Re: Designing a New Operating System for Work

I find myself torn by the contending metaphors in Marina Gorbis’ post, Designing a New Operating System for Work.

On the one hand, we certainly need a revolution in how we organize ourselves in the domain of work, from the most broad macroeconomic contexts to the intensely personal decisions each of us makes each day. So I naturally find myself sympathetic to almost any piece with a title of the form ‘… a new [something] of work …’.

On the other hand, metaphors matter, as I suggested in the aptly-titled Metaphors matter: Talking about how we talk about organizations. Gorbis has taken the ‘organization as machine’ metaphor — or more specifically, ‘organization as operating system’ — and tries to employ it as a hopeful trope. But I think that plays away from the sort of changes we need in business — away from mechanistic, ‘people as cogs geared together’ notions — and doesn’t adequately address the societal and economic forces that impede our drift toward a more cooperative work culture.

The hard reality is that we shy away from the special anti-democratic status granted to businesses, despite the widespread belief in democratic principles in the modern developed world. We find it difficult to inject the principles that are a commonplace in societal discourse regarding the relationship of the individual to the state and the community, and apply them to business.

Therefore, I am able to say that I strongly agree with Gorbis — yes, we need better ways to match skills and opportunities, and so on — while at the same time suggesting that we’d be better served by dropping the ‘OS for Work’ meme, and instead to adopt the vocabulary of politics.

What is really necessary is a new appraisal of the rights of workers of all stripes and of business owners, particularly the interplay between three sorts of rights (as laid out by Mukand and Rodrik, in The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy):

  • property rights (which principally protect property owners),
  • civil rights (establishing the provision of public goods like education, health, and safety for all, but especially for those without power), and
  • political rights (which determine how policy decisions are made that impact all parties, and the agreed-upon constraints that shape them).

Increasingly, I find the metaphor of the commons the best hope for thinking productively about the future of work. The premise of a commons is that of a public and shared space, one where those sharing it take as their principal goal stewardship of the commons, for the good of all, and where those with the greatest stake in the success of the commons have the greatest voice in its management. Note that this runs counter to the premises of privatization, where the resources of a geographic region, for example, can be exploited destructively for the benefit of the few and against the greater good.

Considering a business — and the resources that are applied to it — as a commons may run against the grain of entrepreneurial logic or the contemporary corporate mindset, where property rights are accorded a much greater weight than the blended rights of all parties involved. But it is exactly that sort of thinking that stands between us, today, and a better way of work.

We need to humanize the discussion: we need to put human agency, conflict, and cooperation at the heart of what we are talking about, and avoid disembodied clockwork analogies that blur the societal challenges we are confronted with. We need to look to human cultural models — like the examples of successful long-term management of real-world commons that Elinor Ostrom and others have researched and described — rather than mechanical models that distance us from the very human and social struggle we are involved in.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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