Let The Network Do The Work

One of the most striking things I see when watching organizations make the transition from legacy industrial models of working to new network-based models, is that we keep trying to employ the new tools and ideas in the same old ways. Certainly, it’s quite hard to unlearn the old methods, so deeply instilled are they by prior experience, history, and momentum. But as businesses, even today, we largely still try to create all the ideas, try to control everything, and focus on doing all the work to produce outcomes within the organization, team, or enterprise, with a little help of perhaps a few closely held suppliers and business partners.

In short, most organizations still have an out-dated and overly centralized model for working, and it’s turned out to be a very difficult habit to break. Unfortunately, these old models are also inefficient, highly resource intensive, low in innovation, short-sighted, and ultimately counterproductive, when we have such better — and increasingly proven — models that greatly outperform the old ones.

All too often I still encounter enterprise collaboration efforts, customer communities, and CRM projects that make the same essential mistake: They literally transplant how they do things today into emerging digital environments such as social networks, online forums, and collaboration suites, instead of tapping into the new ways of working that these new digital environments enable. This misses the whole point of adopting innovative new ideas and technologies that can unlock deeper opportunities that just weren’t possible before.

If I have a single key lesson that every organization seeking to digitally transform must learn it’s this: You must let the network do the work. It has the bulk of the ideas, it self-organizes at scale, it needs only a little control and guidance, and it has all the productive capacity, no matter how large your organization.

Let The Network Do the Work: Using Online Community and Social Business to Scale Cost Effectively

This was driven home yet again over the weekend when I came across the story of CrowdMed, a service that aims to diagnose some of the trickiest unsolved medical problems of patients with maladies that have resisted all previous attempts. Jared Hayman, founder of CrowdMed, which uses an external community of several thousands doctors and nurses, currently claims a 50% success rate at solving this difficult cases, just by letting the network do the work.

This is just one of thousands of similar stories of network-based peer produced solutions that work far better than their traditional, centralized counterparts from another era.

Of course, the challenge is to retain essential control. I find that the list of reasons companies give to why they can’t plug networks directly into the way they work, into their products and services, into their business models, even into the own personal workstreams is nearly endless: “We can’t trust it”, “We can’t rely on it”, “Our culture isn’t ready for it”, “That’s not how we’ve traditionally worked.” The list goes on.

In the end, unfortunately, these arguments don’t really matter, other than identifying and articulating one’s obstacles to change. That’s because the competitive implications are increasingly clear to anyone who does a cursory examination: Network models are far more cost-effective, richer, and higher scale than old models of working. So we simply must find ways to adapt in order to survive.

At the highest level, the future of the enterprise is inextricably entwined with social business, crowdsourcing, the collaborative economy, etc. These are the network models that are creating the next generation of fast-growing businesses, many, such as Airbnb and countless others.

The fundamental principle then, which we put as fundamental principle #1 about getting value from the network in Social Business By Design, to tap into the most value is really quite simple: Anyone can participate.

When you prevent this from happening, intentionally or otherwise, you sharply limit the value created and opportunity accessed. But most businesses today still let very few participate: They try to do it all themselves. For most types of work, this results in outcomes that are simply uncompetitive and unsustainable in terms of the cost, quality, and effort of the outcome.

So, why aren’t more companies doing making the transition then? I’d argue they are. Most companies are slowly moving towards network models. But far too slowly, given the growing digital competition.

Thus we are still in the midst of a global transition to network models that will likely take many us a decade longer. But the writing is clearly on the wall: Most industries are filling with new digital competitors who understand the fundamental rule of creating value using networks, and unless industrial age organizations can adapt, the upstart will win (and largely have been re: open source, social media, digital ecosystems like Amazon, Google.)

Fortunately, effective transformation is still accessible to most organizations if they are willing to change their mindset and think like digital natives.

Additional Reading:

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

The Role of the Leadership in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The emerging case for open business methods | ZDNet

What Is the Future of Work?

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Much has been made recently of the imperative to fully transition our businesses into the modern digital world. It now hardly needs to be said at this point. There is even some encouraging news for traditional enterprises: The latest data from Forrester shows that companies are indeed at long last making digital transformation a top priority, with 74% of executives saying that they currently have a strategy to get there.

