Tag Archives: The future of (knowledge) work

Problems and the people who solve them

Note: This is the sixth and final part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work, Knowledge Workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood and World of Warcraft in the workplace – elsewhere on this blog.

What impact will Social Media have on your business? Is it evolution, revolution, or a non-event? It’s hard to deny that Social Media is changing how we understand the role of government, and how we interact on the social commons. But what is its impact on the private sphere: the gated communities which are our businesses and organizations? Some folk claim that we’ll see a similar shift in the private sphere as we’re seeing in the public one. A revolution in the workplace as the workers realize that they really do control production, downing tools in search of a better deal and conditions.

This point of view ignores two key facts. First, that private spaces are, by their nature, more flexible than public as we are free to define who can inhabit them. Revolution is unlikely. Business owners still need someone to hold accountable for the performance and behavior of their businesses, just as regulators and governments want to ensure that someone in the organisation is on the hook for meeting their demands. Management will continue to manage, and to be held accountable, no matter how empowered the workforce becomes{{1}}. Second, that the technologies we’re deploying don’t just change how we carry out the tasks our businesses needs, as they also change what tasks we need to carry out. There is no reason for tomorrow’s organizations to operate within the same framework that yesterday’s ones did.

[[1]]The future of (knowledge) work @ PEG[[1]]

The nature of work is changing, and the shift in work practices looks like it will be comparable to the shift we saw during the Industrial Revolution – between the 18th and 19th centuries – when almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. Before the Industrial Revolution people worked from their homes, farming or blacksmithing as the need arose, and the concept of work-life balance hadn’t found its way into the dictionary. After the revolution most people worked in vast bureaucracies, leaving home every morning to travel to work (or, early on, living in vast company owned dormitories next to their work) and fit themselves to into the tasks demanded of them.

The Industrial Revolution gave us Taylorism, a view of business which equates the organization to a vast programmable machine. Businesses were inward looking, intent on improving their internal operations. Optimizing business was the challenge of defining the perfect sequence of tasks, each carefully sculpted to deliver maximum value at minimum cost, and then selecting and shaping employees to fit the tasks.

The environment business operates in today has changed dramatically since Frederick Taylor created scientific management. The world used to be fairly stable; you wore the same clothing styles (more or less) as your parents before you, as would your children following after. Today, however, the environment changes significantly every year, if not every month or week. Nowhere is this more evident than with the creation of fast fashion, with Zara flipping the company’s supply chain on it head to optimise time from runway to shelf rather than cost, swapping the seasonal fashion collection for a constant stream of new products and driving new customer behaviours in the process.

The stability business used to rely on has given way to a more uncertain environment; the predictable progression of the business seasons in a temperate climate exchanged for the unexpected and often unpredictable storms and hurricanes of a more tropical clime{{2}}. Our success used to rely on the quality of our toolkits – the business processes and assets at the heart of our business – as it is these toolkits that enabled us to survive the steady progression of the seasons. Today our success relies on our skill – our ability to leverage the on-demand services and capabilities we find around us – as it is our ability to adapt these tools we find around us to the unexpected threat or opportunity, that now determines our success.

[[2]]The North-South divide @ PEG[[2]]

The old, highly specialized and highly entailed experts we used to rely on are rapidly becoming a liability, and we’re incrementally replacing specialized skills with solutions, frameworks and on-demand services. From IBM’s first election toting machines built with repurposed punchcard readers from knitting mills, through early departmental computers (such a L.E.O., the Lyon’s Electronic Office) to the birth of enterprise IT (and client-server along with it) and more recent web technologies, the history of technology in business has been a story of slowly reifying layers of expertise in tools, enabling this expertise to be distributed and leveraged. Social Media is just the latest step in this evolution, the key difference being that it automates and streamlines the communication and collaboration between individuals, rather than tasks that these individuals work on.

