The human-centric future of work

The big move we are in the midst of is towards an economy that is more centred on information products than physical products. Examples of this are financial services, professional services, the online game industry and software.

The second transformative change is global access to relatively cheap and relatively high quality communication networks

New communication technologies have always had a strong impact on industries and the logistics around production. But this time, with information products, the societal changes are even bigger than before. The Internet is the first communication environment that decentralizes the financial capital requirements of production. Much of the capital is not only distributed but also largely owned by the end users – the workers who have their own smart devices.

The characteristics of the new economy are different from what we are used to: the production of physical goods was (financial) capital-intensive, leading to centralized management structures and the shareholder capitalism we have experienced. The production of information goods always requires more human capital than financial capital. It is much more about finding brains than finding money. The good news is that you are not limited to the local supply. Work on information products does not need to be co-located because of the Internet. If the task at hand is inviting and compelling, human capital investments can come from any part of the network.

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 approaches are derived from the era of the production of tangible goods and high-cost/low-quality communications. These mind-sets are not only unhelpful, but wrong in a world of widely distributed value creation and ubiquitous connectivity.

The opportunity we have 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 cooperative efforts that create tremendous value. Coordinated value in these cases is the result of uncoordinated actions by a large number of individuals with different goals, different values and different motivations to take part.

In the networked economy, information products and services can now be created and co-created in a human-centric way, by voluntary, interdependent individuals, interacting with each other by utilizing free or very low-cost social media.

Technology does not determine social and organizational change, but it does create new opportunity spaces for new social practices. Some things are becoming much easier than before and some things are becoming possible, perhaps for the first time.

We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed intelligence. The organization is not necessarily a given entity or hierarchy any more, but an ongoing process of organizing. The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. Work was a place. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the (willing) people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Work is what you do, and most importantly what you want to do!

Knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric.


The post is a shortened version of my lecture today at the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, Aalto University, School of Science.

Thank you Jochai Benkler and Bent Flyvbjerg