I gave this talk in Lisbon last week at the wonderful Social Now conference. These are not exactly the words I spoke, but pretty close in spirit.
My approach here is to present a slide, and then as a caption below, something like what I said while the slide was up.
We are getting pretty used to a vision of the near future that is not all sunshine and flowers, but we need to have some sense of what is coming if our activities are to have any meaning, as Heilbroner says.
Work — at the level of the economy, business, and individual — is changing more quickly that it has ever changed before. We all need to understand the forces impacting us as a society, as participants in businesses, and as individuals making our way in this world. Where is it headed, and why.
I’m starting with the bottom line first. This is where we are headed in this talk: this is in fact one of the final slides, the conclusion. My purpose is to get across that these tightly interlinked terms represent a break with the ‘present of work’, not as a fad, but as a necessary adaptation to economic and societal changes that are larger than business, like urbanization, the rise of the social web, and the increased levels of competition in a globalized world economy, and what that means for us all as business leaders, professionals, and individuals.
I’ll start by apologizing for the impossibility of expounding on ideas that may be too long for an hour talk format, and too wide for the human head, since we don’t seem to be able to concentrate for more than 20 minutes anymore.
Yes, I had brain surgery. Really serious brain surgery.
Actually almost 115K, now.
Something I wrote in 1999, when I coined ‘social tools’ and a long list of people said I was crazy.
I am the lead researcher on the future of work and social business at GigaOM Research, as well as my independent projects at stoweboyd.com.
I am well-known for the naming of things, like ‘social tools’, ‘hashtags’, and a long list of others, like ‘tooing’, and the lexicography Ben Zimmer points out in this recent tweet.
I won’t belabor the obvious: the most important and surprising aspect of the rise of the web is the fact that it is social. And business is being strongly impacted by that. And the way that it is being changed? At the level of the individual, and then by the networks that people create.
Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist, observed in the early ’60s that ‘a business is best considered as a network of conversations’. We’ve been catching up to him ever since.
As we can see in the open web and the rise of work media (enterprise social networks) networks is where communications will stream through in the future.
Push communication, where the originator of some information also decides who the information matters to, is the common denominator of industrial age communication. Pull communication — where the recipient of information opts to receive information from those sources deemed relevant — inverts the relationship, and gives choice to the recipient. This increases the value of connection, because it becomes the medium through which critical information flows.
Today, the shift to social network pull communication will invalidate the organizational structures that rely on push. Most notably, this will undermine business processes and the collective organization. This won’t take place in the way that email led to organizational flattening: it will pull business processes inside out.
Therefore, pull is the key communication modality for the future.
This analysis collapse two ideas — Bruce Tuchman’s forming/storming/norming model for the nature of teams, and Debra Myerson’s work on swift trust.
In the diagram the arrows represent people, and the direction is time.
I will contrast this deep trust/slow-and-tight version with a swift trust version, coming in a few slides.
In a slow-and-tight organization (about which more soon) teams form, usually by an impresario of some type, an executive or manager, pulling people together. This is a variable length but relatively short compared to the overall duration.
It’s important to note that the fact the lines are parallel is meant to indicate that in a slow-and-tight organization a reasonable effort is made — basically all the time — to get everyone pulling in the same direction, and to internalize cultural roles, rules, and norms. This leads to a ‘company way’ of doing things, making decisions, and so on. This is a form of indoctrination, and it has an on-going cost.
The next stage is storming:
from Wikipedia [I merely summarized, but just noted the conflict and struggle, in Lisbon.]
Every group will next enter the storming stage in which different ideas compete for consideration. The team addresses issues such as what problems they are really supposed to solve, how they will function independently and together and what leadership model they will accept. Team members open up to each other and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives. In some cases storming can be resolved quickly. In others, the team never leaves this stage. The maturity of some team members usually determines whether the team will ever move out of this stage. Some team members will focus on minutiae to evade real issues.
The storming stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasized. Without tolerance and patience the team will fail. This phase can become destructive to the team and will lower motivation if allowed to get out of control. Some teams will never develop past this stage.
Supervisors of the team during this phase may be more accessible, but tend to remain directive in their guidance of decision-making and professional behavior. The team members will therefore resolve their differences and members will be able to participate with one another more comfortably. The ideal is that they will not feel that they are being judged, and will therefore share their opinions and views. Normally tension, struggle and sometimes arguments occur.
Neil Perkin once put it, ‘Large organizations have a tendency to pull people into a vortex of internal focus’, and that focus — the struggles and politics of storming, and indoctrination — costs a lot in time, on many levels.
Deep trust is a term that makes this sound like a good thing, and it can lead to a culture where those that have not been driven out by the struggle for power and position find a sense of shared purpose and mutual commitment. But there are real costs, and such a culture works best for certain kinds of people, and not everyone, and not in all environments.
At some point, the dust settles and people get down to real work.