Our companies are being hollowed out, their middle layers of management replaced by software and solutions. Rather than empowering middle management, Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design is eliminating them. Social Media is empowering the team at the front line and the executive to connect directly with each other, bypassing the many layers of middle management most organizations contain. They’re externally focused – the front line intent on tending our customers and delivering product, the executive focused on understanding the waves in the market and charting the business’s path forward – where middle management was internally focused, concerned with keeping the bureaucracy functioning, a bureaucracy that many organizations are in the process of dismantling. Similar to the rural Indian civil service in the British Raj{{3}}, we’re moving to flat, or even super-flat, organizational structures which swap the command-and-control of the past for clear objectives and the devolution of responsibility for decisions to the front line.

[[3]]Knowledge workers in the British Raj @ PEG[[3]]

Tomorrow’s business, after it has adopted Social Media, will not just be a new command-and control paradigm (bottom-up rather than top-down, distributed rather than centralized) retrofitted to our existing bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s business will be something different, smaller and much leaner, built from dynamically forming coalitions focused on achieving a common goal. The highly skilled specialists concerned with building the complex toolkits will become a thing of the past.

The transformation from large bureaucratic organizations to more fluid coalitions will result in a similar shift in work practices as we saw during the Industrial Revolution. We can already this the beginnings of this with companies starting to understand that their knowledge workers prefer to supply their own tools (such as mobile phones and laptops), as well as the current trend for organisations to restructure their contracts with suppliers, focusing on the outcome they want delivered rather than quality and cost. Smaller workforces holding more general skills will integrate themselves with a community of partners, suppliers and high value free agents, with the company functioning in a similar way to the studios in modern Hollywood{{4}}. The company sets the agenda by determining what problems it wants to focus on, while providing its staff and the broader community swirling around them with a platform to dynamically form teams around specific challenges and goals, World of Warcraft style{{5}}. Rather than defining the perfect task and then fitting the employee to the task, we need to define our goal and then assemble the perfect team to achieve that goal.

[[4]]Working in Hollywood @ PEG[[4]]
[[5]]World of Warcraft in the workplace @ PEG[[5]]

The most significant shift for our businesses is the transition from being knowledge using organizations, to knowledge creating organizations. While the world might be flat (as Thomas Friedman showed us{{6}}), with globalization and the Internet providing on-demand access to low cost products and services from around the globe, the world is also spikey (as Richard Florida claims{{7}}) as the need for localized and personalised services drive demand for unique and creative solutions which fit into a local context. The winners in this race will be the businesses that can marry the two.

[[6]]Thomas L. Friedman (2005), The World if Flat, Farrar, Straus & Giroux [[6]]
[[7]]Richard Florida (2005), The World is Spikey, The Atlantic [PDF][[7]]

Which brings us back to the impact of social media on your organization. It’s not a revolution that will remove the need for the C-level; someone still needs to sign the books and be held accountable to shareholders. Social media might tip the balance a little toward a more collective form of management, but it will not rewrite the rules overnight. Nor is it little more than better and more efficient groupware. Creating a social business is not simply rearranging the people (and power dynamics) or your existing business; it demands smaller, more dynamic teams with more potent and focused team members who might not be on your payroll full time.

What Social Media is doing is driving organizations to complete the shift started in the last few decades, moving from manufacturing centric enterprises to knowledge creating organisations.

The basic economic resource – ”the means of production,” to use the economist’s term – is no longer capital, nor natural resources (the economist’s “land”), nor “labor.” It is and will be knowledge. The central wealth-creating activities will be neither the allocation of capital to productive uses, nor “labor” – the two poles of nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic theory, whether classical, Marxist, Keynesian, or neo-classical. Value is now created by “productivity” and “innovation,” both applications of knowledge to work.