Yet “having a digital strategy” can also mean just about anything, depending upon who you ask. At this point however, there are basically two main forks in the road to digital for most organizations:

There is the ‘bolt-on’ strategy, which typically means adding a few new digital channels to existing touchpoints — typically social and mobile — and maybe creating an associated but minor sideline business with some digital revenue.

Then there is the ‘digital transformation’ approach to digital. It’s a full-on, meaningful reconception of the business, often using a startup or incubator model, with the intent to re-imagine a digital native organization with all that it entails, from new business models, culture shifts, remodeling of the structure and processes of the business, and rethinking of the very foundations of the enterprise across the full spectrum of digital possibility.

Enterprise Digital Business Transformation

Unfortunately, the latter approach also has many of the characteristics that corporate leadership tends to avoid: a) The big bang initiative which has a high likelihood of failure, b) cross-silo involvement, meaning it will encounter numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles, and b) the likelihood of of success being dependent on securing rarefied talent with scarce expertise that crosses the domain of the business, the world of strategic emerging technology, and next-generation IT.

The reality is that both forks have real risks: The bolt-on approach is too little and too incremental to have the requisite strategic impact, though it’s certainly a valid interim approach (as long as it’s not the only one.) On the other hand, the full digital transformation model entails a major investment and commitment across the organization with a seemingly all-to-uncertain outcome.

Yet, the latest data tells us unequivocally that the act of doing nothing — or just too little — is also sure to fail. The march of technology is wiping out traditional companies faster than ever before, and the pace is only accelerating.

Another way of putting it is that the CEOs, CIOs, COOs, and CMOs — the four roles most directly responsible for guiding this transformation — will secure rewards for their organizations that are directly commensurate with their commitment to drive broad digital adaptation and change. For the data is unambiguous: Those that don’t fully align with the state of the marketplace will be absorbed by those that do.

Forrester Digital Business Strategy Not Yet Business Strategy
Many industries even today are resistant to digital. Source: Forrester

Thinking Like a Digital Business

What can organizations do if they are serious about their responsibilities to lead the business into the future? Several clear options are emerging:

  • Seek out digital change. Avoid having it imposed. Successful next-generation enterprises — see the start of my 2014 NGE target here — won’t wait until adopting new digital channels, tech, and business models are unavoidable. They will pro-actively seek them out, learn them early on, experiment, and be ready to grow when they mature. Even fast-followers will be at risk if they don’t avidly seek out new opportunities. Dave Gray has previously pointed out research from Shell showing that the longest-lived companies are pro-active seekers and explorers of new markets. What’s more, digital change is now nearly continuous, and the organizations must establish long-term processes that tap into and pull these changes into a new “digital metabolism” that makes incorporating strategic innovation both routine and sustainable. Organizations that only respond to change will always be several steps behind those that are change-seekers. Finally, be bold it seeking out these changes. As the latest McKinsey report on digital transition notes, the winners will “be unreasonably aspirational.”
  • Cultivate capabilities to support multiple operating models. As John Kotter pointed out this week, there is now “an inseparable partnership between hierarchy and network.” We will have two and probably more major operating models in our organizations going forward, at least the legacy and the digital. We must operate and exploit each of these systems to their fullest — and together — to produce competitive and effective results today. To get there, successful leaders will strategically enable the shift of hierarchy into much more network-centric models, while cultivating the strengths of both simultaneously. Since most organizations currently have significantly underdeveloped networked operating models, this will require special investment and integration into the digital transformation process.
  • Understand and absorb the new competencies of digital across the organization. If one thing stands out clearly when I look at digital transformation efforts, is that they are often led by those who are experts in the existing business, who often don’t have the competencies in the digital space. It’s not that it can’t be learned, but it is a fast-growing and already enormous field. The profound difficulties that many transformation efforts have encountered, despite the vast on-hand resources including thousands of workers and millions of customers, has been to the distinct boundary of and very different rules for success between legacy business and digital business. I recently summarized what many business leaders don’t quite get right in their mindset and assumptions when it comes to digital transformation, but it boils down to deeply understanding and emulating what those successful in digital have done to get there. Understand the power laws of digital business, deeply absorb the concept of engaging with and co-creating new products and services with digital ecosystems, and wielding powerful new ways to scale innovation.

