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The business of social change

Published on Friday, 30 Mar 2012
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: Productive Workplaces – Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century
Author: Marvin R. Weisbord
Publisher: Pfeiffer

When Productive Workplaces was first published in 1987, it made a huge impact on Ronald Reagan's resurgent America. But by the onset of the 21st century, business paradigms had shifted sufficiently to require a second edition, which came out in 2004. Four years later, the global financial crisis struck, necessitating a thorough reworking and rebooting of this classic business text.

Thoroughly revised and expanded, this third edition is outrageously clever, provocative and delivers a unique examination of how economics, technology, employees, and entrepreneurs dovetail - preferably profitably.

The book reveals how the notion of "experts solving problems" has been replaced by "getting everybody improving whole systems". It also explains why the latter strategy is the only one likely to satisfy companies of any size in today's world of diversity and constant change.

From several sources, and with his own direct experience in the workplace, author Marvin Weisbord shows how once-novel practices, based on sociotechnical science, became obsolete over time. And he traces back today's practices by more than a century, and sheds light on what works and what doesn't.

This third edition includes many new features: a handy-looking "instructor's manual", a fearless look at organisation-development myths, a critical probing of new large-group methods, case-study follow-ups that span 15 to 30 years, and 40 highly personal essays by business leaders and thinkers influenced by earlier editions.

This is also the heftiest Productive Workplaces yet. At over 500 pages long, it includes 26 chapters, and is divided into five themes.

It's also an unabashedly scholarly work, even though it is rooted in the everyday realities of the business world.

Accessible Productive Workplaces ain't. But by updating his seminal work, Weisbord has done a huge favour for C-suite players trying to get their heads around constantly shifting paradigms.

The book's scope is vast. The author doesn't pretend to have quick and easy answers to anything. And that's what makes this tome both refreshing and appealing. Thankfully, there's also a low dependence on contemporary jargon.

Nevertheless, how can a title in the business section have such convincing breadth? The answer, in my view, can be deduced from the Marvin Weisbord story itself. His CV is astounding.

He studied journalism in college, and set out to be a professional writer. By the early 1970s, his work had appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Family Circle, Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest, and The New Republic.

From 1969 to 1992, Weisbord was an organisation development consultant for an array of Western blue-chip companies and national utilities, including Atomic Energy of Canada, Bethlehem Steel, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Warner-Lambert, and even a bureau of police in the medium-sized East Coast city of Wilmington, Delaware.

Today, he serves as an unpaid co-director of the non-profit Future Search Network, which was founded in 1993 to engage consultants and local leaders in bringing about voluntary social change. The group operates to help people and communities around the globe to improve their lives in the fields of business, education, environmental protection, health care, and social services.

From the beating heart of a man who has lived boldly - and increasingly altruistically - comes a work that can help many of us, in today's uncertain economic times.

Nevertheless, this is high-end reading. But if the methods are applied, Weisbord asserts, results will trickle down, to the benefit of all.

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