Postmodern Organizations

Postmodern organizations are organizations that have broken with the traditional principles of organization as defined by modernist theory dominated by rationalism; they are also characterized by having developed new and original forms and practices in response to the changing environmental conditions of postmodern society. Such organizations can be identified both by the extent to which they are not epistemologically modern and by the extent to which they adopt and create new and different patterns of operation and regulation. Nevertheless, the continued persistence of modern methods of organizing is not to be doubted. Postmodern organizations, then, may themselves be hybrids of modern and postmodern modes of organizing, and coexist in mixed populations that include organizations that still run on predominantly modern lines. Furthermore, just as there was a variety of versions of modernism, there are different responses to the challenges of post modernity, which display radicalism on both the right and the left. Boje and Dennehey (1999) follow Pauline Rosenau in distinguishing between skeptical and affirmative versions loosely based on Nietzsche’s passive and active nihilisms, and there is also a fertile and heterogeneous middle ground. This said, we can attempt a broad and cautious typology of the familiar features of each, as shown in Table 1.

The break between modernism and postmodernism in organizational forms is not a clean one. Table 1 provides an indicative inventory of possibilities, not all of which can be found together empirically, nor should they be considered to be either necessary or sufficient for an organization to be considered postmodern. Early contributions to the question of postmodern organizations were divided (Parker 1992) into those that reflected on postmodern organization as a process (Hassard & Parker 1993; Cooper & Burrell 1988) and those that reflected on postmodern organizations as a phenomenon (Clegg 1990; Boje et al. 1996; Boje & Dennehey 1999). Hardt and Negri (2000) offer an illuminating account of postmodernization as a process and its effect on both economic organization and individual subjectivity. They identify three historical economic paradigms: tradition, modernization, and postmodernization or informatization. It is significant that rather than focus on defining an epoch (e.g., premodern, modern, postmodern (as Boje and Dennehey and others do), Hardt and Negri concentrate on its characteristic animating process. Tradition was dominated by processes of primary production, such as agriculture and the extraction of raw materials (e.g., mining). Modernization saw a shift to secondary production, with industrialization and the manufacture of durable goods.

Table 1 Modern and postmodern forms of organization

  Modern organizations Postmodern organizations
Mission, strategy, and goals Producer-led specialization Customer-led diffusion
Structures Hierarchy



Product management

Flat, lean, internal market Heterarchy PNetworks, meshworks Matrix, project teams Brand management
Orientation to size Growth-driven, mergers Downsizing, glocalization, alliances
Decision making Centralized, determinist Devolved, collaborative
Planning orientation Short-term calculability Long-term sustainability
Relation to market Unresponsive Responsive/flexible
Relation to state Externally regulated Deregulated or internally regulated
Relation to stakeholders Financial, economic, profit maximization Ethical, socially conscious
Mode of competition Resources/competencies/economies of scale Speed/information/managing


Means of production Differentiated/dedicated Dedifferentiated/dededicated
Means of delivery/


Dedifferentiated/standardized Differentiated/customized
Mode of operation Mass production Fordism Mass customization Toyotism
Mode of communication Vertical Horizontal, network
Means of control Supervisory micro-management IT-led and peer-led surveillance
  Panoptic control Chimerical control
Cultural orientation Exchange, social, material Symbolic, virtual
Leader archetype Heroic Post-heroic
Worker archetype Mass production worker Knowledge worker
Employee relations Collective, dialectical, mistrust Polyphonic, dialogical, trust
Reward systems Individually based, collectively negotiated Collectively based, individually negotiated
Skill formation Deskilling, inflexible Multiskilling, flexible
Jobs Simple Complex
Roles and accountability Rule governed Empowered
Managers Supervisors Coaches
Performance achievement Measured activities Negotiated key results
Careers Planned, internal capital Portfolio, social capital

Yet agriculture did not disappear – it remained an important part of even the most advanced manufacturing economies; indeed, it remained the dominant sector well into the nineteenth century. But it did change its nature – it became industrialized agriculture, dominated by the demands of industry, financial and social pressures, automated and focused on the development of agricultural products. Yet not only agriculture was transformed along with industrialization, for as Hardt and Negri (2000: 284-5) argue, society itself was industrialized in the transformation of human relationships. The nature of being human and what it meant to be human were changed utterly as the machine metaphor came to dominate how human subjects began to think of themselves – as human machines.