This is not to say that businesses have not already extensively digitized. They have, but as Sameer Patel recently pointed out, they generally have not transformed. The single biggest obstacle to successful digital transformation is a broad shift to a ‘native digital’ mindset that will consistently inform broad action. I’ve come to believe that traditional companies can make this transition, but only if they decentralize tech innovation that is coupled with a supportive new network operating model, while carefully controlling downside (typically security, data control, etc.).

So, while bolting-on a digital mindset may lead to some short-term successes, it will certainly stunt the future of your organization. Instead, employ internal and external networks to create a naturally-supportive environment where digital change is far more scalable, emergent, adaptive, and continuous.

Additional Reading:

The New Top Level Operating Models of Business

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the Chief Digital Officer

Defining the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

Many of you know that over the last several years I’ve tried to make the case that most organizations are currently falling behind the advancing pace of technological change. That business is so centered around technology today is the reason why addressing this has become a top competitive issue. Becoming better adapted to tech change is even tied to the medium-term survival of many organization as I recently explored in my look at digital transformation.

But to say that technology alone is what is disrupting traditional businesses would be inaccurate. We ourselves have changed — have co-evolved — along with technology. Our mindsets have become expanded by the new possibilities of super-connectedness, new models of working, and pervasive data-based insight that today’s networked revolution has wrought.

That’s not to say there aren’t important pros and cons to these advances as well. Along this journey of global, open, and social digital networks, we’ve also encountered enormous challenges in grappling with issues such as individual privacy and equal access, as well as the inherently large inequalities that emerge from the gaps between the digital haves and have-nots. This is precisely because technology is a profound force multiplier of just about everything it touches. There are other potential worries as well.

As The Economist fretted over recently, most technology revolutions have created more employment, not less. We hope that this is true for the next generation, but we’ll see, given how current models show that producer power is generally moving outside of traditional organizations to external networks that have less well-defined employment models:

Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove.

Yet to most of us, it’s quite clear that digital channels combined with engagement at scale within them amongst all our stakeholders is at the core of the future of business. But what does this actually mean? What does it look like to most organizations? How can we articulate the changes to structure, process, and management of our organizations in a deeply digital age? It’s my belief we need a comprehensive yet eminently understandable model of how all this reshapes our organizations.

Ecosystem View of the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014: Workforce Community, Customer Community, Partner Community, Market, Social Business

I’ve come to realize we’re trying to hit a fast-moving target with poorly aging models for service delivery and IT governance when it comes to digital transformation. The reality is that it usually takes several years for a large organization to achieve large scale change. By this I mean three to five years, and often more, and that’s just for an individual enterprise-wide initiative.

In today’s operating environment of yearly — sometimes quarterly — waves of highly disruptive enterprise technologies and products, that’s just too long. We need a clearer and more updated sense of where we need to take our organizations, and it must also show us how to increase our technology metabolism as well. This model should include the broad strategic outlines as well as specific adaptations to the latest powerful new digital capabilities such as big data analytics, omnichannel customer engagement, the Internet of Things, social business, and so on. These subjects are all highly strategic to the future of our organizations at the moment, yet they are also interrelated and must fit together relatively well in this model somehow.

Related: Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

Motivation for an Infinitely Renewing Model of Tech & Business

Over the last few years, I’ve adopted a term known as the next generation enterprise or NGE for short. It’s the idea that we can maintain an up-to-date strategic model when it comes to digital transformation. The vision for the next generation enterprise is different from one year to the next and has specific technological phases as well as overall strategic themes at any given time. This vision has its own management theories as well, such as shifting from organizational hierarchy to networked community or reorganizing how we operate to the three new top-level modes, to name just two examples.

In other words, the idea of the next generation enterprise is a relatively complete view — including both business and technology — of the target that typical organizations should be aiming for in their objectives for digital adaptation and growth. For the moment, let’s put aside whether there even is a typical organization, since many of the most important technology innovations are usually agnostic to your particular industry or unique company attributes. In other words, most major technology advances will derail your boat if you ignore them long enough, no matter what business you’re in.

To give us a shared roadmap and a point of reference, I’d like to start putting a clearer definition behind what we think is meant by a next-generation enterprise. Early this year, I mapped out the most important strategic new enterprise technologies, but it was a purely technology view and included a good many tactical elements that aren’t that important when it comes the big picture.

