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Alvin Toffler : The Futurologist's Futurologist.

Widely recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on change, Alvin Toffler is anything but the classical soothsayer. He takes great care to avoid words like `trend' and `prediction' in his writing, and insists that nobody can tell for certain what will happen in the future.

Toffler's special gift is an understanding of the effects of change. This skill comes from having a brilliant mind, a broad and deep knowledge of science, technology and the arts, and a capacity to deduce from detailed analysis what might result when complex technological and social changes impact on existing, entrenched attitudes and vested interests.

Toffler's overall contribution to global business and politics is, however, more than a unique ability to spot key changes and their effects, and it lies in his construction of a comprehensive and intellectually elegant model that has helped countless other people to think coherently about the future.

Life and Career

Alvin Toffler was born in 1928. While he has travelled widely, he gained all his education and working experience in the USA. During his career, he has been a visiting fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation, a visiting professor at Cornell University, a faculty member of the New School for Social Research, and a highly successful business consultant. He has numerous honorary degrees from American and overseas universities and his books have won many awards. He is an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres in France, a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Much of Toffler's writing and other work has been in collaboration with his wife Heidi, as he is always the first to point out. This partnership is long-standing, as both studied English at New York University and then went on to spend some time in the heady Bohemian world of postwar Greenwich Village, where their interests were mainly in writing poetry and planning novels.

While not a scientist by first choice, Toffler understood from a very young age the importance of science and technology in the modern world, and took a course in the history of technology. The Tofflers spent several years in journalism, writing for publications ranging from Fortune and Playboy to the leading political, scientific and economic journals of the day. In 1960 an invitation from IBM to write a paper on the long-term social and organisational implications of the computer gave them a lengthy exposure to high technology and from this seminal experience there grew the all-consuming interest in change for which Toffler and his wife are world-famous. It is highly significant that Future Shock, the first book in what was to be Toffler's great trilogy on change, was begun shortly after completing the IBM paper.

Key Theories

While he has published over twelve books, and countless articles and papers, Toffler's philosophy, and most of his key ideas, are encapsulated in three books: Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift (1990). Each book is a self-standing work in its own right, but they combine to form a trilogy that develops Toffler's ideas about change in a seamless dialogue.

Toffler gives his own brief summation of what the trilogy is all about in the Preface to Powershift: "....the central subject is change - what happens to people when their entire society abruptly transforms itself into something new and unexpected. Future Shock looks at the process of change - how change affects people and organisations. The Third Wave focuses on the directions of change - where today's changes are taking us. Powershift deals with the control of changes still to come - who will shape them and how".

As well as giving a painstaking identification and analysis of change and the many challenges and problems it brings, the trilogy is full of hope. The books argue, convincingly, that the rapid change all around us is not so chaotic or random as it first appears. There are, he suggests, patterns and recognisable forces behind the constantly accelerating changes we all face. Understanding these patterns and forces, he argues, will allow us to cope "strategically" with change, and to avoid haphazard responses to individual events as they are encountered.

The Trilogy

1. Future Shock

So well has Toffler described the theme of this book - the effect of too much change occurring too quickly - that the expression `future shock' has entered the world's vocabulary and is now widely used to define the disorientation, confusion and breakdown of decision-making capacity that afflicts individuals, groups and whole societies when they are overwhelmed by change.

In his preface to Powershift, Toffler contends that "... the acceleration of history carries consequences of its own, independent of the actual direction of change. The simple speed up of events and reaction times produces its own effects, whether the changes are perceived as good or bad."

Future Shock was written over thirty years ago and we are now able to test the accuracy of Toffler's foresight. What we find is quite remarkable; he anticipated the break-up of the nuclear family, the genetic revolution, the `throw-away' society, the resurgence of emphasis on education, and the increased importance of knowledge in society.

2. The Third Wave

This book explores what is perhaps Toffler's most elegant theory, adding a `third wave' to the other two great and generally recognised surges in human development. The first wave came with the introduction of agriculture, and mankind's revolutionary shift from hunter-gatherer to settled farmer. This revolution released human beings from the constant struggle for subsistence, providing the stability and security needed to develop the arts and technology that are the basis of civilisation as we know it today. The second wave was the industrial revolution, that remarkable leap forward in manufacturing methods and the organisation of labour which created the industrialised world. Within this world, the exploitation of raw materials, mass production and an ever more ingenious application of technology are viewed as having brought prosperity and comfort to those countries that could embrace the necessary changes.

Toffler's third wave is the post-industrial, information-based revolution that began, he suggests, in the 1950s, with a number of major technological and social changes.

In The Third Wave, Toffler predicted with an uncanny foresight both the profound effects of information technology and biotechnology on the economy, and the changes we can now see taking place in manufacturing methods, marketing and working patterns. He showed particular prescience in foreseeing the development of niche marketing and the increased power of the consumer. He even invented a new word - "prosumer" - to illustrate the fusion of producer and consumer.

