The Cultures of Technology Intensive Manufacturing

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The general topic in this piece concerns the interaction between technology and culture.   My particular slant  will be to review the various sub-cultures that are contained in the general activity of technology-intensive durable goods manufacturing.   This pluralistic approach also reflects the various roles and perspectives that I have played in that context.

For over twenty years, I have been involved in the “manufacturing game”, and have witnessed many changes in that environment.   However, two perspectives have been particularly critical in playing this role of a participant-observer.

One is that I have tried to maintain the world-view of a scientist.   I have a Ph.D. level of training, which is relatively uncommon in the tough, rough and tumble world of durable goods manufacturing.   Moreover, I have tried to maintain a certain observational detachment which is a critical component of the scientific method.   I have also tried to maintain linkages to academic institutions and have seen how their internal cultures have shifted over the last several years, probably as a response to changes in knowledge and technology, as well as other historical events.

A second pole, or perspective, around which my observations tend to cluster, is that of an entrepreneur.   Much of the business activity in which I’ve been involved in manufacturing has been that of fostering change and new enterprise development.   I have not tried to carve out a career as a manager of established systems, but have always self-consciously been involved in the creation of new mixtures of people, resources, and technology.


Before we get into the core of some of these issues, let me first present a brief overview of some of the major changes that have occurred in the manufacturing environment over the past ten to fifteen years, and which will continue to play themselves out well into the next century.

One major change is that of the markets which manufacturers serve.   One can characterize them as essentially being two-fold.   One is two billion person market represented by the advanced industrialized countries, including those in North America and Western Europe, as well as a number of nations in the East. Notably Japan and China.  This market is composed of highly educated individuals, with highly discriminating tastes, and an absolute need for high quality in the consumer goods which they purchase.

In some sense, it is a market that is homogeneous in terms of basic premises (high quality, taste), but highly heterogeneous in the way that market is subdivided or expressed.   In effect, these are nichefied mass markets in which products rapidly emerge, have a relatively short life, and are directed toward fairly small populations of the total two billion person agglomeration.

This type of market should be contrasted with the parallel commodity economy, which consists of not only the third world nations, but a number of yet to be fully industrialized nations as well.   In that content, the old rules of mass production still apply.

We have come to this state of an internationalized market partly through the help of technologies which have come to the fore just within the last fifteen to twenty years.   For example, we have now realized through various mixtures of information technology and telecommunications, the “electronic global village” envisioned by McCluahan nearly thirty years ago. Telecommunications itself has changed our very definitions of what we mean by an enterprise, and what organizational culture one participates in.   For example, if a major manufacturer is linked instantaneously to its suppliers around the world, are the people who work in those supplier companies part of that larger parent organization in culture and perspective, or are they part of the local or indigenous culture?

There have been parallel shifts in technologies on the shop floor itself.   We all are familiar with “robots”, but robotics is only one small piece of a larger panorama.   In effect, we have computerized the production and design environments of manufacturing.  We are now linking together various computer-controlled devices into highly complex manufacturing systems. These technologies have enabled much of the increased precision, quality, and nichefied production flexibility so demanded by the markets that are served.

These changes in the enterprise and its technologies have not been realized without significant negative impacts and perturbations in the larger society.   For example, one of the prices being paid by rapid industrialization in a worldwide economy is an increasingly jeopardized natural environment. There is worldwide, a growing and evolving environmental consciousness, which is taking on the stature of a cultural imperative, irrespective of nationality.  Of course, the two most exacerbating elements of the environmental problems are the fossil fuels, and a continuing population explosion and high birthrate in the Third World countries.

The changing work force in the next century will have the following characteristics:   The majority of the entering work force in North America will be female and non-Caucasian; at the same time there will be an increasing emphasis on non-traditional skills.

In effect, the worker in the new manufacturing environment has to be conceptually nimble, conversant with a number of skills in math and science, as well as operate various complex machines.   At the same time, that entering worker will come from an increasingly smaller age group, as the larger population ages around he or she.   Not only that worker needs to be smarter, but he or she will need to be much more adept at working with others in team and collaborative relationships.

In parallel with all this diversity and change in our world, there have been major changes in the underlying knowledge, research, and intellectual understanding of the basic phenomena. For example, up until very recently, engineers were involved principally with things and machines. Now they are being asked to continue to be knowledgeable not only about things and machines, but also to be significantly more intelligent about the humans who interface with those machines, as well as the organizational context in which those machine systems are embedded.  This Implies a varied kind of disciplinary background and perspective that had heretofore been the province of several and separate specialists.