Instead, I’d like to have a more enterprise-centric view that includes the most important advances in business that technology has directly enabled. Some would say that the advent of being digital connected to every human being on the planet at all times (at least in the developed world) is one of those advances, and I agree. This realization is that communities are moving increasingly to the center of our businesses. But it’s more than that. The enclosing strategic conception is really one of ecosystem, whether that’s inside a segment of the enterprise with a single networked team, an external customer community, or a full-on developer network of thousands of application development partners who have welded your digital supply chain to their apps. All of these are ecosystems that must be created (or identified), grown, cultivated, managed, secured, and governed.

In fact, one of the largest issues we have in digital transformation today is that we look at business in a far too simplistic traditional model. In this legacy view, there are functional silos with workers combined with management hierarchies that together actually make decisions and operate our organizations. Then there are suppliers, business partners, and customers, and that’s about it for the big moving parts.

Baseline for Next Generation Enterprise 2014: Networks, Communities, and Support Programs (Social Media Center of Excellence)Today’s next generation enterprise plays on a much larger and more complex chessboard. There are thousands of relevant ecosystems that now exist for most businesses, most informal, and across thousands more channels, all with a long tail structure.

This means that while the head of the distribution consists of big channels you’ve heard of — from major social networks and call centers to traditional media and Amazon’s cloud — there are thousands you haven’t heard of and will never be able to deliberately consider and plan for. Business architecture has thus moved from simple planned models to complex and highly dynamic emergent networks across every business function we have. We’ve gone from a few dozen groups of stakeholders to ultimately tens of thousands that we must still manage to somehow. Ultimately, our org structures must adapt to reflect this.

I’ve previously proposed a set of enterprise strategies which have a good chance at addressing many of this issues, which were originally brought forth by the channel fragmentation, scale, and decentralization that we saw greatly exacerbated by IT consumerization a couple of years ago. But I now see that bring-your-own-device was just the forefront of a wave of grassroots led network-enabled change, including bring-your-own-application, bring-your-own-community, and soon, even bring-your-own-workforce.

Related: Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The Element of The Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

So I’d like to put a stake in the ground and define what I think the next generation enterprise for 2014 should look like. There are several views here, but I’ll start with the more business-centric view of ecosystem and expand to other views as I’m able. In this ecosystem view we have the following components:

  • A more network-centric enterprise. Less hierarchical and consisting much more of online communities for achieving cost-effective outcomes at scale. This will happen within and amongst the workforce (network/social collaboration), business partners, customers, and the marketplace. Management and leadership through networks will become an essential skills and will require knowledge of the concepts and operation of digital and social businesses.
  • Workforce communities. While we’ve had a primitive model of team in the legacy workplace, it becomes much more fluid, dynamic, and high scale in the networked world, often directly supported by powerful new collaboration capabilities. Teams-based, project-centric, and — still evolving — process-based work conducted by communities will increasingly become the norm. Why? Because the data has consistently supported that the network/community model provides better business results.
  • Business partner communities. One of the least developed models of networked communities, there are however good examples that can be pointed to. Strategic partners, affiliates, and suppliers can be engaged together in operations, in particular — as John Hagel famously pointed out — with exception handling scenarios.
  • Customer communities. This is one of the strongest and most easily started models for strategic community. The evidence for business value is strong enough that I’ve wondered if the window is already closing on customer communities in certain industries. Certainly in my research I’ve found that customer care communities can reduce costs by 30% in the first year alone over traditional approaches. Social support also at the very top of Ray Wang’s social business use cases.
  • Marketplace. The single most scalable asset that businesses have is networked access to their customers and the broader marketplace. While this constituency also includes regulators and influencers, two groups that can be hard to manage, it also includes online advocates, crowdsourcing participants, software developers, and other interested parties. If you’re surprised to see developers in this list, then don’t be: Developers have become one of the single most important new constituencies as their innovations can drive primary growth and network effects. This is a very different view of business than before, where companies directly engaged their stakeholders.
  • New channels. The next generation enterprise will still have some legacy aspects including physical offices/stores — just smaller and more virtual — it will be the Web and especially on mobile devices that value is primarily created and captured, both. Social business environments (communities of all functional types and audiences) and the application as the new CRM will be key channels here as well. Ultimately, however, APIs — which I define as open digital supply chains — will be the most strategic channel for many industries because it scales faster and creates far more robust outcomes for very little investment.