— Peter Drucker, The Post-Capitalist Society{{8}}

[[8]]Peter Drucker (1993), The Post-Capitalist Society, HarperCollins[[8]]

Historically companies have provided a locus to gather the capital, resources and skills required to provide the scale needed to manufacture products cheaply and efficiently. Today problems, the problems of our clients and customers, are increasingly becoming the focus of our organizations, as capital, resources and skills are commoditized, caught between globalization and the Internet. The strongest determinant of success in business today is the ability to solve problems that other people (and organizations) care about. Companies are transitioning from an internal focus to an external focus, intent on gathering the skilled craftsmen required to deliver the projects needed to solve the problems that the company concerns itself with. Companies are becoming the focal point for a network for skilled craftsmen and service providers who are required to solve the problems that the organisation is interested in.

Business is increasingly becoming a question of forming the right team, at the right time, in the right place, with the right tools to provide the best possible outcome. We’re also trying to achieve this in an environment where it is no longer feasible to own all the resources and people we need. Consequentially, success now depends on our ability to mobilize the resources and skills we need from across a broader network that includes not only our (few) employees, but our contractors, partners and even customers. Social media and social business are the tools that allow us to tweak our operating models to do this.

So the impact of social media on our businesses is to strip them back to their cores and (re)focus their energies on what really matters in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment: problems and the people who solve them.

World of Warcraft in the workplace

Note: This is the fifth part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work, Knowledge Workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide and Working in Hollywood – and the final issue – Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

What does our organization look like when the middle layers are removed? How does a team form and establish it’s goals in a world where there is no middle management to do it for them?

Companies find themselves caught between the conflicting needs of working smarter while keeping costs down. Creating a competitive edge means finding the high-value skills required to out think the competition, and they’re willing to pay a premium for the privilege. At the same time, an increasingly competitive market is pushing revenues down, creating a financial void that will most likely consume the margins and mid level management of many organization.

A new business dynamic is emerging, one which is much more fluid as it’s based on networks of organizations and high-value individuals – much like the industry model Hollywood stumbled on during the transition to television in the fifties. Companies in industries as diverse as automotive, banking, retail, and real estate are responding to the new recession mentality by focusing on their core competencies and value- add, driving these organizations to consolidate, rationalize and externalize supporting functions, as they rely on a growing ecosystem of partners to deliver everything from their go- to-market strategies through product development to manufacturing and fulfillment.

Slaying dragons

In 2010 something in the order of eleven and a half million people, broken into two factions, completed over sixteen million tasks every day without the aid of a bureaucracy, spending an average of twenty two hours a week dynamically forming teams and solving problems. How did they do it?

With a population greater than that of New York City, World of Warcraft provides us with an interesting case study of how to motivate and mobilize large groups of people. Management experts, such as Tom Peters, consider the ideal size of an organization to be around one hundred and fifty people, as beyond this size, knowing everybody in person becomes impossible. Above one hundred and fifty people intermediate layers of power and delegation begin to develop and companies enter the realm of complication. World of Warcraft seems to indicate that this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

Many organizations are struggling to successfully knit focused and effective teams from the incoherent mass of individuals both in and outside their organizations. Entire industries are migrating to an operating model which has more in common with the fluid and dynamic film industry in Hollywood, than they do with the 1800s railway companies from which they are derived. Companies are beginning to function like movie studios; externalizing supporting functions such as production and distribution to allow them to focus on identifying worthy stories in their genre of interest, or the problems they choose to focus on; and then blending internal management and guidance with external capabilities to create vehicles to exploit the opportunities they have identified, with highly skill free agents, producers and actors or knowledge workers and subject matter experts, bringing their unique world view which will draw together the threads of an engagement, taking it from the mundane and making it into something special.

World of Warcraft provides gamers with a platform that enables them to solve this problem, dynamically forming teams for a population of individuals. Leadership emerges organically, an attribute of the environments and context in which the people are acting, and lasts only as long as the task at hand before the team dissolves and the individuals find their way to new opportunities. World of Warcraft also provides the individuals with a career framework independent of any particular engagement or organization, empowering them to manage their own progression from defenseless cannon fodder to all powerful wizard (or warrior).

