The age of change in organizational thinking – sometimes called new age management theory – is occurring in part because of the influence of the baby boomer generation

The age of change in organizational thinking – sometimes called New Age management theory – is occurring in part because of the influence of the baby boomer generation. The previous generations flourished in the mass-production economy that grew steadily from the 1920s through the 1960s. It is no Oedipal coincidence that the next generation has done everything it could to trash the success of the generation preceding it.

Organizations in the 1990s and 2000s are picking up and trying on new initiatives like a teenager in front of a mirror, uncertain of much, only sure that it does not want to be like its mom and dad. The New Age must be better; it is, after all, new. But you cannot discuss change in our time without addressing the enormous demographic and psychographic blip of our time, and why they (we) can’t help trying out every new thing that comes along – and are unable to make many of them stick.

Some of the factors behind the fads:

Globalization: Where the older generation made and sold to a single American market, baby boomers make and sell to (and compete against) the whole world.

Technology: Baby boomers possess much more intimate information processing technologies, and are thus prone to greater decentralization and individualization. Can you say Blackberry? Can’t be caught dead without your new iPhone?

Speed: Baby boomers are impatient because technology has given them that luxury. Previous planned changes, like the moon landing, took years; this generation does not feel it can wait that long. If an idea doesn’t take hold and yield quick results, they move on to another idea. Some leaders are specifically chosen because they appear to have an ichy finger poised atop the change button.

Education: Business schools taught only one approach to business in the first half of the century; today there is zero “conventional wisdom,” even in the most hidebound academy. Years ago there was no “management theory” section in bookstores; today there is an avalanche of offerings. I even recently noticed a “new age management” section of the local bookstore.

Experience: People today travel more, read more, pursue continuing education, change jobs more frequently, encounter greater diversity, work across functional lines, and interact with people from other countries, cultures, and industries.

Diversity, cross-functionality, and “dress-down Fridays” (currently under reconsideration in many companies) all have their roots in the rebellious mod of the ’60s that railed against conformity, squares, button-down collars, and gray flannel suits. “The leader as servant” idea owes more to the I Ching and Che Guevara than to Iwo Jima and Dale Carnegie.

Truth be told, though, conventional wisdom of the industrial age is no less wise in the age of change. Organizations are remarkably like machines, no matter how we “humanize” them. Bureaucracies remain efficient ways to organize complex systems. In-the-box is still the place where most of us dwell, and think, and are happiest. A wise generation would take pains, in tossing out the bathwater from the previous generation, to conduct routine baby checks.

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