As our information moves faster, we move faster. And as more of humanity comes online (2.3 billion more people in 2016–2017 alone), it’s causing a fundamental and spontaneous restructuring of our collective behavior. The overlay of our evolving planet wide digital nervous system has taken the perennial drivers of change — human needs, politics, geography, culture — and woven new patterns from them. All of us, especially those who are guiding businesses, need a new framework to understand and adapt.
Tell me, who loses? A lot of people. It’s carnage. It’s every manual process. There is an entire economy of inefficiency.
In my June 2008 post The evolution of the employee-employer relationship I wrote the following:
The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.
This was in response to some things I had read at the time and was something of a follow-up to another post from April 2004, in which I wrote:
I’ve long believed that the prevalence of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.
Though I haven’t written much (at all?) about this particular aspect of thinking in bits since that 2008 post, the ideas are never far from my the front of my mind. It is hard not to think along these lines as I wonder about the future of work. Not just for me, but for my kids, and for the people with whom I work every day. Even within an organization, there is a certain amount of this, where HR acts as the “agent” and the employee moves about inside the organization based as much on their own needs and desires as the organization. (If, that is, they are lucky enough to work in an organization that “gets it”.)
I closed that 2004 post with the thought, “This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….”
Some interesting questions that Stephen DeWitt is working on answering. Here’s a description of what DeWitt is doing as CEO of Work Market, from the article/interview A Total Rethink of How Work Should Work:
In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.
Or, to look at it another way, where an organization consists primarily of management and the workforce is “on demand”. Where the focus is not on building, growing, and sustaining a large organization but on doing the work, creating value, getting shit done. Where each member of the team can contribute their expertise – whether it be financial, management, technical – and all benefit from the arrangement. On their own terms.
More flash team than gig economy, where the labor is not a commodity but where each participant competes based on skills, past projects, reputation, etc etc. All those things that in the past would have led to promotions and raises and bonuses will now lead to more work, higher rates, and more choice in the work you accept.
Obviously, there is much more to it or it would already be the norm. There are examples of where it is working and organizations who are using it, but it will be many years before it is more widespread. And, of course, the transition will not come without pain, without costs, without some collateral damage to the workforce and organizations who are not able, or interested, in making the change.
Are you ready to be an “enterprise of one”?
Preparing for a world without work means grappling with the roles work plays in society, and finding potential substitutes. First and foremost, we rely on work to distribute purchasing power: to give us the dough to buy our bread. Eventually, in our distant Star Trek future, we might get rid of money and prices altogether, as soaring productivity allows society to provide people with all they need at near-zero cost.
“For me, this is an example of the role of the manager. I was not the leader because the idea to form a circle in the middle was not mine. I was not a coach because I didn’t help any person with their contribution. And I was not a director because I didn’t provide any specific rules or instructions.
Instead, I just observed the system and I intervened by announcing that it wasn’t doing its job well. I then let the system work out the details.”
The Nordic model assumes a rested worker is a productive worker.
“But it’s not just our own history we have to look toward. Too often, we’re unaware of societies that have tackled similar economic problems and taken giant strides forward; without that knowledge, it’s hard to visualize the big changes we need to make.”
This is true whether the knowledge worker commands advanced knowledge, like a surgeon, or simple and fairly elementary knowledge, like a junior accountant. In either case it is the knowledge investment that determines whether the employee is productive or not, more than the tools, machines, and capital furnished by an organization. The industrial worker needed the capitalist infinitely more than the capitalist needed the industrial worker–the basis for Marx’s assertion that there would always be a surplus of industrial workers, an “industrial reserve army,” that would make sure that wages could not possibly rise above the subsistence level (probably Marx’s most egregious error). In the knowledge society the most probable assumption for organizations–and certainly the assumption on which they have to conduct their affairs–is that they need knowledge workers far more than knowledge workers need them.
Organizations can’t be designed, they need to be created, out of a new thinking, a different need and transformational insights.