The concept of using elements of game play mechanics outside a formal game — known as gamification – is growing support outside the narrow confines of the game industry, this interest is, however, typically focused on the consumer space, and seen as a tool to encourage people to adopt applications or as a useful talent management tool to help develop leadership skills. Massively-multiplayer online role playing games{{1}} (MMORPG) seem to provide a grander opportunity by enabling us to create fluid and adaptable frameworks which allow both organizations and individuals to work together toward shared goals in the short term, whilst also providing them with the room to grow their skills in the longer term.

[[1]]Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is a genre of role-playing video games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world.[[1]]

The concepts behind World of Warcraft’s success have a long heritage, with roots reaching back to 1974 when Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was first released. Originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D was derived from miniature wargames and is widely regarded as the beginning of modern role-playing games and the role-playing game industry.

Young geeks engaged in a D&D like role playing game in a scene from Steven Spielburg’s 1982 film, E.T.
Young geeks engaged in a D&D like role playing game in a scene from Steven Spielburg’s 1982 film, E.T.

D&D provided gamers with a framework to go on an adventure together by allowing them to create characters, virtual personas, . The game defined a set of professions (a Cleric, the Fighting man, and a Magic-User, in the first edition of the rules) and races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling{{2}} and gnome), established the mechanics of determining if a character was successful in their actions, and provided a system for individuals to measure the experience their character had accumulated, making them more skillful. Players could also tune their characters by tweaking the character’s physical attributes – strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma – as well as by acquiring virtual equipment and tools.

[[2]]Hobbits in all but name.[[2]]

Playing D&D is a multi-week, or multi-month, journey where a party of friends would work together to explore a land, engage in quests, solve puzzles, crawl through dungeons and slay dragons (and other mythological monsters). Over time the rules developed by adding new professions, new races and by building more sophisticated experience models, become more complex in the process. (Too complex for some though, who prefer the original, simpler, rules)

The D&D character sheet for Sam Wisewhiskers, a mouse thief created by Tony Diterlizzi.
The D&D character sheet for Sam Wisewhiskers, a mouse thief created by Tony Diterlizzi.

World of Warcraft used Dungeons and Dragons as a starting point, addressing on of the major challenges in playing the game: forming a party of suitable friends to go exploring. Blizzard Entertainment (the company which develops and supports the game) created an online environment – an entire virtual world – where individual can login, create a character and start to explore. Players can start out as individuals, but to advance rapidly to higher levels they soon find that they must participate in teams, called guilds, and embark on increasingly challenging quests. The game changes with the players’ actions and game developers add new levels of quests as players become more proficient. There are also no set rules for winning the game or for forming a guild.

World of Warcraft as seen from the outside world.
World of Warcraft as seen from the outside world.

Forming, storming, norming and performing

The quest teams in World of Warcraft form organically around the goal, with an initial few reaching out into their (social) network to find the individuals they need, the individuals focused on solving the types of problems they team expects to find on their journey. It’s not enough to identify a fighter or thief or supply chain expect, for example, as the characters skills need to be match to the expected challenges and the teams ways of working. The final team will pull in a diverse range of characters and skills: some are priests, some are warriors, others are magis, some have different skill levels, different expertise, different potions, and different abilities. The planning processes is spread across in-game forums, as well as a plethora of Internet forums and wikis outside the game. Leadership emerges organically, reflecting the group consensus of whom has the best chance of leading them to success. And finally, the players need to work together, in real time, to conduct the mission and achieve their goal.

The team formation processes deal with a number of significant challenges which also exist in the offline world. How to pick team members, weeding out the incompetent and fostering relationships with the competent. The games forces the team to determine – as a group – what additional skill sets are needed and available at any given time, as well as understanding how different people (with different personalities and styles) will work together. Planing a large raid or quest is also not a task that comes together easily, and leaders must identify the people willing to word toward the goal whilst providing members with enough notice of the team’s activities to enable them to fit the game into their schedule. For the team to reach its gaol, every team member needs to play their role while working together to adapt to changing circumstances.