New disciplines and foci of knowledge have emerged. For example, the pace of technological change generally has given rise to an emergent field of inquiry concerned about technology transfer and innovation.  Another example is the marriage of computer science, cognitive studies, and engineering into the emerging disciplines of knowledge engineering or expert systems.

However, given the above arguments I should refer also to the near-middle class economic explosion in China, India and even in places such as Malaysia, Thailand, etc. There we do not have highly educated individuals per se as described above in this presentation. As these classes grow economically, more and more manufacturing will take place in these countries not necessarily to take advantage of manufacturing labor cost differentials to develop products to export to the USA or Europe but to satisfy the increasing market demand internal to those countries. This is already began to be so manifested, i.e., China is the second biggest market for Volkswagen

Cars today and China is practically satisfying this market demand from domestic manufacturing. Buick sells three times as many cars in China as in the USA, and now the Buicks to be sold in the USA (Buick La Crosse for example) is being designed by GM’s China design office.

Having said the above, I should also state that the culture of the companies has to adapt to be nimble in taking advantage of global demand and global talent to respond to these changes.


I introduced my comments by suggesting that I would try to talk about many sub-cultures that operate within the general domain of technology-intensive manufacturing.   One way of approaching that task is to look at what are in effect, levels of cultural understanding.   In effect, some sub-cultures may be “nested” into larger systems of belief in action.


The changes in culture, markets, and technologies experienced by manufacturing has had a rippling effect backward to those institutions charged by societies with the generation and integration of new knowledge.   As we moved into the first decade of the twenty-first century, if we look closely at our university systems we will see that they have, in effect, “reinvented” themselves. Universities are trying to come to terms in a very proactive sense, with the whole problem of technology change, technology transfer, and the rapid commercialization of technology into useful products and processes.  One way in which this is manifesting itself is the increasing exchanges of money, people, and ideas between the university and the industrial sector.  This increased level of university-industry relationships has had impacts on both the sub-culture of industry research and development, as well as the sub-culture of university research. University-based researchers are seeing new areas of productive inquiry more closely tied to the experienced problems of the manufacturing environment.   In turn, industrial research and development staff are seeing much more rapidly, the opportunities to leverage state-of-the-art research into changes in their core business technologies.

At an organizational level, universities are starting to perceive themselves not merely as an outpost of knowledge creation, but also as an engine for economic and societal development.   Obviously, many participants in the university subculture are not of a like mind with these changes, and as we approach the end of the twentieth century, we will see an increasing level of internal debate, perhaps strife, as academic institutions come to terms with these changes.  There will be much scrutiny of their incentive systems, rewards, and organizational missions and goals.


Technology-based new entrepreneurial enterprises will be a major force for economic growth and development as we move into the next century. However, these enterprises will differ significantly from the entrepreneurial cultures and activities of the past. They will only loosely approximate Adam Smith’s model of economic activity.

For one, there will be a strong link to answers in research and technology by small companies that have heretofore been the province of major companies.   As our total knowledge base and technology base grows, there will be increasing opportunities for niche exploitation, which only a small company can grasp.   However, to do so, these new entrepreneurs will be increasingly managed, operated, and inhabited by individuals with degrees similar to my own.

Because of the internationalization of markets, as well as the booming advances in telecommunications technology, the “maneuvering space” of the new entrepreneurial companies will be significantly expanded.   It will be possible for a small company to successfully engage in business on a worldwide basis, and not be captive to local and regional markets.  There will be an increase in use of partnerships and alliances between small companies as a way of entry to new markets, as well as for exploring technological trajectories. All of this, of course, will be fueled by the rapid turnover of products, decreased product lifecycles, and the ever-discriminating taste of the billion-person advanced market.

It is also relatively clear that this new sub-culture of technology-driven new enterprise has a set of roles, values, and behaviors that are incumbent for us to understand.   And there are a few places in the world where these new entrepreneurialistic sub-cultures flourish.   One for example, is of course, the Silicon Valley area of northern California.   Others are found in certain parts of northern Italy, Western Europe, and elsewhere.   An important word to the wise is to learn how to do this well, in order that this can become the way in which societies can grow and flourish.


