What’s My Agenda: the Future of Work and Work Technologies, or Work Futures

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones. — Jamie Holmes, The Case for Teaching Ignorance

[Note: This piece was originally published in August 2015 at Gigaom.com. I am reposting it here as a response to various inquiries, where people have been asking for more of a background on the topic of work futures. It has been slightly updated and reformatted.]

The central line of inquiry for my work as an analyst and researcher is the future of work and work technologies, or ‘work futures’, for short. Before breaking that down, let me try to clarify what those terms mean. I will do so by asking a few questions, with Jamie Holmes’ observation, above, in mind.

‘The future of work’ is an academically-oriented domain of discourse, with a strong lean into new theories of humanist business management, and with closely related ideas of economics and organizational development.

On one hand, the intent of the phrase ‘the future of work’ is obvious, just like any other ‘future of’, such as ‘the future of dentistry’ or ‘the future of the European Union’. But the reality is that the meme of ‘the future of work’ has developed a strong connotation related to a specific set of progressive ideals about work, and an underlying implicit criticism of the state of work today, and the preceding era, as well.

‘The future of work’ is an academically-oriented domain of discourse, with a strong lean into new theories of humanist business management, and with closely related ideas of economics and organizational development.As a simplification, I have been using work futures as a shorthand or synonym for ‘the future of work and work technologies’, and will do so for the rest of this post and going forward in general. In fact, work futures was the name of the consulting company that I created when the old Gigaom shut down in March 2015 [and is now the name of this publication on Medium].

The growing interest in work futures has arisen as a central area of discussion about organization, management, and adaptation to new technologies, especially those which are based on the form and function of social networks and social media. This is an expansion and absorption of the discipline called social business, that started in the early ’00s and had been drained of emotive force by 2010, principally due to the blur caused by vendor marketing that has drifted back into the ‘right information to the right people at the right time’ vein, and lost the thread of a more humane workplace and the aspiration for people to find meaning and purpose in work.

The first wave of social business was principally an adoption of technologies like blogging, wikis, forums, intranets, community software, and various sorts of messaging. This was an early phase, much of which predated social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

The second phase of social business tech was more of an aspect of Web 2.0 era technologies, transitioning to software-as-a-service, and increasingly mobile. However, it was principally a desktop-based era, and newer solutions and practices have emerged which are much more mobile at their core, and less likely to be deployed behind the firewall on company servers.

Enterprise 2.0 was a school of thought that was strongly technology centered, based on the parallelism with the term Web 2.0. It was a school of thought that took the ‘tech’ side in the perennial debate about ‘which is more important, the technology or the people side of social business?’ Andrew McAfee of MIT is perhaps the leading advocate for the term, but it has been displaced first by ‘social business’ and now by ‘the future of work’ and ‘digital transformation’.

Digital transformation can be thought of as an industrialization of the thinking behind the research and practice of work futures, building around the growing popularity of customer experience as a unifying metaphor for customer-centered business thinking in an increasingly digital world.

Just as fast as social business has been eclipsed by work futures, in turn work futures is rapidly being crowded out in entrepreneurial and existential management and tech circles by digital transformation. Digital transformation can be thought of as an industrialization of the thinking behind the research and practice of work futures, building around the growing popularity of customer experience as a unifying metaphor for customer-centered business thinking in an increasingly digital world.

Here’s a definition I used in a recent presentation:

Digital Transformation: A new operating model of business — based on continuous innovation — by the application of digital technologies and the restructuring of operations around customer experience to better engage with customers, the company ecosystem, and the greater marketplace.

Note that the work futures content is buried mostly in the ‘restructuring of operations’ phrase, and the shape and tenor of those changes is in service to the need to get onto a digital footing in relation to customers. The focus on humanization and democratization of work in work futures discourse is shifted to customers at the center of the digital transformation weltanschauung.

I threw out the terms ‘entrepreneurial and existential management’ above, and they warrant some unpacking.

Entrepreneurial management is the branch or thread of management thinking and writing that extols entrepreneurialism above other approaches, venerates start-up culture, and which advocates for the application of practices that have come from that quarter for other, and older, companies. This includes lean and agile practice, data-centered management, and valuing experimentation and learning over tradition and institutional knowledge. There is much to admire in entrepreneurial thought, but there are aspects of this body of thought that carry forward questionable practices from the past, such as the central role of consensus building which can lead to group think and the suppression of innovation and diversity.

Existential management takes entrepreneurialism and macro-economic ideas–like Christensen’s disruption theories–and casts the challenges of business into a zero sum landscape shaped by arguments to induce management to operate through a sense of impending doom, that without new principles of business their companies will crash and burn. To the good, there are times when raising the spectre of a dangerous future can help focus attention, but this is easily overused.

I am not making light of the core truths of some of these ideas, such as the potential for companies to disrupt established industries or markets, as Apple, Google, and Uber have done, or the vast potential of lean and agile practices for business. However, the tendency toward hyperbole, and a deeply sententious, and sensationalist writing style by many in these threads often obscures the foundational value of the core ideas being expressed.

At the highest level, those exploring work futures blend cultural and economic criticism, advocacy for a more humanistic set of principles for the management and operation of business, and the scientific insights coming from fields like complexity theory, cognitive science, behavioral economics, and social psychology. As I said in a recent keynote, the shared premise of those investigating work futures is the application of new understanding about human interaction, motivation, and drive, and to embody that understanding in a new way of work.

