Powerful “soft side” waves are reshaping our familiar “hard side” business world. A soft side wave crested in the middle of my professional lifetime and swept me along. I’m still struggling in its surf.

Time was when the business world was a clock. Successful enterprises were machines, conceived by engineers and monitored by accountants, for maximum productivity at minimum cost. Workers were a collection of individuals, parts of the machine, fungible and interchangeable.

The first soft side waves began to break shortly after World War II. In their wake, the business world is no longer a clock, but a rain forest. Enterprises are no longer machines, but ecosystems whose fitness to survive is determined by their relationships to other organizational ecosystems in the rain forest world.

The soft side enterprise is no longer industrial; it’s knowledge-based. The most valuable corporate assets are no longer capital assets, inventory, work in progress and finished goods, but intellectual capital — knowledge carefully collected from and then redistributed among employees, who themselves have become the company’s most valuable assets.

The soft side work force is no longer an assortment of individuals, but a system. Rather than individual achievement, the soft side rewards a worker’s contribution to the system, his or her effectiveness in creating and using the company’s valuable shared knowledge.

Individualism has given way to important relationships; independence to interdependence; self-absorption and self-reliance to networking and connectedness. Indeed, the computer’s ultimate contribution may not be quantification at all, but connectedness and communication through the Internet.

The jerky transition from a clock world to a rain forest world is far from complete and far from seamless. Those of us who grew to maturity in the clock world are, at times, nostalgic for it. We miss its certainty, its order, its predictability, its familiarity. By comparison, the rain forest world, with its unfamiliar array soft issues, seems capricious, messy, chaotic at times.

As a lawyer, I acquired the old-fashioned hard side focus on individuals. Relationships were peripheral. After all, the law assumes that all human relationships will ultimately fail, whereupon every individual will need a lawyer to protect him or her from every other individual, even from family.

A heads up: Psychology teaches the soft side view that the most important parts of our lives are lived not as individuals, but in relationships. It is good relationships that call us to greatness. Good relationships are win-win; everyone gains. In good relationships -- personal or professional, intimate or organizational, family or business — one plus one becomes greater than two.

As a business mediator, (and recovering lawyer…mostly) I labor in the turbulent surf of feelings, relationships, and family dynamics. It’s difficult for business clients who made it big in the clock world, to thrive comfortably in the murky and uncertain rain forest. So I try to help them surf the soft side waves -- all the way down to the bottom line.

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