Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Month: March, 2015

The future of jobs: not being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either

Just as industrial society became a society of corporations, it developed into a society of employers and employees. These were two different ways of looking at the same phenomenon, jobs. Almost all economic theories have made, and still make, the same assumption: the employer — employee relationship is necessary to create jobs. We have taken that relationship as given.

Traditional management thinking sets employee goals and business goals against each other. The manager is free to choose the goals, but the employee is only free to follow or not to follow the given goals. This is why employee advocates mainly want responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants skilled employees who do what they are told, nothing else.

The other assumption that is taken for granted is that it is the independentemployer/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 as being autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent, entities. People are not really people, but resources.

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.

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

Industrial workers used to do as they were told. This now creates a systemic inefficiency. Today, knowledge workers should negotiate solutions in active interaction with their peers. We also used to think that organizations outlived workers. The organization came first, and people served the organization. Today, workers’ careers outlive organizations, profoundly challenging our thinking.

We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses. The aim should not be a set of shared goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both.

We need to study the intersection of corporate strategy and personal narrative. Work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership.

This is where the biggest changes are taking place in the world of work. Instead of the industrial era’s generalizations and abstractions about what skills everybody should have, or what steps everybody should take, it is now time to cultivate a deep understanding of the context, the unique, particular situation you are in. Who are you and where do you come from? What kind of relations are the building blocks of your life?

Reflecting on your reality should be the starting point of any effort to find a job or to create work. Unfortunately, this is where we are often at our weakest. It did not matter in the past because most decisions were made for us. But now people can, and must, choose. Companies are not managing their employees’ long-term careers any more. Workers must be their own HRD professionals. With opportunity comes new responsibility. It is up to the worker to construct the narrative of (working) life, to know what to contribute, when to change course, and how to keep engaged  for much longer than we have been used to. It may be a life that is not quite like being an employee, but not quite like being a contractor either. To make the right decisions, you have to develop a new understanding of yourself and what you are actually up to in life.

The new task is to choose work commitments on the basis of our own particular strengths and our own sense of purpose and belonging, not just on having some free time and wanting to earn some extra money for Uber. That is not what being independent, being your own boss, really means.

We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? Perhaps following your unique intentions, hopes, and wishes for the future, in everything you do? Instead of thinking about what employers want, you’re better off conceiving a match between what you want and what customers want.

Disrupting Unemployment

The concepts that govern our thinking and language in relation to work are not just semantic entities, but influence what we perceive and what we think is possible or not possible. Usually we are not aware of how these concepts prime our thinking. We simply think and act along certain lines.

A seminal concept related to how we perceive work is the division of labor, the notion of work as activities separated from other activities, as jobs. The industrial management paradigm is based on the presupposition that activities are the independent governing factors of creating value. The organizational structure of jobs comes first. Then an appropriate system of co-ordination and communication is put into effect. The scheme of interaction conforms to the planned division of labor as a secondary feature.

What if the increasing global competition, the Internet and the huge advances in communication technologies made it possible, or even necessary, to think differently? What if interaction was seen as the governing factor? The smartphone has now become information technology’s key product. Surely, then, it has an impact on the way we work. As jobs and communication are mutually dependent, it means that if there are changes in interaction, so the activities will change.

In the mainstream conceptual model of communication (Shannon & Weaver 1948) a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate back into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough. The meaning is in the words.

Amazingly, our conceptualization of value creation has followed the very same model. Companies transform ideas into offerings that are delivered to customers. At the receiving end, the products translate back into the same value that the company has created. The meaning is in the product.

Management scholars have lately made interesting claims saying that although the product is the same, different customers experience the value potential of the product differently. They say that it is in fact wrong to say that companies create value. It is the way the offering is contextually experienced and used that creates value, more value or less value. The bad news is that our present conceptualizations of work make it very hard to do anything about it. The good news is that for the first time in history we can do something about it. Companies can connect with users and be digitally present when and where their products are used.

Tor Arne

But we need a new conceptualization of communication if we want to have a new conceptualization of work. Luckily, there is one. A completely different approach to communication exists. The alternative view is based on the work of George Herbert Mead. This model does not see communication as messages that are transmitted between senders and receivers, but as complex social action.

In the social act model, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning of the gesture can only be known from the response, not from the words. There is no deterministic causality, no transmission, from the gesture to the response. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning of the gesture is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning of the gesture is contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one social act, from which meaning emerges.

Gestures call forth responses and products call forth and evoke responses. Value lies not in the product but in the (customer) response. Accordingly, work should then be conceptualized as an interactive process, a social act, because the value of work cannot be known in the separate “job” activity or be understood through the capabilities of the worker.

If we subscribe to this relational view, it means that people and actions are simultaneously forming and being formed by each other at the same time, all the time, in interaction. Perhaps in the future it will not be meaningful to conceptualize work as jobs or even as organizational (activity) structures like the firms of today. Work will be described as complex patterns of communicative interaction between interdependent individuals.

All interacting imposes constraints on those relating, while at the same time enabling those people to do what they could not otherwise do. Enabling and energizing patterns of interaction may be the most important raison d’être of work.

The relational view is a new conceptualization of work, potentially opening up new opportunities to disrupt unemployment. Perhaps it is time to change the focus from creating jobs to creating customers – in new, innovative ways. To quote Max Planck: “If you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change.”

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Thank you Katri Saarikivi