The new entrepreneurial company will not be the only locus for major changes in organizational sub-culture.   We are already seeing dramatic changes on the manufacturing shop floor of companies that are literally hundreds of years old. The new computerized technologies, the existence of internal networks of information exchange, as well as the advent of telecommunications technology, has made the old hierarchical and function-based organization obsolete.  The new manufacturing plant or enterprise is becoming much “flatter”, with significantly more interaction across previously separate functions and groups.  There has began to give much more power to groups such as work teams, where managers play more of the role of facilitator and liaison with other units, as opposed to parent or king.

This new kind of organizational culture should be able to respond more effectively to rapid changes in products, tooling, and the ever-increasing demand for quality and low cost.   It should also be obvious that much of the actual work in this new environment will be intellectual work, as opposed to actually putting a toot to a piece of material.  There would be much more planning, monitoring, and coordination, as opposed to manual work.

I invite you to go to a highly competitive manufacturing company in your own country, one that has a reputation for market responsiveness and rapid technological change, and you will see many of the aspects of the new organizational culture which I have briefly described.  These know no international boundaries and are found around the world.


Obviously, we are talking about a new kind of person to inhabit these new various sub-sectors of our society.   Yet our educational systems, and institutions for development of our people, have not caught up with many of the changes which I have described.   While skills such as math and science competency seem to be a prerequisite for life looking ahead in the 21st century, this is not a view that is shared by many institutions of education. At the same time that we need cognitive skills, we also need people who can respond to change and who know how to think and adapt.   We also need to adopt a different set of norms in terms of who is “expendable” in our educational and child development systems.  The reality is that no one is expendable. However, there will be less and less future for individuals with inability to think and do, whether those individuals come from big city ghettos, minority groups, or a well-to-do family background, This new culture of education also needs to recognize that continuous change will be with us from now on.   We will need to think about two, three, or four careers for an individual throughout a life span.  Again, this demands an approach to human development that is much more adaptable, flexible, and all encompassing than the one we have now.


Unfortunately, we have probably entered a century in which many of the old cultures and societies that have been successful under the old technologies and cultural norms are falling by the wayside.   There will be dramatic shifts in economic wealth, both within and across nation states.   The cost of failure, which in many ways will be equivalent to the inability to adapt to technological change, will be significant.

There is still some debate about how the new changes in technology will affect some of the more prevalent twentieth century ideologies.   For example, will the new technologies and associated cultural changes support or retard the growth of the liberal democracies?  Or, will the vision of George Orwell be realized, with a technology-induced return to a world-wide authoritarian state?  Obviously, all the data are not in, and will not be in for another seventy-five years or so.  The early returns, however, suggest that many of the new technologies seem to enforce democratic values and practices.   For example, one of the critical features of using information technologies and computerized systems is the rapid and transparent exchange of information across settings, cities, and nations.   This is highly compatible with democratic systems and values. However, we have also witnessed that China has been able to have an effective state control over these advanced technologies so that has been little if any democratization and is some cases it could be argued that we have seen a decrease in democratization! The Economist in a recent article has concluded that the democratization effects on China by technology could have been overestimated.

On the other hand, some of the new technologies will reinforce distinctions between individuals and classes of people, thus perhaps leading to a more hierarchical and elitist structure of society.   Moreover, the ability of the new technologies to successfully manage and facilitate diversity of tastes and markets, may lead to a fragmentation of societies such that it will be difficult to sustain larger goals and visions.   For example, it is unclear whether a television society can really sustain a long-term mission, or goal, or struggle.

It is relatively clear that the many cultural changes facilitated or reinforced by the new technologies will yield the twenty-first century equivalent of the renaissance man.  To subsist and succeed in the new society will demand a rare diversity of training, education and perspective.   It will be impossible to be exclusively a technical person, or a person of the humanities or arts, or any other singular “ism”.   The successful resident of the new society will need to be much more conversant in a variety of knowledge areas, intellectual perspectives, and sets of values.

Perhaps the most important by-product of the increasingly complex and diversified new society will be a greater emphasis on the value of working together.   Perhaps we will learn, after having failed to do so for several thousand years, to live at peace with one another in a true collaborative set of relationships.

My talk has very few conclusions because frankly, the state of the data of which I report is still emerging.  There are a few things I would like to leave you with.   One is that the disciplines and areas of knowledge which have tended to guide our thinking for the past decades are in some sense, up for grabs or dying.   You will see rapid changes in the structure of knowledge and the underlying epistemologies of our society. You will also need to learn to somehow bring together the softer side of our understanding of people, with our technical understandings.   In fact, that may be the major task which we will need to accomplish as we enter the twenty-first century: how to manage our world with a mixture of rapidly changing technology, values, and cultures, with wisdom.

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