A few days ago, I spent some time with James Powell at the Thomson Reuters offices on Times Square. It was just the kind of conversation I enjoy: we covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time, rarely had to explain anything to each other while we went off on tangents and random walks, yet kept largely to subjects of mutual interest.
One of the key topics that came up was that of consumerisation. During our conversation, James raised an intriguing issue: Enterprises have understood that consumerisation is here to stay; lessons are learnt daily, and the learning is applied within firms like ours. So we see the march of smartphones and tablet devices into the enterprise, and the emergent freeing-up of the historically locked-down desktop. We see the adoption of social network/messaging tools like Chatter, Yammer and Quad. [Disclosure: I work for salesforce.com, which makes Chatter]. We can see the learning being applied from hardware and from software per se, but what about the rest? What about the privacy and confidentiality issues faced by the consumer? What about the data portability aspects? Are we learning from them as well? If so where is the evidence? How is it being applied? Corporations have tended to believe that they’re a bit like Vegas: what happens there stays there, and is owned by the corporation. Both James and I agreed that maybe not enough is being done in this respect, and that we would compare notes as we went along, something I’m looking forward to.
illustration courtesy of Idiots’ Books
I couldn’t get the topic out of my mind as I boarded the plane back from New York to London, and I guess this post is the result of those mullings over.Things I’ve perceived while observing the Maker Generation, things that I feel will become important in tomorrow’s enterprise. [If you want to know more about the Maker Generation, I'd recommend you read Cory Doctorow's Makers, which I reviewed in the post linked to earlier in this paragraph.]
Image courtesy of Stephane Guegan
For much of my life, my attitude to post-facto regulation has been somewhat Oliver Hardy-ish, a sense of “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into“. I tend to prefer principles we can debate and improve and refine before we hit problems, so that the regulations are truly fit for purpose.
So, when it comes to the entry of the Maker Generation into the workplace, I’d like to propose five principles:
1. The person will select the “task”, rather than be given the “task”. Ever since the inception of the modern firm, people were given tasks to do in a prescriptive, deterministic manner. Initially this made sense, since firms were built on industrial-revolution models, and linear workflow was the norm. But that was for a different time, and the environment has changed completely. Talent is at a premium. There’s no point in hiring smart people and then telling them what to do, that makes no sense whatsoever. The most precious asset of the knowledge-worker enterprise is the knowledge worker, her human and social capital, her relationships and her capabilities. It makes more sense to expose knowledge workers to problem domains and then giving them the resources and tools to solve those problems.
2. Tasks will be non-linear in nature, rather than assembly-line. When someone new joins a firm, the experience is going to be very similar to that of playing a modern video game. The new joiner will spend time in some form of sandbox or training ground, learning a number of key things: the “game mechanics“, the values, rules and principles by which the firm operates; the “game controls“, how you navigate around the workplace, how you discover things, how you acquire learning and other assets to deploy, how you “save” your work, how you “replay” or “continue”; and the “game dashboard“, the tools that let you see the environment, your powers and authorities, feedback loops on position and progress, primarily team rather than personal, though both are visible.
3. True team-based work will become the norm, not the exception. For decades we’ve been talking about teamwork in the enterprise, but that’s what it’s been for the most part. Talk. For teamwork to become part and parcel of everyday enterprise life, small, self-organising multidisciplinary teams must be allowed to exist, crossing many historical boundaries. Teamwork is meaningless unless the team is given work to do that is suitable for doing as a team. There’s no point in calling a bunch of individuals a team, just because they report hierarchically to the same point in the organisation, or because they have the same broad skills. Work is normally carried out by people in multiple parts of the organisation, belonging to different departments, putting to use their disparate skills. The “team”, in practice, is distributed across different departments, functions, locations. And the very structure of the firm militates against teamwork, since these departments, functions and locations tend to optimise within the department, function or location. That optimisation is often underpinned, even accelerated, by the reward system in place, which places a premium on the results of such local optimisation. Interdepartmental cooperation and collaboration is, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes very much on purpose, made difficult.
It’s actually much worse, since the teams spoken of so far are all within one enterprise domain. The teams of the future will include members from trading partners, the supply chain, and (perish the thought) real, live customers. It’s no longer just a question of misaligned incentives: we haven’t really figured out how to do this. Collective intelligence and crowdsourcing will have nothing more than a small number of hackneyed poster children to show if we don’t learn from this and do something about it.
4. Cognitive surpluses will be put to use sensibly, rather than discarded. We have to get away from the idea that knowledge work is smooth and stable and uniform and assembly-line in structure and characteristic. Knowledge work is lumpy. Period. There will be peaks. And there will be troughs. The current thinking appears to go something like this: “If we have troughs it will look like we don’t have enough work to do, so we need to pretend to work. Let’s fill our days up in advance with things that don’t depend on market or customer stimulus, things we can plan well in advance. And let’s call these things meetings. Then we can look busy all the time.” Such thinking has produced some unworthwhile consequences: layers of people who excel at meetings, who know how to game the process of meetings; the agendas and minutes and presentations and whatnot. Which then leads to the creation of a class of signal boosters, who summarise meetings and fight over who can carry the signal to the next level within the organisation, who slow work down by constantly asking questions designed to boost their signal-booster reputations, who work as the enterprise equivalent of K Street, unseemlily knocking each other over as they rush to “brief” their superiors in the hierarchy.
The solution to all this lies in recognising that cognitive surpluses can and do exist, and should be put to sensible use. Investing in wikipedia-like projects, dealing with definitions and jargon explanations and data cleansing and question-answering and the like.
5. Radically different tools and processes will be needed as a result, time-shiftable, place-shiftable, multimedia. Because, as Einstein is reported to have said, we can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created the problems. Tools that view privacy differently, that view confidentiality differently. Tools that recognise the existence of the individual within the firm, the existence of multidisciplinary, sometimes multi-organisational, multi-location as well. Tools that are intrinsically multimedia, allowing text to be augmented with image and voice and video. Tools that are platform and operating system agnostic. Tools that are mobile, self-examining, self-healing. Tools that can be replaced with ease, using the synchronisation power of the cloud.
Exciting times. Times when we have to make radical changes to concepts we have held for a long time. Concepts like identity and privacy and confidentiality. Concepts like teamwork and sharing. Concepts like sinecures and benefits and contracts of employment. Concepts like the theory of the firm and scarcity economics and rational individuals and linear workflow. Times that celebrate diversity, that celebrate divergent thinking, that celebrate the creative.
And how are we going to know what to do?
Isn’t it good that there’s a new generation who can solve that for us? A generation who aren’t as hidebound as their predecessors and their predecessors and their predecessors.
The Maker Generation. Choosing what they do. How they do it. Whom they work for. What do they look for? Choice.
So what should an enterprise do?
As I said in the kernel for this blog, six years ago:
One, make a clear stance on values and ethics.
Two, allow relationships and collaboration to take place, rather than control the relationships.
Three, intermediate to enable trust and fulfilment rather than channel towards lock-in.
Four, recognise that the customer wants to create and co-create value rather than just receive.
Use what you stand for to attract the customer. Use what you do to retain the customer’s trust. Ensure that the customer is always free to leave, and paradoxically he or she will stay. Who is this customer? Your family. Your friend. Your employee. Your business partner. Your client. Your citizen.
As we put the principles in place, as the Maker Generation enters the workplace in volume, as the values and ways of working evolve, we will know what policies and guidelines we need, what laws we need. It’s a matter of time.
Over the next few weeks I intend to flesh this out and write a series of posts on the Maker Generation in the Enterprise, looking at the issues from a number of perspectives. Your comments will help me make this a more valuable exercise.