UK: BOOKS - DISRUPTED CONNECTIONS. - Charles Handy on Fukuyama's view of the shift to an information society. The Great Disruption - Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order - Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, £20.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy on Fukuyama's view of the shift to an information society. The Great Disruption - Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order - Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, £20.

Francis Fukuyama has a gift for writing large books with great titles on the social and economic issues of our times. Despite their serious academic tone, his books stimulate wide debate, even among those who haven't read them. It will be the same with this latest one.

His first, The End of History, argued that a combination of liberal democracy and capitalism was where every developed society finally ended up. Not everyone noticed that he wasn't wonderfully starry-eyed about the outcome, fearing that we might all end up lying like dogs on our backs, wanting to be fed and tickled, while our leaders competed to give us what we wanted in order to be re-elected. His second, Trust, argued that societies would not grow unless they increased their 'radius of trust' to encompass more than the extended family, to include trust in the institutions of society. Bad news, he suggested, for China and the Latin American or Mediterranean countries; good news, on balance, for America and the northern Europeans.

In this third book he revisits and extends his earlier themes. The end of history, he now suggests, only applies to the political and economic sphere. In the social and moral sphere, 'history appears to be cyclical, with social order ebbing and flowing over the space of multiple generations'.

The social and moral order has been ebbing fast since 1960 in the West, he believes, because of what he calls the 'great disruption', the shift from the 'industrial' to the 'information' society, with increasing crime, massive changes in family structures, decreasing levels of trust and the triumph of individualism over community. And where the West has gone, the East, he feels, will surely follow.

His statistics make depressing reading, but Fukuyama is hopeful. The tide is on the turn, he thinks, at least in America, where all the bad statistics are now improving. He takes comfort from past 'great disruptions' in history to argue that humans are biologically driven to create new forms of social order and to re-establish moral values. We can't do business, for instance, without creating some bonds of trust and without subjecting ourselves to some rules of law.

The bonds and the rules will have to change, of course, and that process of changing adds to the turbulence we are living through. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer many clues to how that change will happen this time around.

The penultimate sentence of this long book reads: 'There is nothing that guarantees that there will be upturns in the cycle; our only reason for hope are the very powerful innate human capacities for reconstituting social order.' Honest, if a touch disappointing.

Like his other books, this one is rich in historical examples and social insights, but for managers the most interesting chapters are 12 and 13 where he discusses the different forms of co-ordination - hierarchy, the market, via outsourcing and sub-contracting or networking (which requires a high level of trust and tends towards tribalism).

All are needed, although the combination can be tricky. Most crucially, he stresses that a sense of 'social connectedness' is required to turn ideas into wealth, both within organisations and within communities such as Silicon Valley. And geography still matters, perhaps more so than ever, because the sharing of impersonal information over the internet does not build mutual trust and respect.

The book is not a casual read but the central issue remains crucial and needs our attention: Where will we find our social connectedness in the future and who will set the norms and the rules? My guess is that, as ever, the workplace, however virtual it may be, will always be a key community whose norms will ripple out into society for good or ill. In a time of great disruption this gives business a responsibility greater than the need to boost its bottom line, although Fukuyama would argue that the two responsibilities necessarily go together. Read and ponder.

Charles Handy's latest book, Thoughts for the Day, is published by Hutchinson this month.

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