Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

The art of interaction, the design of digital and the science of social complexity

Month: January, 2013

The ten commandments of digital work

Lately I have had a series of conversations with a group of leaders of global high-tech companies. It became very clear during my conversations that their vocabulary reflected a fresh, new way of thinking about work. The executives emphasized that the key to success in the new digital economy is likely to be a new position for knowledge professionals and a wide social acceptance of more sustainable values.

What could this new position look like?

Once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized to a given enterprise are assets that are at risk in the very same way that financial assets are at risk. If one can’t continue for some reason, the value of context-specific knowledge and competencies may be much lower somewhere else. Human capital then follows very much the same logic as financial capital and should be treated accordingly.

There is, however, one major difference. Human capital is by definition always social and contextual. The capabilities of the members of a team are worth more together than when applied alone. With context-specific human capital, the productivity of a particular individual depends not just on being part of a community, but on being part of a particular group engaged in a particular task. The contextual and social aspects of business matter much more than we have understood.

The ten principles of digital work, the new standards, that the leaders acknowledged:

  1. informed free choice, rather than compliance, is the basis for decisions
  2. active participation, rather than passively accepting instructions, is the basis of growth and development
  3. work activities are carried out within a framework of personal responsibility and goals for self-direction rather than direction from outside
  4. activities are carried out in a transparent way with the goal of distributing the cognitive load of work rather than work being based on reductionist principles and social isolation
  5. one is responsible for one’s own actions rather than being responsible to someone else
  6. a worker is engaging in complex, responsive activities with others in contrast with engaging in closed repetitions of the same activity
  7. the network, rather than offices or organizational hierarchies, is the main architecture of work
  8. productivity is a result of creative learning rather than doing more of the same. Increasing the quality and speed of learning matter more than increasing the quantitative output of work
  9. knowledge work can be understood as investments of human capital following the same logic we have used to understand financial investments. Workers should share the responsibilities and possible upsides that used to belong only to the investors of financial capital.
  10. knowledge work is about interdependent people in interaction. Intelligence, competence and learning are not any more about the attributes and qualities of individuals but about the attributes and quality of interaction

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The impact of technology on industrial jobs.

The future of ICT?

Industrial work clearly determined the tasks that had to be done. The machine and the ways to work with the machine were given. People served the machine. Workers did not need to be concerned and feel responsible for the results. They just did what they were told.

Knowledge work is very different. The first thing for a knowledge worker is to try to answer these questions:  What am I here for? What is my responsibility? What should I achieve? What should I do next? Key questions for a knowledge worker have to do with how to do things and what tools to use. This time, the machines, the tools, need to serve the worker. It is, in fact, a change from only following instructions to also writing the instructions.

Historians claim that the invention of the printing press led to a society of readers, not a society of writers despite the huge potential of the new technology. Access to printing presses was a much, much harder and more expensive thing than access to books. Broadcasting systems such as radio and television continued the same pattern. People were not active producers, but passive receivers.

Computer literacy or the idea of being a digital native still often follow the same model. In practice it means the capability to use the given tools of a modern workplace – or a modern home. But literacy to just use, to be the consumer of, the technologies and the programs is not what we need. The perspective of the consumer/user was the perspective of the industrial age. Success meant learning how to behave in the way the machine needed you to behave.

That should not be the goal today.

As a result of Internet-based ICT we have learned how to speak and how to listen; we have learned how to write and how to read. But in the digital world, it is not enough if we know how to use the programs, if we don’t know how to make them.

We are typically always one step behind what technology can offer. We can now participate actively through tweets, status updates and profile pages, but the thing to remember is that somebody else has made the programs that make it possible. And often the real goal of that somebody is to create a new advertising model. Nothing wrong with that.

The underlying capability of the knowledge era is programming, not reading or writing. It is a change from using things to making things. Creating things for yourself and sharing them.

I have met many people who think that programming is a kind of a modern version of a working-class skill. It can well be outsourced to some far-away, poor nation while we here do higher value things. Nothing could be further from the truth, more wrong, and more dangerous for us. Today the code is the main domain of creativity and innovations. It is a new language. Writing code is the number one high leverage activity in a creative, digital society.

The primary capability of the knowledge era is not using computers, but programming computers. It is not using software, but writing software.

Mitch Resnick talks about the new challenge: “After people have learned to read they can read to learn. And after people have learned to code, they can code to learn.”

It is time for a human response to technology.

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Thank you Mika Okkola

More on the subject: On software productivity. The Finnish ICT 2015 report. How to start learning programming. Codecademy. Linda Liukas. The Estonian approach. On GitHub. On data democracy.

Productivity revolutions and the most misunderstood man in history

Few figures in the history of management have had a greater impact than Frederick Winslow Taylor. The irony is that there have also been few who have been so greatly misunderstood and so gravely misquoted.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was born in 1856 to a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Poor eyesight forced the very talented young man to give up on the idea of going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer like his father. Instead, almost by accident, he went to work in a pump-manufacturing company whose owners were friends of the Taylor family. At that time, industrial work was far beneath the attention and interest of wealthy and educated people. Taylor, very exceptionally, started as a manual worker and gained shop-floor experience. He experienced the factory conditions personally and saw from the inside what was going on. As a result, he was the very first person to talk openly about poor manual work efficiency. What ultimately started his study of work was not interest in productivity, but his disgust with the growing hatred between employers and employees. Taylor thought, contrary to Karl Marx, that this conflict was unnecessary.

