Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Polyvalence Defies Commoditization

One of the tacit objectives of commoditization is to disembed knowledge from humans in order to reembody that knowledge into technology (Giddens, 1990). The impact of commoditization on knowledge workers is a well-understood facet of post-modernization and the new economy.

The success of the commoditization movement has been particularly discouraging for professional services as the public sector is increasingly unwilling to pay premium fees for services, and the private sector is too distrustful of professionals to engage them even when doing so is arguably prudent. Joan Capelin's (2005) expressed sentiments are commonplace:
It is cold comfort to realize that all the professions are experiencing this race to the bottom. We tend not to see the effects of commoditization — nor even feel sympathetic — when lawyers, accountants, and management consultants find they are being squeezed for lower fees by their marketplace. They are far more rewarded for their time, to begin with. But I can tell you that there is much handwringing going on across all the business-based professions.
Nevertheless, as the forces of commoditization continue their forays into the realm of human knowledge in search of latent technologies, critical issues are emerging about how and if certain human specific functions can feasibly be transferred into machines. In particular, the expert handling of polyvalent information and data seems to defy commoditization.

Polyvalence denotes something that has multiple values, meanings, or appeals. Polyvalence (which is a synonym for multivalence) is a state or the way something is with respect to its main attributes, as in “the current state of knowledge,” “the state of one’s health,” and “the state of the economy.” Polyvalent symbols and metaphors carry multiple (often esoteric) meanings and can fulfill expressive, transactional, and interactional functions concurrently.

Prof Daniel Bell (2003) first used the term polyvalent to describe human activities that are difficult or impossible to delegate, let alone commoditize. Examples of polyvalent human functions include surgery, piloting an aircraft, coaching a professional sports team, and representing a client in court. Thus, the professions are often associated with polyvalence.

If technology can displace a particular human activity, then the displaced activity is no longer truly polyvalent.

More to follow about polyvalence in future posts.


Capelin, J (2005, September 8), Confronting Commoditization, DesignIntelligence.

Cohen, D (2003), Our Modern Times: The New Nature of Companies in the Information Age (S Clay and D Cohen, Trans), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Giddens, A (1990), The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Related Posts:

Financial Management Requires Polyvalence

The Topological Landscape between Automation and Expertise

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