If the team does fail to reach its goal, when the team must take a step back, reevaluate its plan and team structure, and come up with a strategy to avoid the problem next time round. Leadership also needs to deal with the reality of under performers. Sometimes they’re just bad players. Other times they want to do better but don’t know how, and need a little guidance. And when everything doesn’t go to plan it’s important to determine what when wrong, as well as highlighting what went right.

As in life, investing time in the team will result in the team improving. People also have lives outside of the game, just as they have lives outside of work, and balancing the conflicting demands of life, game and work means that situations arise when people can’t always be where they said they would be (while there should always be consequences for people who rarely live up to their commitments). The world that is World of Warcraft is also constant changing, forcing players to rely on each other and invent new tactics and techniques to succeed in the rapidly changing environment, forcing guild members into a mode of constant collaboration and invention.

World of Warcraft shows us the outline of a new approach to to forming, storming, norming and performing{{3}}. Clearly defined goals provide a nucleus which the team can form around, acting as a yardstick to measure the skills required as well as helping to establish what success looks like (including how each team member’s contribution will be measured). The skills that the character model articulates provides team leaders with a way of understanding each potential members strengths and weaknesses, their interest in the endeavor and the problems they solve. The challenge for organizations is to develop a game framework for themselves: a set of policies and rules which allow individuals to articulate the skills they have and the problems they’re interested in solving, and which enable experience to be apportioned after the engagement.

[[3]]Forming, storming, norming and performing is a model of group development developed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, who maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, to face up to challenges, to tackle problems, to find solutions, to plan work, and to deliver results.[[3]]

Different ways of working

In our increasingly diverse environment, we must often construct our teams with people who solve problems in different ways, and who have a range of different ways of learning and working. Differences in working styles between cohorts are even used to explain while one cohort should be more creative, innovative, productive or reliable than another.

[table id=1 /]{{4}}

[[4]]Adapted from IBM report : “Driving Workforce Productivity by Enabling Social Connection “ (June 2009)[[4]]

Organizations struggle with incompatible working styles, with Gen Y’s desire for constant feedback and a Traditionalist’s favor of top-down command and control, with entire books being written on the topic.

Rather than a boat anchor, diverse teams – pulling in people from a broad range of backgrounds and age groups – can actually produce some of the most effective solutions, as Scott E. Page, author of The Difference{{5}}, found. Just as age is a poor indicator of an individuals ability to adapt to the changing environment, ago is also a poor factor in determining the working style an individual might favor or their ability to work with others who have a different style. In their book A New Culture of Learning{{6}}, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe two “hard-core gamers.” “Ambitious and risk-taking” Nick has “fast reflexes” when playing. Yet he enjoys working with his guild mate Becky who “relies on patience, careful strategy, and knowledge of the game.” What makes this even more fascinating is that Becky is Nick’s mother.

This is not the first time that personality has been seen as a factor in determining working styles. The nineties brought us tools such as Myers-Briggs{{7}} and FIRO{{8}} which enable us to measure our personalities and those of our employees. The hope was that a better understanding of interpersonal dynamics would promote a smoother and more productive work environment.

[[5]]Scott E. Page (2007), The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, Princeton University Press.[[5]]
[[6]]Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011), A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, CreateSpace.[[6]]
[[7]]Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions, which Myers and Briggs extrapolated from Jung’s writings in his book Psychological Types.[[7]]
[[8]]Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) is a theory of interpersonal relations, introduced by William Schutz in 1958.[[8]]

The Myers-Briggs types and their distribution across the population.
The Myers-Briggs types and their estimated frequency across the population. As you can see, the data suggest that those who prefer Sensing are more frequent in the population than those who prefer Intuition. Source: The Myers & Briggs Foundation.

The world is changing faster than ever and our skill sets have a shorter and shorter shelf life. In this environment the highly entailed, and highly trained specialist will find that their carefully guarded skills and ways of working will rapidly change from advantage to problem unless they are willing to adapt to the environment around them. Strategies which resist a constantly changing world are insufficient to keep up, and organizations need to embrace the diverse and organically formed teams that can enable them – as it does the guilds in World of Warcraft – to succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

Continued in Problems and the people who solve them.

