Gregory Bateson wrote that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think. Mainstream economics still sees the economy and society as ultimately predictable and controllable (machines), although the repeated financial crises have shown how deeply flawed this view of the world is.
Luckily, during 2013, more scholars than ever before saw organizations as being more analogous to nature. There, it is not about predictions and control, but about perpetual co-creation, complex responsive processes and fundamental interdependence. Their claim is that we should study links and interactions. Many aspects of our social and economic world would start to look completely different from this complex network perspective.
2013 also brought us closer to understanding how work itself is changing.
Knowledge work is creative work we do in interaction. Unlike the business processes we know so well, where tangible inputs are acted on in some predictable, structured way and converted into outputs, the inputs and outputs of knowledge work are ideas, information and decisions. Even more, there are no predetermined task sequences that, if executed, would guarantee success. Knowledge work is characterized by variety and exception rather than routine. It is thus impossible to separate a knowledge process from its outcomes. Knowledge work is not “just work”, a means to doing something else! Knowledge work is about human beings being more intensely present. Thus, a business today needs to be human-centric – by definition.
The good news then, is the advances during 2013 in network theory and knowledge work practices. The bad news, as we now look ahead to 2014, is that today we are as far from being human-centric, as we have been for ages. As one example, people still tend to see their work and personal lives as two separate spheres. Although this conflict is widely recognized, it is seen as an individual challenge, a private responsibility to manage.
It is now time to challenge this and see the conflict as a systemic problem. It is a result of the factory logic, which saw human beings as controllable resources and interchangeable parts of the main thing, the production machinery. The context and logic of work are dramatically different today. In knowledge work we need to create an explicit, new connection between work and personal life. We talked earlier about balancing work and life. Here we are talking about connecting work and life in a new way, with a new agenda. Human beings are the main thing.
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 socially responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants committed employees who come to work with enthusiasm and energy. Must we then choose between the goals of the people or the goals of the business, or can the two sides be connected? As we know, passion and commitment are best mobilized in response to personal aspirations, not financial rewards. We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses! The aim, however, is not to have a single set of common goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both!
Linking personal lives with corporate issues may seem like an unexpected, or even unnecessary connection. But if we don’t learn from network theory and knowledge work practices, and continue to deal with each area separately, both individuals and organizations will suffer. The lack of a connecting agenda may also be one of the big challenges facing the emerging post-industrial society.
We need to study the intersection of business strategy and personal narrative and use the new agenda to challenge our industrial age practices and flawed ways of thinking. Knowledge work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership. We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? This may be the next frontier of social business. More on this next year!
Christmas is a special time for family and friends. Perhaps the rest of the year can also be made very special through rethinking and reinventing some of the basic beliefs we have about work!
Happy New Year!
Thank you Deborah Kolb, Lotte Bailyn, Paul Ormerod, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey, Joyce K Fletcher, Doug Griffin, Kim Weckström and Katri Saarikivi
More on the subject:
Futurice. A company that is already in the future. HBR: “To Optimize Talent Management, Question Everything” HBR: “The Ideas that Shaped Management in 2013” “Essential Zen Habits” “The Third Way of Work” “a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done” “Bring Your Own Device is really Bring Your Own Mind” “work is you, you are the work. So what is the future of You?“