McLuhan for managers

De Kerckhove and Federman argue that managers can understand their business, and the products or services they provide, only if they subject business, products and services to frequent analysis via tetrads. …the Drucker freak is becoming a "McLuhanatic."…

The Toronto Star
December 26, 2003

McLuhan for managers
New book is ‘comfort reading’ for lonely bosses who want to be effective, U of T professor says. Media guru's theory of ‘tetrads’.
Philip Marchand

This story begins in the early 1940s, when an Edmonton-born professor of English at a second-rate Jesuit university in St. Louis, Mo., became friends with a colleague who was an expert in medieval philosophy. The English professor was always worried about money. He had a family to support — eventually he would father six children — and a ridiculously low salary, characteristic of university professors in that era, and particularly university professors who taught at Catholic institutions.

Eventually the medievalist, whose name was Bernard J. Muller-Thym, discovered his own solution to the money problem. He became a management consultant. What did he know about business? Nothing. But he did know medieval philosophers, and that can keep a man's mind very sharp.

Muller-Thyme proved successful in his new field. By the 1950s, he was talking about our era as "the age of information," which was the successor to the industrial age.

In doing so, he proved himself to be half a century ahead of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who informed the readers of the Wall Street Journal, three weeks ago, that he was moving the Pentagon from the industrial age to the information age.

Meanwhile, his friend in the English department got a job at the University of Toronto, in 1945, and began exploring the effects of new media such as radio and television on our culture.

Among other things, he discovered that the effect of watching television, regardless of the content, was radically different from the effect of reading print material, regardless of content. He said, "The medium is the message." And he still worried about money.

When his friends, including not only Muller-Thyme but a rising young theorist of management named Peter Drucker, invited him to address groups of business people, he accepted eagerly.

In his talks, he made sweeping and visionary pronouncements about how new electronic means of communication were making corporate structures and hierarchies obsolete, transforming specialized jobs into multiple role-playing, over-turning linear thinking.

Half of his audience gave up after five minutes of this. The other half agreed with the businessman who said, after one such talk in Montreal in the early 1960s, "If nothing else, it was good entertainment."

The English professor was Marshall McLuhan, who died in 1980, but whose work on communications has been increasingly revived in the age of the Internet and cyberspace. New books on McLuhan continue to appear, and it was perhaps inevitable that a book such as McLuhan For Managers: New Tools For New Thinking, by Derrick De Kerckhove and Mark Federman, would emerge. The authors are well qualified for the undertaking — De Kerckhove is director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto and Federman is a former manager and business consultant who heads something called "McLuhan Management Studies" at the McLuhan Program.

This is not the first book that purports to give advice to managers based on the perceptions of McLuhan. The first such book appeared in 1972 and was entitled Take Today: The Executive As Drop-Out. It was written by McLuhan himself, in collaboration with an engineer named Barrington Nevitt. Unfortunately, the book is unreadable. McLuhan, who blamed the result on the difficulties of collaborating with his co-author, described the book as "an opaque tapestry with some very weird features." Federman and De Kerckhove describe Take Today, accurately, as "full of original and useful ideas mired in word play, sidetracks and happenstance gibberish."

De Kerckhove and Federman have certainly learned the lesson of Take Today. Unlike many McLuhan disciples, they do not try to ape the dizzying, aphoristic style of the master. They write in a lucid, straightforward manner — a rarity in literature by and about McLuhan — and do a good job of explaining key McLuhan perceptions about "media temperature" (hot media versus cool media) and the relationship between "figure" (a new or conspicuous feature of the environment) and "ground" (the familiar environment). But the main feature of the book is its promotion of "tetrads" as a thinking tool for managers.

Tetrads are a late development in McLuhan's thought. It was only in 1988 that his son Eric published Laws Of Media: The New Science (his deceased father was credited as co-author), explaining this concept. According to this book, the basis of the "laws" of media is the tetrad, or set of four questions that can be asked about "any human artefact." (1) What does the artefact enhance or intensify? (2) What does it render obsolete or displace? (3) What does it retrieve that was previously rendered obsolete? (4) What does it become when pressed to an extreme?