Hardt and Negri argue that modernism has not ended and its elements will be with us for some time to come, but modernization as a process has ended. They argue that in the advanced economies there has been a shift to those areas where higher value can be more easily extracted, which means a move to the provision of services: finance, health care, education, transportation, entertainment, advertising, and tourism all being growth industries. These industries require highly mobile flexible skills emphasizing knowledge, information, affect (emotionality), and communication. Just as modernization transformed agriculture, Hardt and Negri argue that these processes transform industry, as manufacturing becomes more like a service. Manufacturing does not in these circumstances die; rather, it is rejuvenated in a different form. The dominant metaphor of the industrial age gives way to information metaphors, as we think of ourselves not as machines, but as computers -and learn to act accordingly. We might consider the difference as being represented by the contrasting predicaments of the characters played by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

The shift in manufacturing processes has moved away from the dominance of mass production familiar in Fordism, which was characterized by a high degree of differentiation at the point of production (specialized technologies dedicated to one particular product) and dedifferentiation at the point of consumption (limited product choice or provision for customer individual or market niche requirements – Henry Ford’s famous dictum ”any color as long as it’s black”). Postmodern production arrangements, sometimes labeled Toyotism, provide faster communication and response between production arrangements and consumer requirements. There is increasing dedifferentiation at the point of production (with dededicated and flexible technologies that can produce a variety of products with minimal set up times) and higher differentiation at the point of consumption (a wide range of options and choices available to the consumer, sometimes called mass customization). This proliferation of choice is not without its down side and can lead to confusion marketing, where consumers are inundated with such a variety of apparent choices that they are unable effectively to sift through the information and make their choice based on recidivistic characteristics such as aesthetics or availability rather than performance or content. In an information rich environment competitive advantage may be achieved by communicating to customers and clients in ways that help them to discriminate effectively between products, via the service and support given to them, rather than by the technical features of the product or service itself. Such service led manufacturing Hardt and Negri term the immaterialization of labor.

Immaterial labor occurs where information and communication combine in producing a service, cultural product, knowledge, or communication. There are three types of immaterial labor. Informated labor occurs when the production process is enabled by information technology to allow humans simply to push buttons rather than operate machines or work directly on the product. Analytic or symbolic labor is of two subtypes: the creative and intelligent labor done by analysts, problem solvers, consultants, programmers, artists, copywriters, and other knowledge producers; and the routine tasks performed by data entry workers, call center operatives, and similar. Emotional labor involves the production and manipulation of affect or feelings and in contrast to the other types requires the full involvement of human bodies.

The processes of modernization resulted in the geographical centralization of production into industrial centers such as Manchester in the UK, Detroit in the US, and Osaka in Japan. Postmodernization allows manufacturing to be globally networked – as long as the required information can be transferred, products can be designed in one country, their components manufactured in several countries depending on skill availability and the cost of labor, assembled in another country, and sold in a variety of markets. Models of collaboration and cooperation in both modern and traditional systems are transformed as a result – in the context of global communication, industrial and social relations are no longer grounded in local conditions. It also allows manufacturers to collaborate on one product or service while competing on others, simultaneously sharing and protecting vital knowledge. Networks of organizations replace the tiers of hierarchy with the flatness of heterarchy, yet the equitarian appearance of such arrangements may be only illusory. Organizations now simulate team meetings in virtual team meeting rooms using the Internet, and project teams may be formed, carry out their duties successfully, and disband without ever meeting face to face; organizations themselves may be simulated in the ”virtual organization,” that usually involves a core of a few full time people enjoying high levels of benefits (the netocrats), coordinating, control ling, and exercising power over contractors, part timers, and net slaves (telecommuters) who often receive no benefits at all (Boje and Dennehey 1999).

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari throughout both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia use the concept of deterritorialization to understand the way that capital, in particular, can have an abstract quality that allows it to move freely around the world. Capital itself has to be territorialized – that is, attached to a concrete value such as a pound of gold – in order to be realized. The value of a commodity that may be attached to a currency varies from place to place. Currencies that are transferable such as the dollar or sterling can be realized or territorialized in a variety of settings and can be deterritorialized – that is, hoarded – played on the money markets, or moved around from one country to another as investment in order to maximize returns. Other weaker currencies, such as the Brazilian real or the Chinese renminbi, cannot be transferred out of their home and have no value outside it, thus being completely territorialized. The removal of regulations that limit currency movements into local financial and commercial markets has enabled the rapid deterritorialization of capital. Indeed, the international financial markets are built on capital that may move in a virtual space on a stock exchange monitor without much prospect of being territorialized, which enables catastrophes of the magnitude of Barings Bank and Enron to escalate. Coupled with the removal of other limiting legislation such as labor law and corporate regulations and the dedifferentiation of technology, the rapid transfer of jobs from one country to another, such as the relocation of financial industry call centers from the UK to India in the first decade of the twenty first century, becomes possible. Paul Virilio in The Lost Dimension calls this hyper modernity rather than postmodernity, as there has been little evidence of an epistemological break with modernity – the society hooked on speed has replaced bureaucracy with dromocracy, the organizational form of rapid circulation whose model is the velodrome. Yet as both Castells (1996-8) and Bauman (1998) have pointed out, labor is not similarly deterritorialized – only a very small and privileged section of the managerial population is empowered to follow capital around the globe, and where labor seeks to move to follow demand (although labor generally is more mobile across state borders now than it has been since World War II) it poses problems of social order for the host states, which has led to the black market in human beings becoming more valuable globally than that for drugs.

