The Myth of the Corporation.

Sears Tower from the John Hancock Center Obser...

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There was a time, supposedly, when large companies  resided in one building. When you worked your way *up* the company ladder, you literally moved up in the building. The higher you went the higher the paycheck, until you reached the top.

Information traveled in the company the same way. Information came into the company at the bottom levels, usually in the form of mail, telephone calls or information in people’s heads.

That information was turned into reports and memo’s and sent up a level. From there I imagine that someone took a series of reports and condensed those into another report for another level of management and sent it up. When the reports reached a high enough level orders were passed down the ladder again, getting broken up into smaller and smaller actionable items.

Being old enough to remember my mother typing reports up in triplicate on carbon paper and sending inter-office memo’s, I can’t imagine how long it took to get work done.

Now of course I think most of this was theoretical. It’s the version of Corporate America we still see portrayed on TV and in movies, but I doubt it ever functioned this precisely. There are obviously a million opportunities for error and deviation in this model. I’m sure this is why IT was seen as the second coming of the messiah in the eyes of CEO’s everywhere. And those who didn’t bow in humility were wiped from the face of the earth.

People, and knowledge, stayed inside the company. You learned your job from your boss and you got promoted when he moved up or retired. People rarely left the company they started with. You were loyal to the company, and in theory, they were loyal to you.

Companies competed with other local or regional companies. In rare instances, companies competed with other companies nationally. To stay on top companies only had to understand their business. Product cycles were long. Innovation was something that happened very slowly. The only global threats facing a company were political in nature. A war was the most disruptive thing that could happen to a company.

In this fairytale Corporate America, companies provided all kinds of community service. One such service was that they paid for our radio and television. They also provided valuable bit of information about the most wonderful things we’d like to know about and they conveniently placed these treasures of information in the shows we were all already watching as commercials.

People trusted the Government.
People trusted Corporate America.
People trusted the Media.

The Media was the most trusted organization in America. The News was the most trusted source of information. Media defined us (some argue that it still does). Media unified us (some argue that is does the opposite now). Media validated everything that we believed about our fairytale lives and what we believed about the rest of the world.

Like all fairytales this one also be turned out to be not true.

This is the fairytale I was told growing up. In order to be granted admittance to this mythical land all you needed to do was do well in school, go to college and when you graduated you would be able to choose from all the awaiting jobs.

That obviously isn’t the world that me and my Gen X brothers and sisters woke up to. Someone changed the rules and didn’t bother telling us what the new rules were. So we made up our own. I think this is why Gen X has been the most entrepreneurial generation to ever walk the face of the earth, and we’re only in our 30’s and 40’s.

In my next post I’ll contrast this fairytale world to the one we live and work in today. Have any thoughts (of course you do)?

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  • very good post!
  • This is an amazing piece !! It reminds me of growing up and hearing stories of how only the gifted were acceped in corporate America. Only until I became a member of this ficticious group did I realize its a big game and some very average people could fit in if they played correctly. Needless to say I was not one of them so here I am trying to reinvent myself and make a go at a new venture. I will continue following your insightful stories. Regards, AL
  • So funny...but not in a haha way. Well, more like haha & neener neener & we told you so!

    I remember having this conversation with my Dad at 17 & listening to "the experts" saying that our little Gen X generation was not expected to do as well financially & globally as our parents. So we better get with a company right out of college w/a good pension plan. HA!
    Yea, we have so squashed that theory to the Nth degree...and we don't rely on "the man" for a pension plan (unless you call a buy-out from Google, "the man"). It was probably written by some Boomer who's son just dropped out of college to start a computer software company and he was a bit upset.

    Thanks Tac.
  • Let's peek into this future. What will the next generation think of OUR way of life/business?

    If we look at the over-hierarchical businesses of the past, how will our children look at our socially-connected super-innovative bottom-up customers-first employees-next bosses-last approach to business?

    My guess? Entropy is only going to increase. What we are buliding today will look just as old and hierarchical to them as classic Corporate America does to us.
  • Great post. The shrinking economy has exposed many flaws in business models, but the biggest one is the "myth" you referred to. Capitalism works best on a micro-scale. As such, self-employment and small companies will rule the future. Thus my frequent lament that there is little to no difference between "Big Government" and "Big Business".
  • Rich Taylor
    Great Post Tac. As I started thinking of the business world I know, I thought of why I love my job. I some how ended up working for a small Swedish software company right out of college. I started in sales, worked my way into marketing within 6 months and have changed roles within the company every 6-8 months since. We got bought out by the man and my roles continue to change.

    I don't have a ladder to climb, but I am creating and building my own career within the system. I work from home, or a coffee shop, or school or an office. I often work late and often I leave early. I think that is what is different about today's workplace, there are not rules, but guidelines because we are graded on performance not time worked or experience. I love my job because it is flexible yet I have responsibility.
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