De Kerckhove and Federman argue that managers can understand their business, and the products or services they provide, only if they subject business, products and services to frequent analysis via tetrads. Take the cellphone. The book's tetrad on this artefact runs as follows. (I present a simplified version.)

1. The cellphone enhances personal mobility — within a limited geography — and privacy, by having personal calls come to a personal phone.

2. The cellphone renders the phone booth obsolete, as well as solitude and isolation, "down time" and the ability to eavesdrop on a telephone extension.

3. The cellphone retrieves the once-obsolete practice of pay-per-call on your home phone, as well as the office of page — the lad who used to attend the door and run messages.

4. When pressed to an extreme, the cellphone destroys privacy — the cellphone user is always contactable and locatable.

The originality of the tetrad lies in its suggestion that new gizmos don't just enhance something and make something else obsolete. They also undergo a kind of reversal when pressed to an extreme. The cellphone enhances privacy and destroys it. The car enhances mobility and destroys it via traffic jams.

The idea that new artefacts retrieve something from the past is intriguing. "A manager may be concerned about market acceptance of something totally new and different, but he or she need not worry," De Kerckhove and Federman write. "The Laws of Media tell us that nothing can be so totally new and different that its potential effects and impact cannot be understood."

That's encouraging. But let's get serious. Do these management how-to books really help managers? Do they enhance anything? (To use the language of the tetrads.)

Some managers clearly don't think so. "There's nothing wrong with what they're saying," a friend of mine, a senior manager of long experience, comments. "They just have little application to what goes on day to day with business management." He is skeptical, for example, about such concepts as "connected intelligence," introduced in McLuhan For Managers. "The big dog makes the rules," he says. "That's the way it's always been and the way it always will be. If the big dog says, ‘This is a good idea,’ everyone agrees. If the big dog doesn't like it, it ain't happening."

You can do tetrads until you're blue in the face, but the big dog has the last word.

Still, when I talked to some professors at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, they were surprisingly upbeat about the genre. Paul Bates, for example, said there was a particular need for this kind of book in today's corporate world. "The notion of apprenticeship in companies has largely disappeared," he points out. "While some organizations continue to have money set aside for management training, individuals are largely left on their own devices to have any kind of continuing education, particularly as it relates to leadership skills."

Bates regards even such popular books as Who Moved My Cheese and Leadership Secrets Of Attila The Hun as "fairly benign as opposed to harmful." The sentiment is echoed by his colleague Gary Latham, who indicates that there is indeed a range of quality in how-to books — the author of Who Moved My Cheese, for example, is "overly simplistic," while Tom Peters is not only readable but informed by "behavioural research findings." But even the worst isn't bad. "I can't think of any book that does harm or might lead a reader into difficulties," he says.

Neither Bates nor Latham, at the time I spoke to them, had read McLuhan For Managers. Brendan Calder, adjunct professor of strategic management at the Rotman School, had read the book. Calder, an aficionado of how-to management books — he has about 40 or 50 in his library — describes himself as a long time "Drucker freak" who uses Drucker's book, The Effective Executive, with his students. "All you got to do is read the book and do it and you become an effective executive," he says. "You don't have to do anything else but read this and just practice this stuff. It's that simple."

Now the Drucker freak is becoming a "McLuhanatic." He was excited about McLuhan For Managers. "Forget about CEOs," he said. "CEOs stopped reading years ago.

Managers are very lonely, and this kind of book is very comforting because it gives them something to think about. This is comfort reading for lonely managers who want to be effective."

Tetrads, in this view, are Oreo cookies with high nutritional content. "I think they're a fantastic thing and I'm going to practise using them," Calder says. "The tetrads are a way of thinking to cause other thoughts that can turn into action steps."

McLuhan, who did finally solve his financial problems, would have been pleased to hear it. He would be happy, no doubt, to think of managers coming up with "action steps" after getting their brains going with his tetrads. Heck, forget the action steps. He'd be happy just to think of all these lonely managers getting their brains going, action steps or no action steps. That's all he wanted to do, really, in his long career as a professor of English literature — to stimulate that part of the body that keeps our ears apart. If nothing else, it's good entertainment.

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