The north-south divide

Note: This is the third part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work and Knowledge Workers in the British Raj – and subsequent posts – Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

Developing and manufacturing a product, and delivering it to the waiting customer, has historically been a significant expedition. We would establish a series of camps – departments, containing the tools and skills needed – along the route from start to finish to support us as we ferried the materials we needed from their source to where they were required. However, the assumptions that drove this behaviour are no longer true. Where previously materials, skills and tools were all in short supply, today we can usually find what we need lying on the ground near where we stand. Developments such Strategic Sourcing{{2}}, Business Process Outsourcing{{3}} (BPO), and Social Media have removed the need for us to carry what we need with us, and has been the trigger for us to start dismantling those departments that we no longer need.

[[2]]Strategic Sourcing defined at Wikipedia[[2]]
[[3]]Business Process Outsourcing defined at Wikipedia[[3]]

The large bureaucracies companies have traditionally required are slowly being collapsed, hollowed out, as we find that we can achieve the same result more efficiently with smaller and more agile organisations. Companies are starting to use a more alpine style{{4}} of operation, leveraging a small carefully, chosen team with more flexible tooling, and relying their own wits to survive in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. This shift is pushing us to rethink the nature and organisation of our businesses, setting aside many of the specialised departments and resources we relied on in the past to find a new organising principle. The impact will be both subtle and dramatic, with business continuing to do what business does (constrained, as it is, by government and market regulation) while the roles we all play as individuals change dramatically in response.

[[4]]Alpine style climbing defined at Explore Himalaya[[4]]

An interesting thought experiment is to compare the companies we work in to the societies we inhabit. After all, companies are really just small (and some not so small) societies, with all the dynamics and politics of a community of a similar size. The nature of both societies and companies is largely determined by the tools they use{{5}}, as it is these tools that determine how the community functions. Agriculture, for example, requires a society to be stationary and drove the creation of property ownership, while the telegraph enabled the creation of new business models by separating, for the first time, the transmission of information from the carriage of goods, and gave the world Reuters{{6}}. The tools and technologies we use determine the nature of the societies and companies we inhabit.

[[5]]Timothy Taylor (2010), The Artificial Ape: How technology created humans, Palgrave Macmillan[[5]]
[[6]]The history of Thomson Reuters[[6]]

Historically, societies can be broken into two rough technological groups: equatorial and seasonal. Equatorial societies exist somewhere near the equator, living in a climate that varies little throughout the year, other than in the amount of rainfall they receive. Seasonal societies live some distance from the equator in a more temperate climate, a climate that provides them with distinct seasons over the length of the year. The further north or south you go from the equator, the more seasonal the climate becomes.

The climate a society lives in has a strong influence on the type and nature of technologies that it uses. The orthodox strategy in a seasonal climate is to tailor specific toolkits to the challenges faced in each season of the yearly cycle; jackets in winter and shorts in summer. When it becomes extremely cold, it’s wise to bring along the sleds, snowshoes and heavy clothing. However, when it’s warm these the tools in this toolkit are somewhat less useful. Many tools fulfil a specific, and important need at one point in the seasonal cycle, but this also means that we have little use for the tool in the remainder of the year.

Societies in more tropical climates typically adopt a different strategy. Their focus is on creating a single toolkit that has a smaller number of simpler, but more flexible tools. They have little need for specialised tools, as the climate they live in is relatively stable over the year, which means that their success (or failure) depends on their ability to adapt to unanticipated disturbances or unexpected opportunities as they present themselves. While they are not concerned about stockpiling food to survive through a cold winter, they do need to be able to adapt to the sudden appearance of a cyclone. When a cyclone strikes you rarely have time to go and grab a cyclone proof shelter, and you need to be ready to pick up and use the fallen coconuts once the wind had passed. You must to make do with what you have.

