The future of work – the way I see it
Technology does not determine social and organizational change, but it does create new opportunity spaces for social innovations like new employment forms. Partial employment for young unemployed people is becoming much easier than before, and truly global task-based work is becoming possible, perhaps for the first time in history.
The opportunity today is in new relational forms that don’t mimic the governance models of industrial, hierarchical firms. We are already witnessing the rise of very large-scale efforts that create tremendous value in a very new way. Coordinated value in the cases of helping Haiti or building Wikipedia type of platforms is the result of uncoordinated actions by a large number of individuals. People with different goals, different values and different motivations take part and co-create together.
The characteristics of the network economy are different from what we are used to: the industrial production of physical goods was financial capital-intensive, leading to centralized management and manufacturing facilities where you needed to be at during predetermined hours. The industrial era also created the shareholder capitalism we now experience. Having a great idea, or simply wanting to do something, was not enough to get one going. You needed a lot of money. In the network economy, individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or low cost social platforms and relatively cheap mobile, smart devices, can now create information products.
The production of information goods requires more human capital than financial capital. It is more about connecting with brains than connecting with money. And the good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Work on information products does not need to be co-located. The architecture of work does not resemble a factory any more.
This is why decentralized action plays a much more important role today than ever before. The architecture of work is the network and the basic unit of work is not a process or a job role but a task.
Our management and organizational thinking is derived from the era of tangible goods production and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mindsets are not helpful in a world of widely distributed ownership of means of production/smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity.
“A corporation/employer exists to make money and the employee goes to work for the employer to make money.” Almost all economic theories have made the same assumption: the employer – employee relationship is necessary to make work possible.
We have taken that relationship as given. The other taken for granted assumption is that it is the independent employer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow. The employees of the organization are not seen autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent entities. People are resources.
Dependence is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is getting the daily tasks that are given to you done, or at least out of the way. We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work, and manages the timing and duration of the work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school where the model is the same.
In contrast to the above, digital work has brought about circumstances in which the employee in effect chooses the purpose of work, voluntarily selects the tasks, determines the modes and timing of engagement, and designs the outcomes. The worker here might be said to be largely independent of some other person’s management, but is in effect interdependent. Interdependence here means that the worker is free to choose what tasks to take up, and when to take them up, but is not independent in the sense that she would not need to make the choice.
The interdependent, task-based worker negotiates her work based on her own purposes, not the goals of somebody else, and chooses her fellow workers based on her network, not a given organization. The aim is to do meaningful things with meaningful people utilizing networks and voluntary participation.
It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions and choices of individuals. This view of work focuses attention on the way ordinary, everyday work-tasks enrich life and perpetually create the future through continuous learning.
The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the IT-network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of organizing. The basis of work is not financial self-interest, but people’s different and yet, complementary expectations of the future, conditioned by their accounts of the past and developed skills.
The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the people are, no matter where on the globe they may be.
Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Most importantly knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric. Through mobile smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we can create new opportunities and a better future for millions of unemployed people.
It is possible!
Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin and Yochai Benkler