Using this model, we can also baseline the various states of maturity of each part of the modern enterprise ecosystem for comparison, as in how far along are we? The essential point here with this view of the next-generation enterprise is that it’s the current target model, not what you should look like today. It’s what you should be aiming for, although you should certainly have some elements of it in place today (see figure 2.)

What do you see as other essential views of the next generation enterprise? What else needs to be added?

Related: The Second Wave of the Contemporary Workforce

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

Over the last year or so, a fascinating bow wave of interest has been converging on a growing cadre of companies who appear to be doing something quite novel and seemingly new. Specifically, these organizations have apparently thrown off many of the traditional structures and processes of corporate management. Interestingly, all of these organizations are focusing on change through people first, technology second, if at all.

Though sometimes employing the language of social business, these innovative organizations aren’t just centering their efforts at rethinking their business around digital/social. Instead, they are focused primarily on fundamentally changing their thinking and behavior around work itself. This is something Hugh MacLeod noted last week that is likely to literally become one of the next big industries, albeit in a virtual sense, as we seek en masse to adapt our organizations to much faster rates of change and innovation.

Ironically, as the changes being made aren’t primarily technological but cultural, it’s the organizations which don’t have a strong or healthy culture that are finding that technology revolutions like social media are greatly amplifying their shortcomings in this regard.

Management Hierarchy versus Online Community

Some of the notable exemplars that have been held up as poster children for this trend include Southwest Airlines, W.L. Gore, Valve, Zappos, and Morning Star. All of these firms have realized in some form a contemporary new and self-organizing way of working that pushes action, responsibility, and change directly to the edge of the organization, where workers are essentially free from unnecessary bureaucratic and political constraints to take initiative, make decisions, and act on their insight.

It’s not fully clear yet if we’re seeing the emergence of a broader trend or if these are isolated examples, but the overall success of these organizations is well-established, as most of them are leaders in their industry. Side note: By isolated examples, I mean in the traditional enterprise space. There are countless successful examples in the digital space.

So, as we try to understand these examples, I’ve wondered what is really happening in this new wave of how we manage and structure the traditional organization. Fortunately, I do believe we’ve started to get a good sense of this and it helps us understand how these ideas could possibly work. An important discussion recently of these changes by Steve Denning makes a rather convincing case that hierarchy is not exactly what’s being eliminated in these new models. Instead, hierarchies themselves are shifting from org charts, fixed responsibilities, and formal titles to a more fluid and competency-based model:

Thus I often hear it said, and see it written, that firms [...] have done exactly that, i.e. “gotten rid of managers” and “abolished hierarchy.”

This is a misunderstanding. This is not what these organizations are doing or what the ongoing paradigm shift in management is about at all.

In networked organizations, where work is self-managed, there are still managers. The managers have become enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals. In those organizations, someone has to sign checks. Someone has to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization. Someone is legally responsible for what is done by the organization. That someone is a manager. A manager after all is simply someone who is responsible for getting things done. If anything is to get done, an organization has to have managers.

There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence. It is a change in the role of the manager, not an abolition of the function.

Based on my work, I think Steve’s analysis is very close, yet not the entire picture. The part that is missing is that indeed there is a broader move in many organizations towards a networked structure, one based on earned, peer recognized competency and manifesting itself in loosely-coupled, dynamically formed, and freely participative teams (pods in Dave Gray’s language.)

It’s a Community, It’s a Networked Hierarchy

However, it’s also becoming increasingly clear to me that the part of this story that is left out here is the very notion of the enterprise itself. Our increasingly antiquated view of companies as self-contained entities with leaders and workers working within rigid and slow-to-change functional silos that are also supposed to provide all the ideas and all the motive force is no longer effective or accurate. In fact, the single most disruptive force shifting hierarchy is the same force that is also expanding the meaning of hierarchy beyond the boundaries of the organization.

This force is community, and by that I generally mean online communities, although their incarnation in the digital is not always required, as we clearly see from the examples above. I’ve long believed that communities are moving to the very center of our organizations — this means operations, structure, and yes, even business model — and it’s really the community model that is being replicated in today’s new corporate hierarchies.

What does this shift mean to businesses, specifically? Functioning organizations will soon rely on, as they already do to hundreds of organizations today, communities that will deliver essential capabilities to the enterprise that used to be intrinsic to self-contained organizations: Marketing, advocacy, pre-sales support, product development, customer care, operations, and other functions. There are excellent examples of community-centric versions of all of these functions happening at scale in traditional enterprises.