In the former, seasonal societies, the emphasis is on the gear. If the gear fails then you do too, often with fatal consequences. This drives you to invest a significant amount of your time and effort into ensuring that the gear can’t fail, striving to add enough nines to the end of that reliability measure to ensure that you’re not left out in the cold. The technologies you develop are complex and highly entailed, addressing specific needs and requiring a long a sophisticated chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

In the latter, equatorial societies, the emphasis is on skill. Your fate is determined by your ability to adapt the resources and tools found in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand. The tools you need are simple and flexible, either lightweight and compact enough to carry with you or based on technologies which enable you to manufacture them from whatever materials you have at hand. These technologies are only lightly entailed, addressing general needs and requiring a relatively short chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

Companies have traditionally been organised along similar lines to the seasonal societies. The pulse of business beat slowly, and our main concern was to address the specific challenges that existed in each season of this regular cycle. These challenges were also complex and highly entailed, requiring large toolboxes with specialised tools and skills that are highly interdependent. Success depended on the quality of our assets and processes, and our focus was on mobilising enough people and technology to create and staff the processes we needed.

Take, for example, LEO (the Lyons Electronic Office), which may well be the first business computer. Unable to buy a beige box from the local electronics shop, the team at Lyons had to build their computer from scratch, requiring a large team with a number of specific and specialised skills, and three years of effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were forced to blow their own vacuum tubes. The result was a machine that, in 1953, could calculate a person’s pay in 1.5 seconds, rather than the eight minutes taken by an experienced clerk. LEO was a long and highly entailed investment.

LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951
LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951

However, since then the pulse of business has increased dramatically. Over the last few decades we’ve gone from worrying about decades to years, and more recently to months and weeks. Soon we might even be worrying about days. The seasons in business are changing so quickly that we are finding it difficult to keep up{{7}}. Our business environment is, in fact, starting to look more like the environment the equatorial societies inhabit rather than the more temperate climes of old: a relatively stable progression over the year, but with a pressing need to adapt to the unexpected disturbances and opportunities as they present themselves.

[[7]]Why we can’t keep up @ PEG[[7]]

At the same time, the nature of the environment our businesses function in has changed dramatically. Many of the skills and tools we fought hard to obtain can now be easily picked up where we stand. From global logistics providers and contract manufactures, through outsourcing, the various consultancies and software as a service, most of what we require can be easily picked off the ground when we need it. LEO doesn’t hold a candle to many of the bureau and SaaS payroll solutions that we can use on demand.

What we need is a more equatorial approach to organising our business, one more in line with reality of the business environment we operate in today. This means stocking our organisation with a small collection of flexible, but potent, people that can rapidly adapt to our changing needs, people who can use a small set of flexible tools to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented to us. It involves pulling down our highly entailed bureaucracies and connecting the C-level with the team at the front line. Overhead functions such as IT and HR will be torn down. (After all, if all our IT exists in the cloud and our company is hollowed out, removing the bulk of our bureaucracy, then we don’t need these departments anymore.) The old value producing functions (manufacturing and so on) will be externalised and bought as a service. More than anything, our success will depend on our ability to mobilise – both as an organisation and as individuals – and adapt the resources and tools in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand.

This requires a huge shift in how we think about staffing our organisations. Deep specialisation is no longer the benefit it was in the past. While specialisation brings knowledge and insight, it also (typically) reduces flexibility and adaptability. Someone with a decade or more invested in being an IT architect, sales manager, change agent, human capital management expert, process wizard or (even a) social media guru, needs to protect that investment. Their value is in their specialisation; they will defend the status quo and resist being pulled away from what makes them valuable{{8}}. The people we need are sun-shaped{{9}}. They’re highly skilled (though not highly specialised), focused on solving a problem we have, and bring with them a diverse toolkit of simple but flexible tools.

[[8]]From doctrine to dogma @ PEG[[8]]
[[9]]The sun-shaped individual @ PEG[[9]]

Continued in Working in Hollywood.

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.