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Workforce collaboration in the network era

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy, and networks subvert standardization.

In the industrial era we saw the rise of specialized departments and specialized jobs. Any job could be generically designed and then filled by the most suitable applicant. People became interchangeable pieces for the mechanistic model of work. As jobs are to departments, roles are to networks. Eric Mcluhan states that in the new [network] era; “jobs disappear under electric conditions and they are replaced by roles. Roles mean audiences and participation.

Roles are based on relationships. Without relationships, there are no roles. In the 21st century workplace, roles are emergent properties of value networks, not pre-defined by HR.

All of the support functions that grew during the late 20th century are like the blind monks examining the elephant in the room – the network. Everyone is struggling to understand the network era, but no one is budging from their observation position. And so they remain blind.

One of the biggest challenges I see on a regular basis is getting people to think in terms of networks, then in terms of relationships. From a learning perspective, this is what connectivism is about: knowledge exists within systems which are accessed through people participating in activities. It is by doing our work that we co-create our roles in our networks. Roles emerge from the activities involved in working with others toward some common purpose. This is social. Social media are merely a conduit for collaboration.

Social learning is an enabler. In the network era, systemic changes are sensed almost immediately so that organizational reaction times and feedback loops have to be faster. One obstacle to this is that we are more inclined to ask for advice only from those we trust, but trust takes time to nurture. By sharing experiences (learning socially), trust emerges. A trusting workplace is a learning workplace and one that can adapt faster to change.

A workplace that encourages social learning can more easily become a social business. Social business emerges from social learning that itself emerges from collaborative work. All of this happens within networks. Existing departments need to become contributing nodes in their respective networks or face obsolescence. As workers become more collaborative and networked, they will bypass non-contributing nodes. If a department is not part of the networked workflow, or tries to block it, it is part of the problem.

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – Gilmore’s Law

Those specialized departments of the 20th century need to engage in social learning, by modelling behaviour and continuously developing next practices to adapt to changing conditions. This is the challenge to remain relevant in the 21st century workplace. Learn or die.

This isn’t the Information Age, it’s the Learning Age; and the quicker people get their heads around that, the better – Prof Stephen Heppell

Look at how F.W. Taylor in Principles of Scientific Management (1911), described the role of management for the industrial era:

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

In the network era, social learning must be supported, roles emerge from networks, work has more variety and less standardization, and businesses must be social in order to deal with increasing complexity. I have suggested something more like this:

It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions and willing cooperation that more productive work can be assured. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers.

It boils down to the fact that in the network era, value is derived from workforce collaboration, where you are either contributing to the network, or you are no longer required.

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