So while I do find it quite interesting when we look at new models for recasting the classical notion of the workforce — and look at the classical workforce only — it’s essential that we don’t merely regard the subject through the myopic lens of the old org chart. Instead, we must use the deeper understanding that networked organizations are hybrids that fully merge traditional workforce and online community. Again, the more transformative examples seem to focus on the people more than the technology, though the latter — especially social technologies — does seem vital, as long as it’s not put first.

Implications of Networked Work Hierarchies

The move to networked models of work therefore appears to imply the following:

  • A network of self-interested people organizing dynamically around what needs to be done is more efficient and effective. Forcing work down only through traditional hierarchies produces poorer and much more costly outcomes. This assumes of course, that there are tools, education, and organizational structures to enable the former. Again the evidence is clear that peer production is a richer — if sometimes less predictable — and far more scalable and agile way of working. Therefore:
  • Greater business value is created with least overhead or friction by self-interested and engaged communities. Organizations that try to “do it all” with their own workforce simply cannot compete.
  • The individual/organizational bond is steadily becoming the individual/community/organizational bond. Community is a new emerging construct between our institutions and individuals. Like most major changes to the world, this is neither a complete nor total shift, but a gradual change in the center of gravity. Thanks to Harold Jarche, for a summary of his ideas that helped crystallize this particular insight for me.

Consequently, the enterprises that don’t fully appreciate they are now part of a much larger and richer system-of-systems of people — and redesign themselves around this new reality — will increasingly be at risk. To survive, our organizations must pro-actively seek to efficiently ramp up participation in the richer, shared outcomes that only the productive entanglement with communities — internal and external — can produce.

Finally, if you’re not sure this is a big part of our business future, we have only to look at the mass dislocation that the collaborative economy is producing in so many industries, where communities are at the very center of the business model, to see that this is actually happening today and widely.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

What is the Future of Work?

Much has been made recently about one of the stand out trends of the times we live in: Everything is becoming infused with technology. Software is eating the world it is said. Some have claimed that next it might even eat the jobs, which to some degree is almost certainly the case. With only a little bit of irony, Hugh MacLeod humorously noted this week that software may eventually eat all the people. But even that could be a bit closer to the truth than some of us might expect.

But the point is this: In the last half-decade alone, most of us would admit the societal and cultural shifts that technology and global digital networks have wrought is nothing short of astounding:

Social media is relentlessly chipping away at the power and control that companies and governments have long enjoyed almost exclusively over the rest of the world. Supply chains, talent management (hiring), customer service, product development, and just about every function of business is being transformed by things like 3D printing, social recruiting, customer care communities, crowdsourcing, to only name a few of the more important examples. That’s not even looking at the macro changes (example: Arab Spring), in which digital/social is impacting the fabric of entire nations. In all of these cases, the power and control is shifting to the other side of the network, to what many now call the ‘edge’, where most of us are.

Unfortunately, there remains a constituency that remains stubbornly in the back of the pack when it comes to the large scale changes happening in the world today. Surprisingly, this constituency formerly used to actually lead the technology world. Instead, it is now dragged along by consumer technology companies and their customers. Yes, I am referring to our corporations, to which I’ll add our institutions, including our governments and associated entities.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

The Future of Work, Technology, Business, Culture, and Society

I’ve explored many times in recent years how traditional businesses have essentially lost the leadership mantle when it comes to technology. But finally now there is an increasingly concerted effort to take some of it back, to get back in the game, to use the realization that the methods we’re using in large organizations to apply technology to work is often failing, and badly.

This has led us generally to a broader global discussion on the future of work. With our institutions, expectations, and behaviors undergoing a steadily increasing rate of change, where is all this taking us? What will the workplace of the end of the decade look like and work like? That has been a question that’s been coming up more and more frequently. The answers are often focused purely on the externally obvious — and their easily determined — differences, such as the wide range of disruptive new technologies moving into the workplace today. While the technology is certainly a subject of fascination and I’ve been talking recently to audiences around the world about it, it’s not enough. We must move the conversation up a level and talk about the changes to us, the people that make up our workforces and our customers, and which are taking place as our businesses move deeper towards a very different 21st century model of work.

