John McCann

The Third Wave

In Early Predictions on February 7, 2006 at 8:10 pm

In the mid-1980s I wrote a book titled The Marketing Workbench that contained a case study about how the General Foods Corporation was handling the explosion of data being generated by the UPC scanners in the checkout lanes in supermarkets. That case was based upon an interview with Bob King, an executive in General Foods.

Bob is a widely read and very insightful man who wowed me with his thoughts about how our society was evolving. One of his favorite books was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler and the following is Bob’s rendition of Toffler’s Wave Model:

“Wave 1: The consumer was the producer and the chief economic resource was land. This situation of consumer-as-producer was a wave of agriculturalization that began thousands of years ago.

Wave 2: The second wave was the recent industrial revolution, which relied on the availability of inexpensive energy. The consumer was separated from the producer and the producer was in control. The chief assets were capital and labor. People consumed the products and services that were produced by firms of ever-increasing size. They tended to accept the notion that the producer was in some way “responsible” for meeting their needs. The electric utilities were responsible for providing electricity and could make all necessary decisions. IBM was responsible for providing computers. The AMA was responsible for health care. The schools were responsible for education. In the US, the consumer’s view of success was obtained from other people and institutions, perhaps in part from Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post. This era was at its height during the Eisenhower years – around 1955.

Wave 3: Here the consumer is in control (and becomes a producer). Information technologies play the role that energy played during the industrial revolution. People take responsibility for their own lives, no longer allowing the responsibility for their lives and well-being to rest with other people or corporations. We will be in a period of demassification.”

Bob was using this model as a guide for a new IT design within the General Foods, a “demassification design” that called for a move from centralized to desktop computing. He said that the firm’s marketing managers had to be able to directly participate in the analysis of the data and that desktop computers were the best vehicle for such participation.

I have long used Toffler’s Wave Model to motivate students to understand and accept the differences between a Second Wave (“they” are in charge; you just consume) and a Third Wave (you are in charge; you participate in the production process) culture.

It also became a central part of my consulting for the past 20 years. It is a much easier to get today’s managers to recognize and accept the Wave Model than it was 20 years ago when The Marketing Workbench was published.

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  1. Hi:
    I enjoyed your article and would like permission to use it in my Knowledge Area Management MOdel that I am curently writing on Change Management for Walden University, for my PhD. As a retired senior ranking officer, United States Army Reserve, and businessman I have been fascinated with over the years in organizations development and growth. I have led large contingency forces in the Middle East as a military leader and have ran large civilian organizations such as Global One, Middle East living in the Saudi Kingdom and have one interesting comment to make: I have seen human beings and organizations work at hard physical labor to make a living; I have seen human beings and organizations work smart using technology innoviation; and I have seen what happens when you push the second and third wave together at the same time as it is happening in the Middle East. The end result is a relucant portion of the society fighting the change, another portion over whelmed by the change, and final portion of the society embracing the change. The results are chaos in society but eventually realism will set in that the change will not and can not be pushed away. This is the story of Iraq, Lebannon, Iran, and Syria today. I wonder if our leaders have bothered to read Toffler’s Book?

  2. Tom … great post. Yes, you have my permission.

    John McCann

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