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The Change Masters
by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Central Theme: The worker's imagination and innovations are the salvation of business.

The newest tool in American technology may be not the computer, but the worker's imagination. Innovations, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter in ''The Change Masters,'' are designed by people, not machines. She sees innovation, or idea power, as the salvation of American business.

People, or workers, used to be asked to fit into ''the system,'' for they were regarded not as assets, but as sources of error. The ideal organization protected itself against human errors and against the adversary relationship that had developed between workers and management.

This kind of thinking, Miss Kanter says, worked well enough when the American economy was in a static condition. But in the unstable world of business, now only human beings are flexible enough to respond quickly to change. People are still the most versatile machines. Miss Kanter, a Yale sociologist who has intensively studied six progressive or ''integrative'' companies and four old-fashioned or ''segmentalist'' ones, argues that our large corporations have been suffering from too much hierarchy or concentration of power and too little opportunity for workers to join in ''the entrepreneurial spirit.''

American business, according to her, has been dominated by the idea of the market, rather than the idea of research and development. It has looked for payoffs more than for long- range investment. The large corportion, she believes, has to expose more ''surface'' to the environment, to sense the need for change and the mechanisms that will facilitate it. It must shift from strategic planning based on control to tactical planning based on response.

To accomplish this, Miss Kanter suggests, the company needs to change its relation to its employees. As a psychoanalyst would say, the worker's boredom on the job is the result of blocked excitement. If the company allows him to release this excitement in participatory planning, the result will be greater job satisfaction and a flood of new ideas at the local level - what the author calls ''innovation-producing innovations.''

A General Motors executive who is quoted in ''The Change Masters'' sums up the problem very succinctly. Compared to the Japanese, whose labor cost is half of ours: ''American car manufacturers will have a cost disadvantage in perpetuity. But companies can succeed on bases other than cost. Maybe cost control and volume - our traditional strategy - needs to be replaced. We need a strategy of survival, relying on something other than our traditional strengths. In everything the company does, we must have a high rate of successful innovation.''

Miss Kanter contends that while America was once a country of entrepreneurs, the large corporations have stifled that spirit out of a complacency that she calls ''the failure of success.'' Management, which may be many times removed from actual production, has been doing most of its enterprising in the abstract. It has used the past, rather than the future, as a guide. As Marshall MacLuhan put it, we were driving into the future while looking out of the rear-view mirror.

It is not so much the ''big idea'' that companies need, according to Miss Kanter, but improvements at all levels, the kind of improvements that use a worker's imagination as well as his skills. On the evidence of her research, she says that ''participatory'' companies consistently show a higher rate of profit in the long run than the less experimental organizations. First, however, it is necessary to give up the notion of ''organizational immortality.''

Though the ''team spirit'' - which is actually more American in style than Japanese - is a welcome change, Miss Kanter warns that we must not make too much of a romance, myth or mystique out of it. Team spirit, she observes, is ''ineffable,'' and that's part of its difficulty. Too much team spirit can alienate the team from the rest of the company; it can inhibit free exchange and criticism; it cannot always overcome the unavoidable inequality of its members. The highly educated, or ''knowledge,'' worker, she points out, needs enough autonomy to use his education, and besides, there may be no one around who knows how to supervise his specialized knowledge.

To the layman, ''The Change Masters'' exlains a great deal and does it very persuasively. Though Miss Kanter sometimes uses the word innovation as if it were a mantra, it may well be. Just as we invented our recent failures, she suggests, we can invent our future successes. Even if it cannot always guarantee success, a revival of the entrepreneurial spirit, a reawakening of interest in our jobs, would be a great thing in itself. For, as we ought to know by now, happiness, in life and in work, begins with ''a piece of the action.''

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