Taking stock of the future of work

smart systems

Economic, technological, demographic, spatial and social trends ought to be changing how work is organised. I even wrote about it just a few days ago in this article on Medium.com. The trends are happening. That’s undeniable. But who knows how far work will change as a result?

Not much if the past is anything to go by. But is looking at the past the wrong thing to do?

Reasons to be pessimistic

Let me count the ways. Control has been a general although not universal management obsession for decades.

I was reminded of it once more listening to this highly-recommended interview with Eric Trist talking about socio-technical approaches to organising work in British coal mines after the Second World War – innovations involving task variety, multi-skilling and autonomy in self-managing.

Despite improved productivity and increased job satisfaction from self-management and “not having a boss immediately at their backs every five seconds”, Trist says that innovations in working practices did not diffuse because they challenged management power; many managers wanted detailed control and were prepared to sacrifice improved performance to retain it. It wasn’t only management – unions also resisted the innovations.

The lack of diffusion of innovative working practices has continued with lean, quality and agile work practices. I think it is fair to say that these approaches are now the norm in manufacturing but the customer-focused, knowledge-based philosophy of innovation as everyone’s business associated with lean, quality and agile have yet to be widely appreciated outside of manufacturing. Or if they are, they are often misunderstood and misapplied.

Still with control, the Future of Work Programme in the UK between 1998 and 2004, funded by the ESRC, involved more than one hundred researchers from twenty two universities. A publication from this research was a book calledManaging to Change? British Workplaces and the Future of Work.  The authors noted that “one area where ICT is rapidly expanding management choices is in monitoring and control systems.”

This would be fine if the data was made accessible to people for learning and performance feedback but that was not happening. They also say that “the trend toward control without participation is deeply disquieting” and conclude that “automatically-generated control information will lead management to over-emphasise ‘control by numbers’ of a particularly narrow type.”

That was 10 years ago, before the Big Data explosion.

Research on high-performance work systems based on values, involvement, autonomy and whole systems of leadership and learning? Same thing. Study after study shows business benefits but high-performance work systems are seldom seen in practice.

Reasons to be (cautiously) cheerful

All this has been bothering me. Barriers to a future of work different to the past are significant.

Which is why in among the flood of future of work pronouncements, my eye caught a very interesting post from Stowe Boyd talking about a number of predicted discontinuities, including the consumerisation of work, applying quantified-self to self-monitoring performance, and reconceptualising work away from business units and functions towards ecosystems:

“We need to conceive of the company as a world — an ecology — built-up from each individual connecting to other individuals. And stringing these together into an interconnected whole involves associations like sets, and discernible elements like scenes, but increasingly, nothing like brigades and squads.”

To my mind, Karl Weick already did that in Social Psychology of Organising. Not the language of sets and scenes – he does not talk about structure but rather organising dynamics among groups of people. Ecosystems in other words. Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation is about the different metaphors we can use to think of organisations, including organisms. The point is that these ideas have been around a long time and not had widespread practical impact.

The idea of discontinuities is appealing. I’ve written about the consumerisation of work in an ebook I’m putting the final touches to. Choice is beginning to personalise our experience of work – where and when – but at the moment this remains for the relative few. How far people can impose their expectations of work depends on the extent to which the balance of power shifts in their favour away from organisations. People whose skills are in short supply have always been able to dictate how they work.

The real opportunity for consumerisation of work for the many – choice in changing how we experience work, even if businesses continue to be organised and structured as they currently are – comes through connecting, sharing and learning outside of organisations.

My hope is that change will come through people taking responsibility for their own experience of work and learning, challenging the status quo, creating meaningful work for themselves and their colleagues – and ultimately for the business that employs them. I wrote about how they can do it in this post, How Mentored Open Online Conversations nurture 21st century skills.

It’s also the premise of the book I had published last year, Smart Working: Creating the Next Wave – that we are not prisoners of our work environment and that transformation of work and the systems that support it come about by people taking back control for themselves.

Why does this matter?

In an information-rich world, we need to be able to ask better questions. How do we think this future of work is going to arrive? Stowe talks about “a looming discontinuity, a break: perhaps a revolution led by a global movement.”

I have spent a long time researching new ways of working, working with people trying to innovate, and trying to do the same myself.  What I can say from all this experience is that there is always a visionary person leading the charge to do things differently, for example Chief Executives, Production Directors, Finance Directors (two I can think of), Area Managers, Marketing Directors, HR Directors and so on.

I wrote about my favourite example in Smart Working – a senior nurse who changed the performance culture on the hospital ward for which she was responsible. Apart from being inspiring, this gives me hope that there are equally value-driven people out there taking responsibility for changing how they and their colleagues experience work for their own and customers’ benefit – and ultimately the business.

So the discontinuity that Stowe envisages is, on reflection, perhaps not a discontinuity at all but a possible acceleration and exponential increase in the number of these people taking action – connected instigators kicking off change within their organisations and learning with others how to do it outside of organisational constraints. And using the loosely-connected, small and simple apps that Stowe speaks about. It’s about a whole lot more than apps though.

Stowe senses a flood coming. I hope he is right. I am more cautious about how long a global movement would take to get off the ground. I hope I am wrong.

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