In the months and years to come I will continue to explore and research the threads that make up the fabric of work futures, including these:

  • Tools for Work Communications: ‘Social Collaboration’, Work Management, Work Chat, Working Out Loud, and Workforce Communications — I will be closely observing the shifting landscape of the tools being applied for work communications, and the many diverging and competing theories of management that are buried in their architectures.
  • Culture Management — The tools and techniques being used to create an organization climate where higher levels of feedback and greater degrees of quantitative assessment of engagement lead to a better understanding of the sentiment and orientation of all involved in the workplace.
  • The New Social Contract — I’ve started a new series on Gigaom Research focused on the changing social contract: the operating premises that underlie the relationships between employees, management and the extended workforce of part-timers, freelancers, and independent and dependent contractors. The new social contract is also influenced by issues like diversity, economics, regulation, and the role of government and other non-corporate actors, like unions.
  • AI, Robots, and The Ephemeralization of Work — The rising power of robots, artificial intelligence, and algorithmic processing of data is leading to many occupations being taken over in whole or part, with humans having to find work elsewhere. This is one of the most critical trends in work futures. I wrote in the Pew Research report AI, Robots, and the Future of Jobs,

The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy’?

  • Fast-and-Loose Organization and Culture — A great deal of the smoke and heat in ‘the future of work’ is about new forms of organizations relying on different cultural foundations. This includes the democratization of work in general, and the adoption of new approaches — like Holacracy — that rework the notions of business management. The emerging consensus is that organizations are moving toward lateral and bottom-up networks and away from top-down hierarchies. (Note that hierarchies are networks, too, but ones with slow-and-tight forms of communications and control.) Today’s companies are becoming fast — agile, flexible, resilient — as opposed to slow — stable, rigid, unchanging. To become fast, you have to become loose: relaxing the strong ties of hierarchic controls. I will be tracking the advances made in this area closely.
  • Leadership and Management — Even management gurus have been suggesting that management has to be rethought in light of the changing conditions for organizations, today. Gary Hamel described the need to move away from bureaucracy in The Beyond Bureaucracy Challenge: Creating Inspired, Open, and Free Organizations, and asking the questions that will shape my investigations in this area:

Managing is largely about controlling and coordinating — the question is, can the work of managing be pushed out to the periphery of our organizations? Can it be automated? Can it be dispensed with entirely? Is it possible for an organization to be highly decentralized and precisely synchronized? Can you get discipline without disciplinarians? Are there ways of combining the freedom and flexibility advantages of markets with the control and coordination advantages of traditional hierarchies? Can we reduce the performance drag of our top-heavy management structures without giving anything up in terms of focus and efficiency? To what extent can “self-management” or “peer-management” substitute for “manager-management?”

Lamentably, bureaucracy lives on, where the few rule the many, and hierarchic management is still accepted as the norm. Entrepreneurial management is becoming the norm, but that may not be going far enough.

  • Innovation, Creativity, and Learning — Central to many discussions about work futures is the premise that increasing innovation in established companies is problematic, but unleashing the creativity of employees is essential for companies to compete and survive in times of rapid change. As a result we see a great deal written about practices to increase innovation, such as continuous learning, and the selection of people with certain psychological traits — like curiosity — as a precondition of increased innovation.
  • Cognitive Science — It’s interesting to see that cognitive science has recently shed light on common fallacies about learning, such as the notion that we learn better by focusing on a single skill at a time (see Cognitive Science Upends Conventional Wisdom About Studying). Like that example, there’s a long list of new findings from cognitive science that should have major impacts on business, management, and how we perceive behaviors at work: others and our own. However, much of these findings haven’t found their way into the workplace.
  • Work/Life Balance and the Costs of High Performance — Recent discussions about the costs of high pressure work environments — including the buzzfest about the New York Times exposé of Amazon — have brought the tension between ‘high performance’ workplaces and work/life balance to the forefront. I will be at the forefront of those discussions.
  • Open offices, remote work, and the mobile workforce — A revolution has taken place in business in just the past five years, driven by the rise of mobile devices and ubiquitous connectivity, we’ve witnessed wholesale changes in the physical layout of offices and the diaspora of workers from the old notion of working nine-to-five at the same desk for twenty years to a way of work that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.
  • Incentives, Meaning and Purpose — Moving past the extrinsic motivations of money and benefits, one of the major themes in work futures is interleaving intrinsic motivations — like meaning and purpose — into a larger mesh, in which human striving can be better understood.
  • Digital Transformation — Digital transformation is gaining greater weight as a result of growing awareness regarding the ‘digital customer’ (which might be better considered the ‘connected customer’). The premise is that businesses have to basically turn themselves inside out to engage customers who are migrating away from traditional forms of media consumption, and are now connected at nearly all times through mobile and other digital devices. This is associated with the growing role of new marketing thinking — based on reaching the customer at all ‘touch points’ along the ‘customer journey’ — and the declining power of the CIO and IT. Companies undergoing a digital transformation often appoint or hire someone to act as chief digital officer, which may be a stint while the company is being transformed, or may be a replacement for the CIO.

You can be sure that I will be trying to create new questions, not just answer the ones I am starting with.

It is, I realize, a broad palette, and I am sure that I am setting myself a stretch goal to included all of these topics. On the other hand, considering how these topics inevitably influence each other — or better said, are inherently tightly linked to each other — it would be pointless to enumerate only a few of these and to pretend that the others can be ignored.

You can be sure that I will be trying to create new questions, not just answer the ones I am starting with.

Originally published at gigaom.com on August 24, 2015.

Written by

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

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