But things can run off the rails whenever premises change, the environment changes, or staff move on. This can lead to another round of storming, as indicated by the dashed arrow to the right. And then back to norming, hopefully.
Ultimately, some groups unform: the project is done, the department is folded into another, the division is shut down. Some may go on indefinitely, however, through cycles of storming and norming.
Let’s contrast that scenario with fast-and-loose organizations application of swift trust.
Impermanent teams operate as well as they do because of a well-understood social phenomenon, called swift trust, initially researched by Debra Myerson and others. Given a short time frame and the absence of long-term prospects — based on our inbuilt cognitive bias toward cooperation in certain circumstances — people can drop the necessity for building deep trust, and the attendant overhead of establishing social dominance relationships structures.
These techniques that resemble deep trust, but are lighter-weight and faster to adopt, can be used to quickly get down to business in an ad hoc team, and focus on doing what is needed to get done; instead of getting bogged down in actual deep trust development, which can take weeks or months to build, and once again, may be incidental to the near-term purpose of the project. So there is a fast start, because there is no storming.
Most important from the perspective of the business running the project, they can pick the people who are best for the project, which means best fitting a customer’s needs, best skills for opening a market in Asia, or lowest cost for designing a logo. With the best people involved, projects can be much shorter duration than using staff members with less than perfectly matched skills.
The upside from the individual’s performers’ perspective is that they avoid the soul-deadening chicken shit that is often a requirement when being an employee, and given the premises of short-term project run by swift trust rules, the experts are encouraged to make decisions within their own area of responsibility. People are strongly motivated by the desire for autonomy and mastery, and — in principle — working as a well-respected professional in creative projects is likely to be the fastest road to both. And working on projects with other experts is psychologically rewarding, and financially rewarding since effective companies are more likely to pay, and pay well.
Note that I show the arrows as divergent, since the members of the project don’t need to herded together and trained to march in line. They are selected for their skills and professionalism, not for their ability to follow orders or learn the ‘company way’ to do things. Obviously, their is a real savings in time, here, as well.
So, in the future, work will be fast.
The world outside the business is changing dramatically, and the rate of that change is dizzying. But our culture — at the level of society and organizational culture — has built-in brakes that slow the adoption of innovation. As a result our companies have cultural elements that reach back to earlier eras, like the late modern, which started with the push into industrialism, the saw the rise of steam power, the telegraph, electricity, movies, photography, radio, TV, and much of the groundwork of the modern industrial-based economics of the West, and culminating in the earliest phase of the rise of computers.
The ’70s was a turning point for many reasons: the end of colonialism (not well-understood in the US), the opening of China by Nixon, the end of the Vietnam Wars, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Technologically, we saw the rise of computer networks like WANs, Ethernet, Arpanet, and computer-controlled telephone switches. These laid the foundation for a connected-computer-based world economy, and the globalism that shapes everything today.
This is the era that has defined the broad lineaments of our society and organizational cultures, even though we have now moved from the post modern into a new economy. However, the great majority of people are unaware that the basic premises underlying our world order have shifted permanently, and as a result, are operating in a state of half blind confusion.
I refer to this era as the postnormal, and it is closely linked to several trends, the rise of the internet and — more importantly — the social web, urbanization, ubiquitous connectivity and the always connected, the failure of organizations, and the precarious nature of work and risk, today. When everything is complex and interconnected, uncertainty dominates, and it becomes impossible to make analytic judgments about the future.
[I didn’t delve into the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) model in Lisbon, for the sake of time, but it is exactly that shift that is accelerating as we careen into the second decade of the postnormal.]
This quote from Kevin Kelly perfectly capture the sense of this transition, where the central economic imperative is now to amplify relationships, instead of the scaling of business processes that defined the postmodern. The law of diminishing returns has cancelled out the possibility of another tranche of productivity there, as thinkers John Hagel and John Seely Brown have argued.
It turns out that 2000 was also the point at which the majority of work had become non-routine, as shown in this chart from a US Federal Reserve Bank of New York study. By this time, we are above 60% non-routine. This means that people can simply follow re-defined rules to accomplish their job: they have to figure our what to do based on the circumstances that apply to the specific instance. Obviously, this sort of work is increasingly cognitive, and less manual, as time passes.
The future of work — and really the present of work — is postnormal. This requires us to carefully evaluate what of the thinking from earlier eras is helpful and what is harmful, or potentially disastrous.
That’s one half of the talk. I will post the second half early next week, but here’s a teaser: Based on the narrative above, I will take a close look at the differences between the postmodern institution of business processes and the emerging postnormal reliance on social networks, which I believe are being displaced. Lastly, I propose the 3C Model of Organizational Culture, a psychosocial approach to characterizing the changes in our organizations as we struggle to thrive in a fast-and-loose postnormal world that relies on networks and pull rather than processes and push.
Here’s a peek, without the juicy details: