Postmodernism: strategic implications for entrepreneurs.

Author:Obermiller, Carl
 
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ABSTRACT

The concept of postmodernism has been applied to art, architecture, and philosophy to account for changes in contemporary society. This paper discusses the essential meaning of the term and relates it to emerging and evident trends in the marketplace. The key dimensions are changes in our concepts of truth, reality, unity (of self), and value. After a discussion of these essentials of postmodernism, the paper concludes with a set of ten implications for entrepreneurs.

INTRODUCTION

It's not your father's Oldsmobile. It's no longer your father's world. So, it's no surprise that you and your father (or mother (1) ) should differ in approaches to entrepreneurial enterprise. The brave new world has been characterized by a new perspective on life-postmodernism. In this article I will briefly describe postmodernism and suggest a number of significant changes that it implies for the challenges of business startups.

POSTMODERNISM

Most philosophers identify the postmodern perspective on life as beginning in the 1960's and centered in Western Europe and North America, the result of many factors, but chiefly economic and technological developments. Like any attempt to generalize about a vast cultural perspective on life, it is not subject to simple explanation. Postmodernism has been discussed in hundreds of books and articles, and I make no claim to present a complete or necessarily representative description here. More complete discussions of postmodernism may be found in Baudrillard (1983), Brown (1995), Featherstone (1988) Firat and Venkatesh (1993), Jameson (1983), and Lyotard (1984).

Different authors emphasize different aspects of postmodernism, but several interrelated factors are commonly noted. These factors are also the aspects of postmodernism that are most relevant to business. I have summarized these factors with the following terms: truth, reality, unity, and value.

Truth refers to a central change from modernism to postmodernis, regarding beliefs in an underlying purpose and a knowable process. Central to modernism is the scientific method, which assumes a universe that is subject to an ultimate theoretic. Hypotheses about this grand model can be devised and tested against empirical measures, which are assumed to represent reality. Postmodern scholars refer to such unified expressions of truth as "metanarratives"-stories that characterize the human condition, the universe, or reality. Postmodernism recognizes them as "stories, " per se-fictions. Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" (not even measures of physical reality can be taken without disrupting what is being measured) is central to the underlying belief that no certain knowledge about reality is attainable. Therefore, postmodernism, rejects the notion of any single theory and accepts as equally valid various ideologies and philosophies.

Reality refers to a loss of distinctions made by modernists between real objects and their signifiers, real activity versus ersatz experience, and, ultimately, subject and object. Modernists attach importance and significance to "real" objects. For them, signifiers, symbols, and images may be associated with things, but it is the things that are truly important. For postmodernists, the distinction is blurred to irrelevancy. Two processes are significant. First, images and symbols become detached from their objects. These "free-floating signifiers" can then become meaningful in their own right and used independently from their original objects. For example, the Christian cross symbol is used in contexts other than its original one, many of which are not even religious. Second, the image and symbolism take on context-relevant weight and meaning. That is, they do not merely represent something meaningful, they become meaningful themselves. Brand names provide apt examples. The image of Tommy Hilfiger, conveyed so effectively through promotion, becomes truth in a postmodern world. The clothes don't make the person; the image of the clothes, as conveyed by the brand name, becomes the person.

The lack of a sense of underlying truth and an indifference to distinctions between real objects and their signifiers underlie another significant dimension of postmodernism-a lack of unity. Modernists assume that all things are part of a whole and that that whole is constant and continuous. The scientific method assumes a continual, incremental movement toward understanding of a unified world. In fact, scientists either explicitly or implicitly work toward a single grand theory that could explain everything. Postmodernists accept fragmentation and inconstancy. The MTV generation, with its rapid-fire changes in images and shortened attention span, reflects the postmodern themes of irreverence, non-conformity, noncommitment, detachment, indifference, and fragmentation (Venkatesh, 1989). Diversity is not just politically correct, it is the nature of the worldview. Further, this sensed lack of unity applies both to the world and to the observer. Postmodern individuals have separate selves or compartmentalized self images, which are equally valued and variously appropriate, depending on the situation.

The final dimension, value, refers to the sensed process of value creation. Modernists locate value in production and mean by that the act of producing goods or services. The prevailing notion is that value is created when the product is formed and destroyed when the product is consumed. Postmodernists argue that value is created during consumption. It is during consumption that the experience is created and during consumption that the images attached to the product are transferred to the consumer. Thus, consumption has changed from a destructive, self-serving activity to a constructive, meaningful one.

RELEVANCE OF POSTMODERNISM FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Each dimension of postmodernism discussed above has relevance specific to entrepreneurs. More detailed discussion of each dimension is presented below, with implications for entrepreneurial strategy following.

Truth

Perhaps the most fundamental change, the decline in belief in a fixed, knowable reality has pervasive effects on entrepreneurship, but following are two phenomena that align most closely with it.

No single business strategy. The business model has in a sense come full circle. Long ago, products were made by individual craftspeople or small shops. The means of production and marketing...

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