Davidow are singing from the same page of the same 'New Age' corporate hymnal.

''What will a virtual corporation look like?' ask Davidow and Malone in their book. 'To the outside observer, it will appear almost edgeless, with permeable and continuously changing interfaces among company, supplier and customers. From inside the firm, the view will be no less amorphous with traditional offices, departments and operating divisions constantly re-forming according to need.'

While these ideas are not yet mainstream, there does appear to be almost harmonic convergence around the notion of a disembodied organisation, ephemeral enough to deal with a disembodied ('de-massified,' per Toffler) marketplace. In fact, the day before the Silicon Valley confab, I received a copy of Dartmouth Professor Brian Quinn's book, Intelligent Enterprise. Its message? Ditto to Davidow, Malone and Toffler.

Consider just a few of the section titles: 'Intellect and Services: Restructuring Economies and Strategy'; 'Knowledge-Based Services Revolutionise Organisation Strategies'; 'Managing the Knowledge-Based Service Enterprise.' Nike, Apple, Federal Express, Intel and Sony are featured. IBM, GM and GE are conspicuously absent.

In fact, the books by Quinn, Davidow, Malone have been anticipated by others, starting with consultant Stan Davis' brilliant Future Perfect (1987). 'Matter is not all that matters]' Davis declared. 'Value added will come increasingly from intangibles - things whose importance does not lie in their material existence. Managers who constantly work with the 'no-matter' of their businesses will . . . pull ahead of their matter-minded competition.'

Davis then describes the elusive company of the future: 'The value added into the economy . . . (does) not come out of giant industrial plants, even automated ones, nor out of giant offices of the future. Rather, it comes from a kind of organisation that has little physical reality . . . All functions can be disaggregated and then subcontracted.'

In 1990, Digital Equipment consultant Charles Savage chimed in with Fifth Generation Management. He urged us 'to think of ourselves and our positions within the organisation not as fixed little empires but as resources available to others, to see ourselves not as boxes but as nodes in a network, not as cogs in a gear but as knowledge contributors . . . In a network enterprise, each position represents a person with capabilities, skills and experience. Instead of mutually exclusive tasks and departmental assignments, enterprises blend the talents of different people around focused tasks.'

Line managers are starting to get the message. Michael Packer of Bankers Trust, The Economist reported recently, 'believes that successful investment banks will eventually throw away organisation structures and have a dynamic approach to deals, with teams selected deal by deal to make the most of individual skills.' Writing in the Financial Times, Geoffrey Owen and Louise Kehoe cite a similar vision from the boss of Intel. Andy Grove, chief executive, compared life in the fast-moving microchip marketplace 'to the theatre business in New York, which has an itinerant workforce of actors, directors, writers and technicians, as well as experienced financial backers.

'By tapping into this network, you can quickly put a production together. It might be a smash hit . . . or it might be panned by the critics. Inevitably the number of long-running plays is small, but new creative ideas keep bubbling up.'

If Toffler is right in claiming that we must reinvent civilisation, then we are in for an exciting, and no doubt painful, ride. The pain will be suffered by ill-prepared front line workers. And by board chairmen.

Nobody says this is going to be easy.

TPG Communications

(Photograph omitted)