Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

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

Tag: work

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.

Work in the Machine Age  –  Humans Need to Apply

The oft-quoted proof of the rise of machines making human work obsolete is games in which humans lose to computers. This happened in checkers in 1994. It happened in chess 1997. Now computers match humans in Scrabble, backgammon, poker, and even Jeopardy. There is still one exception, “Go”. Why is that? What is so special about Go? The game is similar to Chess in many ways, it is a “deterministic, perfect information game”, meaning a game where no information is hidden from either player, and there are no built-in elements of chance, such as throwing a die. But there are some interesting differences.

For the first move in chess, the player has twenty choices. In typical chess positions there will be around 30-plus possible moves. A typical game lasts about 40 moves before the resignation of one party.

Go players begin with a choice of 55 possible moves. This number rises quickly and soon almost all of the 361 points of the board must be evaluated. Some are much more popular than others, some are almost never played, but all are possible. That makes for 129,960 possible board positions after just the first round of moves. A typical game of Go lasts about 200 moves. As a game of chess progresses, as well as in many other games such as checkers, pieces disappear from the board, simplifying the game. Go begins with an empty board. Each new Go move adds new complexities and possibilities to the situation. The key here is the number of choices available.

The more choices there are, the harder it gets for computers.

The industrial logic was most vividly captured in the idea of the value chain. Value-creating activities were sequential, unidirectional and linear. Those performing the following task must comply with the constraints imposed by the execution of the preceding task. The reverse cannot normally take place. The architecture consists of tightly coupled tasks and predetermined, repeating activities. The output of one task was the input of another. If-this-then-that. Work was algorithmic.

Workers in industrial-age firms were used to the rules that limited choices. The burden of decision making, with the consequent need to communicate and gather costly information, was minimized. Furthermore, by narrowing the scope of choices, the learning requirements for workers were limited. In part, the efficiency-enhancing contribution of mass-production was derived from these lower learning costs.

Work has been designed as a very, very simple game.

Is it then fair to draw the conclusion that the microchip may well replace the human race? Or have we just designed human work plain wrong? Could we, and should we, change the rules of our game?

The most important reason why we need a new concept of work/games is because the players and their contributions in the real world are, at best, too diverse to rank. They are, and should be, too qualitatively different to compare quantitatively as labor. Unlike mechanical systems, human systems thrive on variety and diversity. An exact replication of behavior in nature would be disastrous and seen as neurotic in social life.

The problem we face today is not in the capabilities of humans but in the outdated and limiting conceptualization of work. Work as we know it is mainly designed for machines, not for human beings.

Human life is non-deterministic, full of uncertainty, unknowns and surprises. Creative learning is the fundamental process of socialization and being a human. For a human being, the number of choices or moves in the game of life, in any situation, is unlimited. This is the very hard to copy difference between men and machines.

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The wiki way of working

Physical tasks can normally be broken up in a reductionist way. Bigger tasks can be divided by assigning people to different smaller parts of the whole. For intellectual tasks, it is much harder to find parts that make for an efficient workflow. Intellectual tasks are by default complex and linked. Knowledge work is a social construct.

The machine metaphor led to the belief that if we can only arrange the parts in the right way, we optimize efficiency. The demands of work are different now: how efficient an organization is reflects the number of links people have and the quality of the links they have to the contexts of value, the things that matter.

How many handshakes separate them from one another and from the things that matter most? We are beginning to see the world in terms of  relations.

We have examples of new social architectures that redefine some basic beliefs about work and cooperation between people.

At the moment the wiki is the best departure from the division of labor and workflows. Wikis let people work digitally together in the very same way they would work face-to-face. In a physical meeting, there are always more or less the wrong people present and the transaction costs are very high. Unlike email, which pushes copies of the same information to people to work on or edit separately, a wiki pulls non co-located people together to work cooperatively, and with very low transaction costs. Email and physical meetings are methods which exclude. They always leave people out. A wiki, depending on the topic, the context and the people taking part, is always inviting and including. The goal is to enable groups to form around shared contexts without preset organizational walls, or rules of engagement.

In 1995 Ward Cunningham described his invention as the simplest online database that could possibly work. An important principle of the wiki is the conscious emphasis on using as little structure as possible to get the job done. A wiki does not force a hierarchy on people. In this case, less structure and less hierarchy mean lower transaction costs. A wiki always starts out flat, with all the pages on the same level. This allows people to dynamically create the organization and, yes, also the hierarchy that makes most sense in the situation at hand.

People work together to reach a balance of different viewpoints through interaction as they iterate the content of work. The wiki way of working is essentially a digital and more advanced version of a meeting or a workshop. It enables multiple people to inhabit the same space, see the same thing and participate freely. Some might just listen, some make comments or small edits, while others might make more significant contributions and draw more significant conclusions.

New work is about responsive, free and voluntary participation by people who contribute as little, or as much as they like, and who are motivated by something much more elusive than only money. Society has moved away from the era of boxes to the time of networks and linked, social individualism. Being connected to people, also from elsewhere, is a cultural necessity and links, not boxes, are the new texture of value creation.

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