- - Tuesday, November 19, 2013

By Evan Rosen
Red Ape Publishing, $29.95, 327 pages

By Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
Prometheus Books, $11.99, 315 pages

By James Srodes

More-intellectual students of history than me have long debated the existence of a phenomenon called “the hinges of history.” This is when a historical trend that has gone on perhaps for decades abruptly goes off in a different direction — think the Reformation or the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, or America’s equally dramatic assumption and more recent abdication of the role of the world’s policeman.

These two well-written books take entirely different approaches to understanding why our American culture is in a crisis of change that is sending us off into a new world of uncertainty as well as of opportunity. Clearly, the authors agree, a hinge has moved, but what does it mean?

The most immediately useful, and more optimistic, of the two is “The Bounty Effect,” by business and government strategy consultant Evan Rosen. The historical hinge that he confronts is the growing likelihood that we have entered into (or returned to, if you will) a global economic state where little (or no) growth is the norm. A 60-year epoch of booming expansion and general prosperity subsidized by cheap energy supplies has hit the wall of demographics, dwindling raw materials and political instabilities. So where do we go from here?

Mr. Rosen’s insight is that smart folks are already adjusting to the new (for us) albeit time-honored strategy of collaboration in organizing our economic and political structures to make them more responsive, more efficient, more productive and, yes, more profitable. While that is his good news, he is frank that a large majority of institutions — corporate and governmental — are still stuck in the old-way paradigm of “command and control,” where chief executives sit atop hierarchies of specific functions that operate in isolation and often also in opposition to each other. As with the English textile weavers of the 1700s who tried to destroy the spinning machines that made their craft obsolete, the Luddites are with us still. And they are in the way.

We are not just talking corporate or Washington strategy here. As Mr. Rosen states, “Corporations, governments, schools, nonprofit agencies, and organizations of all kinds are experiencing unprecedented shifts requiring urgent changes. These shifts range from the increased threat of terrorism and recurrent global financial crises to the rise of developing economies and the impact of an evolving Internet and enhanced mobile connectivity.”

If you need examples of how far the hinge has swung, consider his examples of Kodak, which once sold 90 percent of the film and 85 percent of the cameras in America, but now is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because it missed the portent of digital photography. Or Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in 1771, but now overtaken by the more collaborationist Wikipedia website.

If you recoil at the notion of folks sitting around a boardroom campfire singing “Kumbaya,” Mr. Rosen offers an ingenious example of the essence of the collaboration strategy. The “Bounty” in his title is, in fact, the HMS Bounty, famed in Hollywood’s bogus history for its portrayal of a despotic (command-and-control) Captain Bligh — whether portrayed by a bilious Charles Laughton (1935), a splenetic Trevor Howard (1962) or a constipated Anthony Hopkins (1984) — and the mutiny that resulted.

Mr. Rosen resurrects the true story of the 1787 voyage of the Bounty into the unknown of the Pacific Ocean, the mutiny of disaffected sailors and how William Bligh actually responded to being cast adrift in a small boat with a tiny crew of loyalists, all virtually condemned to death. What Bligh then did was shift the corporate environment of the new universe from “command and control” to collaborationist. The scant rations were equally shared, decisions were equally made and a heroic 3,618-mile voyage to a rescue port resulted in a far better fate than that of the mutineers whose command-and-control refuge on an isolated Pitcairn Island condemned then to a life of solitary confinement.

Mr. Rosen offers more apposite and current examples that give hope to us all. The world’s automakers recently recognized their mutual and global dependence on key suppliers, and that led car giants as diverse as Toyota and General Motors to shift to more collaborationist strategies — often involving inducing union participation and sacrifices.

Perhaps significantly, if the war on terrorism can be said to have kept America free of another Sept. 11, 2001, massacre, it can fairly be said that the old “stovepipe” culture of our national security agencies has given way to a grudging, but nonetheless visible, shift to a more multiagency sharing of intelligence that can then be subjected to a wider analysis and decision-making.

If only the Obamacare architects had been collaborationist. Mr. Rosen’s seven suggested guidelines offer a credible solution to the impending disaster.

A more problematic view of our not-so-brave new world comes from Catholic scholar Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. Where Mr. Rosen’s focus was on systemic fault lines, Mr. Ruggiero examines the equally troubling cultural crises of our dysfunctional education system, the recent and pervasive sense of entitlement, the erosion of a common sense of moral behavior and, to his point, a reversal in the pervasive American attitude that prized ideals, responsibilities, success and political probity.

There is a collaborationist subtext in Mr. Ruggiero’s analysis of where we have gone wrong. One of his villains is Social Darwinism, a notion of 100 years ago that most people are seriously deficient in intelligence. One of its bad results was to cause “those in the business community to disparage workers’ intelligence and deny their own companies a rich source of improvement and innovation.” His other villain is what he calls “humanism,” which is shorthand for the ethos that if it feels good, do it.

While all of this is true enough and needs restating, the remedies he offers — essentially, the exhortation to repent and sin no more, is not reassuring. Not if it means giving up our cable-television access.

What would Captain Bligh do?

James Srodes has been Washington bureau chief for both Forbes and Financial World magazines.

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