The first “job” I ever had was mind-numbingly boring. I had to go every morning to Kidderpore Docks in Calcutta, find my way to a steelyard there, walk over to the only building in the steelyard, and proceed to occupy that space from 8am to 5pm. A desolate job in a desolate place.
Calling the structure there a “building” was gross exaggeration. It was a hut. With a table and chair in it, some papers on a shelf, and a single solitary naked bulb gently dangling in the middle of the room.
And a phone. A special one. One that came without a dial. It may have been green at one time, but it was hard to tell. Looked a bit like this:
Occasionally it would make a sound. PG Wodehouse would probably have called it a strangled yelp. It was that sort of sound, designed to shatter the reverie of dreaming 18-year-olds. Which it did, but only occasionally.
My job was simple. When the device yelped, pick it up. Wait a few minutes. Then go stand outside the hut for a vehicle to arrive. Sometimes it was a train, sometimes it was a truck. [Oh yes, this steelyard had all mod cons. Even a railway line running through it].
When said vehicle arrived, I had to direct it to the weigh bridge. Not that much directing was called for: the steelyard had steel (oodles and oodles of it, gently rusting); it had a hut, of which I was the sole occupant; and it had the weigh bridge. Which I had to point to.
Vehicle gets on weigh bridge. Weight noted. Steel “billets” taken off vehicle. Weight noted. And in the meantime, words like Gross and Tare entered my daily vocabulary.
Sometimes the sequence was changed. The vehicle arrived empty and the billets went on rather than off it. Variety, the spice of life, helped keep me awake.
One or two such incidents a day. No rhyme or reason as to when the vehicle arrived. But always, always, preceded by the strangled yelp.
Taught me patience. And powers of observation. Gave me the ability to keep myself occupied for long periods while doing nothing and seeing nobody. Not to be sneezed at, came in very useful in later years.
They called me Management Trainee and paid me Rs 400 per month at the time. This was January 1976. I’d just finished school.
It wasn’t as if I’d never worked till then. I had. I’d been proofreading for my dad, working part-time for the family business, a weekly financial journal, from the time I was 14. As I grew older, he entrusted me with writing a page of what today would have been called The Week: a summary of everything that happened in the world of Indian Finance which wasn’t already covered elsewhere in the journal. A thousand words of regurgitation and summary.
Taught me about immovable deadlines. About agile working. About what it really meant. In those days agility meant knowing precisely how long you could leave something before it just had to be done. Which meant that by the time you actually did what needed doing, your information base for carrying out the task was as rich as humanly possible.
Those times with Indian Finance and Martin Burn in Calcutta were seminal, insofar as they informed my perspective on what constituted work. I was a child of the information age.
Which is probably why, many years later, I claimed that all enterprise software would only consist of four types of application: publishing, search, conversation and fulfilment. That was a decade ago.
In the meantime, email has been seen off by social networks and smart mobile devices have become ubiquitous; always-on connectivity and communications have entered the realm of possibility, even if we haven’t quite got the coverage we would want, a point Bob Mankoff makes delightfully in the New Yorker. I love the New Yorker cartoons, I have an a-ha moment of empathy with at least one cartoon a week.
Today, the “knowledge worker”, the child of the information age, works in streams. The streams may get called Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Chatter, but they’re still streams nevertheless. Information flowing through, in chronological order, based on what they subscribe to, who and what they “follow”. The streams have replaced the ponds and canals of email, as power moved from sender to recipient: that simple, subtle shift ensured that firehoses could be tamed.
Since 2006 I’ve friended a few thousand people on Facebook, followed a few thousand on Twitter, linked to a few thousand on LinkedIn; in the decade prior and since, I’ve probably given away my mail address and mobile phone number to many many more.
When I look at what happened as a result, I remain amazed. Over a thousand emails a day, a number that’s been pretty constant for nearly two decades. And yet: maybe ten SMSes a day, mainly from my immediate and local family, a few friends; maybe five fb messages a day; maybe five Twitter DMs a day; maybe five LinkedIn mails a day. Strange, what happens when power moves from sender to recipient.
That’s not a particularly fair representation of what happens, since the world of mail didn’t really have any concept of “notifications” outside the core mail message. But it’s instructive.
My narrow, anecdotal, and unscientific view of knowledge workers has been gained over 35 years and while working in companies that ranged from tens of thousands of workers to hundreds of thousands. Fairly large information-age enterprises.
And what I’ve watched is this. The stimulus to get a piece of work done, to perform a particular task, may come from within you or without you (Cue for Beatle song: do I really need an excuse to link to a George Harrison song? No) ; that does not affect the work pattern:
Find out all you can about what needs to be done. If there’s something you’re not clear on, talk to people about it, ask someone. Once you know what you need to know, do it. Leave it as late as possible to do it, because it means you will know more than you would have otherwise. But make sure you do it in time for whatever purports to be the “deadline”
That’s what I was trying to describe when I spoke of publishing, search, conversation and fulfilment as the four pillars. I didn’t do too well doing the describing, but it’s what I meant. You need ways of sharing information with people (publishing), you need ways of finding what people have published (search), you need to talk to people about what you’ve learnt, questions you may have (conversation). And then you need to go and actually do it (fulfilment). Placing an order, booking a trip, shipping a product, delivering a service, it doesn’t matter. The questions are the same. What has to be “delivered”? To whom? Where? When? How is value going to be exchanged? How will people know when it’s done?
Today people know more about publishing and about subscribing, which should be seen as “repeat search”. Or if you prefer you can think of search as “ad hoc subscribing”. Humans are social animals, so I don’t need to say more about conversation. People talk. And getting things done is “fulfilment”. Enough with those terms.
I’ve been trying to find better metaphors for all this, and while lazing over Christmas on the plane back from India, something strange occurred to me.
Maybe I should describe Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.
When you get asked to do something, if you’re sure about it, then you go straight to Fulfilment. Do not pass Go, do not collect £200. But if you’re unsure, then you have some options. You could call a friend. Ask the audience. Maybe even both.
Real collaborative workspaces make this whole process easier.
To call a friend, you need a simple way to get to the class of person termed “friend”, and a simple way to connect with that person, to “call” that person. In analogue closed systems, this was easy. Face to face, synchronous, oral. In a distributed digital context, with both synchronous as well as asynchronous communications, there’s some work to be done to ensure that the person you’re calling is the person you meant to call, and that the communications modality is appropriate.
Asking the audience, similarly, needs codifying. Who’s the audience? Your network? Including Friend Of A Friend? Wider, deeper? How is the question to be couched, so that the audience’s understanding is consistent and reliable and repeatable?
And remember, you have thirty seconds to make your mind up. Thirty seconds to make the firehose consumable, comprehensible, actionable. So having filters and rating mechanisms and +1s and Likes and recommendations becomes important, learning how to use them becomes important. Many of the things we call “social” are actually filters.
When I came to the UK, it was expensive to call home. At a time when my monthly disposable income was measured in two digits, making a regular three-minute £10 call home was outside the bounds of probability.
Today the cost of finding out what your friends think has dropped alarmingly. Today we can all phone a friend or ask the audience about pretty much anything. And get an answer quickly and affordably. And have that answer in a persistent and shareable and findable form. And learn from that answer, and apply the learning to the answer. Iteration in an open and connected context, amongst people who are keen to help each other. And to learn.
That’s really where collaboration begins.