The future of (knowledge) work

Note: This is the first part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. I started writing the following to explore a vague idea and see where it might take me, and first stopped writing when it was roughly three thousand words. At that length it was quite a bit weightier than the average blog post – and far too long to read in a lunch break – so I’ve decided to break it into a number of smaller. The first is below, and you can find the other issues – Knowledge workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

What impact will social media have on how you run your business? It’s being touted as everything from a better form of groupware or the next step in the evolution of work management — a new layer on the technology stack that’s starting to be called human interaction management{{1}} (HIM), sitting on top of, and bringing together, BPM, workflow and case management — through to a wholesale transformation of the way your business operates and is organized. Reality (as usual) rests somewhere between the two extremes.

[[1]]Human Interaction Management[[1]]

Are the inmates taking over the asylum?

Social media (Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Social Business Design, and so on) seem to be triggering a change in the command and control structures that we have traditionally used to manage our companies. There is an ongoing discussion within the human resources community concerning what form our future organizations will take{{2}}. The key drivers are streamlined communication from social media, both within and without the organization, and the empowerment of the frontline and delegation of authority due to the increasing need to solve problems promptly within a local context.

[[2]]“Social” is now HR’s baby (sorry Marketing Department) @ Fistful of Talent[[2]]

Old power structures seem – in some cases – to be in the process of being inverted as the people at the front line find that they are now better informed and equipped than their management to solve the majority of the problems confronting the business. If people are your most important asset, then we might just be standing at the start of a revolution as the workers realize that they really do control the means of production.

Wholesale revolution is unlikely though. While employees might be an important asset, and one that has a significant impact on the overall performance of your organization, they are not the asset a business is built to support{{3}}. For many organizations the best result is usually to remove the people, such as with lights-out factories, or some of the new SaaS plays which are replacing people-driven BPO with automated self-service solutions. The dirty secret of Enterprise 2.0 is that it’s being used the same way as every other technology to date: it’s being used to remove people from the equation.

[[3]]Why Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design might be of marginal utility for most of us @ PEG[[3]]

On the other hand, it has become obvious that social media is having an effect on our organizations. A key assumption behind most organizational structures is that information is rare and expensive to obtain, pushing us to create organizations that gather information from the front line and aggregate it up to the CEO. This also means that information is the currency of company politics. However, with social media and the Internet information is now – on the whole – cheap and easily obtainable. Controlling the flow of information is no longer possible, leading us to think some amount of disruption of the current order is inevitable as the old power dynamics are destroyed and new ones formed.

One thing is clear though: we need to think about work – and the teams and organizations we construct to support it – differently. The formal, siloed structures we find in many organizations don’t map well to the more dynamic environment that social media is bringing to business. Many businesses now have more in common with the British Civil Service in India – flat structures where the people at the coal face work largely under their own direction, collaborating with others as required – than the vertically integrated titans of industry from recent time.

Computer: an electronic device for storing and processing data

Companies have changed dramatically since the days when the term computer referred to someone who manually computed mathematical functions. Technology has slashed the number of people required to support most, if not all, tasks in the enterprise, making today’s companies dramatically smaller and more agile than their forebears. What used to take rooms full of people now needs – at the most – a small team. This is true across the full depth and breadth of our organizations, from the mailroom and typing pool, finance calculating the payroll through to the production floor in the factory.

Williamina Fleming (standing) with her computers in the late 1800s

Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911, standing) with her computers in the astronomy department at Harvard in the late 1800s, hired to carry out the mathematical calculations required to classify stars.

Not only has the volume of manual work changed, but the nature of that work has also changed with it. We used to deploy our employees to run the business, focused on the carrying out the plethora of operational tasks required to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Automation through technology has largely taken care of this.

With payroll and the shop floor dealt with, our employees are now more concerned with improving and guiding the business. For many companies the center of gravity of their workforce has shifted away from operations, moving to roles more concerned with the performance of the business: supervisory, design, business improvement and customer engagement.

Supermarkets, for example, have been hollowed out by modern management practices. In the past, store managers were masters of their own domain, held accountable for profit-and-loss and not much else. Today, the only real freedom many store managers have is in hiring the team who staff the checkouts, and keeping them motivated. The vast majority of decisions required to run the store have either been pulled up to head office (such as store layout and pricing moving to a centralized category management team{{4}}) or delegated to suppliers or the staff at the front line{{5}} (determining when to restock, for example).

[[4]]What is Category Management @ Category Management Association[[4]]
[[5]]What we’re doing today is not what we did yesterday @ PEG[[5]]

This makes projects the focus of many modern workplaces: projects to improve systems and processes, projects to bring new products to market, projects to expand into new territories, projects to optimize our product portfolio, and so on. One of the main short-term drivers for adopting social media in the enterprise is supporting work in these projects by providing the workers within them with a better way collaborating and searching for answers to the problems they have.

However, while the demand for work on projects has grown, the size of the teams required to deliver our projects has shrunk. Initiatives which required one hundred people and a billion dollar investments in the fifties, sixties and seventies, can now be delivered by team sizes in the low double digits, if not less than ten people.

The number and variety of careers – the professional community – supported by these projects has shrunk in response. This started with the specialists, but soon moved on to more general disciplines. For example IT platforms and frameworks used in the enterprise today have eliminated much of the need for specific technical specialists (there’s not much requirement for a distributed transaction specialist on most projects now). Some of the new frameworks eliminate the need for even quite common skills, as with databases and Ruby on Rails.

Flat, but not quite flat as it could be

Social media – as with many of the technologies preceding it – streamlines previously manual tasks by capturing knowledge in a form where it is easily reusable, shareable and transferable. What is different this time is that social media is focused on the communication between individuals, rather than the tasks these individuals work on. By simplifying the process of staying in touch and collaborating with a large number of people it enables us to flatten our organizations even further, putting the C-suite directly in contact with the front line.

This is having the obvious effect on companies, eliminating the need for many of the bureaucrats in our organizations; people whose main role is to manage communication (or communication, command and control, C3, in military parlance{{6}}). The big winners from social media will not be, as we first thought, those white-collar knowledge workers who spend their days herding those at the coalface, crafting policies, and worrying about organizational dynamics. The winners will be the team at the frontline and C-suite, as they both bypass the (soon to be removed) mid-level functionaries and engage with each other directly{{7}}.

[[6]]C3 defined @ Wikipedia[[6]]
[[7]]Rise of the task-worker 2.0 @ PEG[[7]]

The net effect of all this is that our organizations and teams are being hollowed out as the middle layers are replaced with software{{8}}. To some extent the chickens have come home to roost; technologies that replaced the people at the operational coalface are now being used to replace the people in the project teams that brought these technologies to the enterprise in the first instance.

[[8]]The IT department we have today is not the IT department we’ll have tomorrow @ PEG[[8]]

Continued in Knowledge workers in the British Raj.

Posted under: Business-Technology, Enterprise 2.0, Mailing List

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