In his introduction to The Third Wave, Toffler talks of the seemingly chaotic changes of the 1960s that produced "... a culture of warring specialisms, drowned in fragmented data and fine-toothed analysis", and a climate in which synthesis "... is not merely useful - it is crucial". It is to address this need for synthesis that Toffler conceived The Third Wave. It is, he claims, "... a book of large-scale synthesis (that) describes the old civilisation in which many of us grew up, and presents a careful, comprehensive picture of the new civilisation bursting into being in our midst".

He goes on to say: "... the world that is fast emerging from the clash of new values and technologies, new geophysical relationships, new life-styles and modes of communication, demands wholly new ideas and analogies, classifications and concepts. We cannot cram the embryonic world of tomorrow into yesterday's conventional cubby holes."

3. Powershift

In this, the final book of the trilogy, Toffler carries forward his earlier analysis with an exploration of how individuals, organisations and nations will be affected by inevitable changes in the way power is perceived and applied. He talks of a "... new power system replacing that of the industrial past."

The `powershift' term of the title has a meaning for Toffler which is very different from the usual meaning of the two words `power shift'. He says in the book that, while a power shift is a transfer of power, a `powershift' is "... a deep-level change in the very nature of power." A powershift does not merely transfer power, but also transforms it.

In Powershift, we are reminded of the three basic sources of power: Violence, Wealth and Knowledge. All businesses work in what Toffler describes as a "power-field" in which these three "tools of power" constantly operate. He goes on to claim that the rising importance of knowledge, so eloquently argued throughout the trilogy, has brought about a profound change in the balance of these three powers.

There is no comfortable hint in Powershift of an early solution to the problems associated with change. Toffler talks about the struggles to come as individuals, businesses and national economies move away from their traditional power reliance towards a new dependence on knowledge. Furthermore, in his view, the problems will not be over when these power conflicts are resolved, since he sees even greater challenges ahead as world divisions develop between "fast" and "slow" economies.

Another of Toffler's powerful ideas, explored in detail throughout the trilogy but most strongly in Powershift, is what he calls "de-massification". By this Toffler means a complete reversal of the trend towards "mass" solutions so prevalent in the late 20th century. He sees mass marketing giving way to niche and micro-marketing; mass production being replaced by increasingly customised production; and large corporations being broken down into a number of small, autonomous units. Even politics and the concept of nationhood, Toffler believes, will be affected by the pressure to "de-massify". This pressure, he suggests, is being created by the increasing awareness of better-informed individuals, and is becoming practical through the unstoppable development of information technology.

In perspective

Influential as Toffler's trilogy was, and continues to be, it must be remembered that the last of the three books was published in 1990, and that it would be misleading to imply that they represent all of Toffler's work. The Adaptive Corporation, for example, was published in 1985, and built around the report resulting from Toffler's 1969-70 consultancy work for AT&T. This report was ignored by senior management at the time, but became influential later, at the time of the Bell divestiture. The book deals with questions of organisational change and adaptation through focusing upon the case of AT&T.

Other books and articles have appeared since the trilogy and, from the time of the publication of Powershift, Heidi Toffler has allowed her role to be more formally acknowledged, so that the Tofflers' more recent publications have been under explicit joint authorship.

The Tofflers' contribution to world politics is something many management commentators neglect when discussing their more recent work. Respected by many world leaders, they have played a significant part in improving east/west relations. Mikhail Gorbachev is an admirer whom they have met on several occasions and greatly influenced.

The Tofflers have also visited China many times and were having a positive effect on Chinese politics until the disastrous reversals that followed the Tiananmen Square episode. The Tofflers' books are now banned in China though, of course, it often happens that banning the books of particular writers merely serves to increase their influence.

Of the Tofflers' major publications in the last ten years, War and Anti-War is often referred to as the most important. This book focuses on warfare, suggesting that changes in the way we now do business are matched by a parallel revolution in how we make war. The book explores changes in the concept of war and the means of pursuing it - changes which, like so many in commerce and manufacturing, derive directly from advances in information technology. These ideas on the changing nature of war have already been proved correct in the Gulf War and elsewhere, but Alvin's most chillingly accurate prediction came in an interview he gave for the New Scientist magazine of March 1994. In the interview he spoke of the inadequacy of conventional military force in controlling terrorist action. To illustrate his point he quoted a former US intelligence officer as having said that, if he had 20 people and a million dollars, he could shut down America. Seven years later, the events of 11 September 2001 provided appalling evidence of this statement's credibility.

Key Works

The Adaptive Corporation
Aldershot: Gower, 1985

Future Shock
London: Bodley Head, 1970

The Third Wave
London: Collins, 1980

New York: Bantam Books, 1990

War and Anti-War, Alvin and Heidi
New York: Little Brown & Company, 1993

Dec 2001
COPYRIGHT 2001 Chartered Management Institute
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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