His mission was to make workers more productive so that they could earn more money. In contrast to what many writers claim, Taylor’s main motivation was not efficiency, but the creation of a society in which owners and workers had a common interest.

It did not go very well.

Workers unions at the time were craft monopolies. Membership was often restricted to the sons and relatives of existing members. They required an apprenticeship of many years and had no systematic training. At that time, you were not allowed to write down instructions. Some historians claim that normally there were not even drawings of the work to be done. It was widely accepted that there was a mystique to craft skills. The members were sworn to secrecy and were not permitted to discuss their work with non-members. Before Taylor, people took it for granted that it took years and years of experience before you could turn out high quality products.

Taylor’s crime in the eyes of the unions was his revolutionary idea that there is no skilled work based on some mystique, there is just work. All manual work could be studied and divided into series of repetitive motions that could be taught and learned. Work-related training was a genuine innovation. Any worker who was willing to be educated and followed the “one right way” of doing things should be called a “first-class” worker deserving a first-class pay. This was much more than the worker got during their long years of apprenticeship.

Taylor offended everybody.

He also insulted the owners. Among other things, he publicly called them “hogs”. The biggest insult was that the authority in the plants should not be based on ownership but on something he called superior knowledge. Taylor insisted that the workers should also benefit from the increased productivity that his scientific management produced. He wrote in 1911: “The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity of the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee”.

He was the first person to demand that managers should be educated. He thought that management should be a profession and managers should be professionals. This led the owners’ associations to  attack him bitterly as a socialist and a troublemaker. Again he was seen as a criminal!

But he was right! The application of knowledge to manual work created a tremendous boost in productivity. By the 1940s Scientific Management had swept the industrialized world despite the early resistance. As a result the workers, rather than the capitalists were the true beneficiaries of the industrial revolution that was changing society.

The working class largely became transformed  into a new social structure and true social innovation, the middle class.

When Taylor started working, nine out of ten people were manual workers. Today, nine out of ten people are knowledge workers. We ask some of the same questions, but the world is totally different. Taylor’s revolutionary ideas are over 100 years old. His thinking was based on Newtonian mechanics and his ways of understanding human behavior are not up to the task any more.

Scientific Management as a concept is not only unhelpful, but totally outdated.

Still the struggles we face with productivity may be the same. If you look at what the labor unions and employers’ organizations are opposing today, you may find the seeds for the next revolution in productivity.

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Resource library. Peter Drucker on HBR.

Redesigning work

Corporations as we know them arose around 150 years ago. They were modelled on the most successful organization of the time – the army. The army was then, out of necessity, based on a familiar management model: a few well-trained people at the top commanded a very large number of unskilled people, the “employees”, who were drilled in a few repetitive motions.

This organizational model reached its peak around the time of the Second World War. By that time it had become clear that the command and control organization was rapidly becoming outdated, even for the needs of the army. It was actually in the military that the transformation towards the knowledge worker paradigm first began. Contrary to mainstream thinking, there are examples of armed forces developing furthest from being based on command and control to being based on knowledge and responsibility.

Just as industrial society became a society of corporations, it developed into a society of employers and employees. These were two different ways to explain the same phenomenon. An employee is by definition somebody who is dependent on access to an organization, access to an employer.

Many people still think that one can only work if there is an organization – a “machine” to operate.

Corporate ICT systems are the machines of today. They are too often used in essentially the same way as machines were used in factories. Machine operators in the factory did as they were told. The machine dictated not only what to do but how to do things. The worker was dependent on the machine and served the machine.

To become a social business and to improve the productivity of work will require very different thinking and big changes to ICT-systems, management, and even, the structure of society. In knowledge work the “machines” necessarily have to serve the workers. It is the knowledge workers who decide what to do next and how to do it.

Economic theory and industrial management practice see workers as a cost. A social business, wanting to increase productivity, has to consider knowledge workers as a capital asset. There is a huge difference. Costs need to be reduced, but assets need to be made to grow.

Our present system of industrial management creates systemic inefficiency in knowledge-based work. It can only be removed if the knowledge worker’s role includes a more active responsibility leading to responsive, agile practices. This cannot be achieved unless our mental constructs and the societal structure of work changes radically.

We should ask whether the current social construct of employers and employees is inevitable for some reason, or whether it is a social artefact that is over 100 years old, and should be redesigned.

The change would mean that employees/knowledge workers would explicitly bear the entrepreneurial responsibility for the success or failure of the company, as they do anyway in the end, and, additionally, benefit from any possible upside, just as shareholders do.

From the point of view of corporate governance, it would mean that companies should be run in the interests of workers, as much as in the interests of their owners. That’s what the change from command and control to knowledge and responsibility really means.

And that’s what is needed to become a social business.

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Every young person is an entrepreneur now” and a short video presentation by Peter Senge.