Along with the shift in processes, the nature of necessary control has changed. Traditional control was direct and personal, based on close supervision and actual or perceived presence. Modern control shifted to a more impersonal basis, to rules, regulations, and requirements that were inspected more periodically rather than constantly supervised. Movements toward organizational structures and processes of greater complexity, often requiring greater skill and judgment in informated systems, require organizational subjects to be self governing and self policing at the same time as they are empowered. The work of Michel Foucault documents these shifts at societal levels and also at the level of institutions, including medicine, mental health, and prisons. Foucault’s ideas on the development of governmentality have been taken up widely in organization studies. Sewell (1998) looks at the ways in which team working has been developed to create teams that police themselves through peer control, which combined with late modern methods of electronic surveillance produces a hybrid or chimerical control in which active supervision is not required. Additionally, interventions into the development of corporate culture are attempted by organizations to ensure that employees espouse and enact common organizational value sets, and use these as a template to self regulate their behavior against that of the archetypical committed organizational member.

Baudrillard (1983) regards this emphasis on the creation of corporate culture as more evidence of the society of simulation obvious to any observation of consumer behavior – what Scott Lash and John Urry call an ”economy of signs and space” in their eponymous book. A simulacrum is a copy of an imagined original that does not exist. For example, in Las Vegas, simulated New York, simulated Paris, simulated Egypt, and simulated Venice are on offer to entice consumers and gamblers to part with their money while enjoying a special simulation of authentic experience. Such is the extent of belief engendered in these simulacra that Ritzer (2005) terms them ”cathedrals of consumption.” Not only are these simulations conveniently located whereas the originals are several hours’ flight apart, they are also safer, cleaner, easier to get around, and more user friendly than the real places – which are full of natives going about their everyday lives, laid out with the random hand of history, dirty, untidy, rude, crude, and with plumbing problems. People are often disappointed with the real thing after visiting the simulacrum. In Disneyworld, the simulacrum clearly does not have an original to copy, yet the millions of visitors annually are happy to pretend that it does – while the management of the company itself is conducted on highly modernist disciplinary lines. Here Baudrillard identifies the difference between the society of the spectacle of Guy Debord, where the alienated spectator, like Marx’s alienated worker, watches the world go by, and the society of the simulation, which requires the spectator reflexively to take up a role within it and actively reproduce it. Jean Francois Lyotard has commented that McDonald’s is a postmodern organization, while Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (2004) considers it to epitomize the unfolding of Weber’s modernist principle of bureaucracy -and they are both right. Ritzer emphasizes the material elaboration of rationalization and efficiency in the production line fast food model of McDonaldization, where Lyotard appreciates that the key to McDonald’s’ success over its competitors lies in its immateriality – the simulated world of characters, events, toys, and films that seduces its customers into participation in an experience that involves purchasing, rather than the simple purchase of a product.

The greatest source of debate regarding post modern organizations is whether they could be said to exist at all, given the emphasis in post modernism on process and multiplicity and the continued persistence of modernist organizational forms and practices. There is an increasing amount of empirical evidence for emerging organizational forms, but it remains possible to analyze these with either a modern or a postmodern lens. Current research tends to emphasize the significance of image and signification less, and concentrates on three areas in particular: new patterns of relationships and network forms; new non deontological ethical approaches; and the possibilities of new forms of power and resistance. There is also a trend towards the exploration of postmodern alternatives to the Protestant work ethic, centered on play (Kane 2004). In a more expansive vein the recent work of Hardt and Negri (2005) looks at possibilities of counter organization by the multitude to resist the global spread of empire, which entails new forms of political, social, and even anti capitalist organization.


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