When then does the the future of work look like? Nobody has the full picture of course, but I am increasingly sure it broadly looks something like this:

The Future of Work: The Key Aspects

  • The evolution of the business/worker compact We are on a trajectory that has taken us well away from lifetime employment, guaranteed pensions, and single careers where largely benevolent, parent-like corporations looked after their workers, to a model where the principle actors, both companies and individuals, are much more autonomous, self-interested, and dynamic. Like all things this has trade-offs, but in the large this directly facilitates more rapid evolution of those involved and potentially creates a richer, more rewarding — if seemingly riskier — work environment for us, especially if we’re self-actualizing. There are other implications as well.
  • CSR/social enterprise and the need for business to go beyond a basic value proposition. It’s not good enough just to sell products and services anymore. Companies and their workers must be thinking about the bigger picture as the marketplace is increasingly demanding that the businesses they work with are concerned about overall global outcomes. Sustainability, environmentalism, corporate social good/responsibility, and other urgent qualitative matters of policy and governance are going to increasingly infuse how we work. Doing this successfully will require a very different mindset in our workforce than our traditional organizations typically have cultivated in the past.
  • New modes of management and workforce collaboration. The management theory — or more likely theories, plural, as there are probably several good ways of thinking about it as I’ve recently explored — for the future of work is starting to emerge. The same with team, department, company-wide, and mass collaboration. Then there is the collaborative economy that is genuinely remaking very concept of how business works for the digital era. Read some of Harold Jarche’s latest musings on work to get a sense of what the mechanics might look like, as well as Stowe Boyd’s recent thoughts on going back to the fundamentals with social business thinking.
  • New transformative workplace technologies. Everything from wearable tech to mind/machine interfaces and increasingly commonplace social business tools are changing how we will work. This will further change expectations and possibilities. I’ve explored the important technologies to watch this year, but there are many others in the wings and they will only come faster and be increasingly impactful. Our businesses are also becoming platforms in every sense of the word, becoming technologies in their own right. As Fred Wilson observed yesterday, it’s increasingly urgent for organizations to find — and become — the next platform.
  • New approaches for addressing diversity and inequality. While still I’m on the fence about the best ways to address these, you can be sure there will be enormous investments made through the rest of the decade by businesses, government, and other institutions to start tackling the structural issues in the global economy. We’ve increasingly learned and come to accept how much they impact business performance and the bottom-line.
  • A shift in the fundamental relationship between workers and business. This can be most clearly seen in the inversion of the traditional model of business, realized directly by the flourishing of vast numbers of self-organizing online communities. Now people can just come together online and create shared value without an intermediate organization that would otherwise have to the resources required to meet their needs. What does this mean for how important the traditional model business and work will be to people? The classical enterprise clearly isn’t as necessary as before for many purpose. Now we need to look ahead and see how these trends will affect how we structure, manage, and operate our organizations.
  • Co-evolutionary changes in society and global/regional culture that impact the workplace. Technology improves what’s possible by dramatically lowering the effort, time, or cost of doing something, or even makes something entirely new possible that was simply impossible before. This sets expectation and enables/encourages new types of behavior in people and society as a whole. These soft changes in us then drive the exploration of new technologies guided by behavior changes and new norms. We need to better understand where this co-evolutionary process is taking us, as well as anticipating how these new directions will impact it will affect our businesses.

Surely, this list is fairly incomplete. Unfortunately, more change is taking place now than we can really individually know (and is one reason why I believe locally autonomous adaptation is essential to the future of work.) Given how disruptive change has been in the last 20 years, remaking industries, creating giant new entities (Internet, Web, and cloud ecosystems like Amazon, Google), and dramatically changing what’s possible, the next-generation of work is likely to be almost radically different, while also being incredibly interesting. It’s worth it for us to find out as much as we can so we can prepare and anticipate the future, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary disruption — preferably being the author of your own disruption — while capturing increasingly historic opportunities.

Additional Reading:

Ten strategies for making the “Big Leap” to next-gen enterprise | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

Does technology improve employee engagement? | ZDNet

Can technology improve business innovation? | ZDNet

Rethinking Work In the Collaborative Era

Over the last few years, there has been an enormous amount of industry discussion about how the digital world is changing the way we work. To any reasonable observer, the ways that we communicate, interact, and collaborate with each other are all in the midst of profound change. At least the why seems fairly clear.

At at high level, there appear to be three major root causes for why collaboration — the very core of how people come together and function as a business — is in the midst of reinvention:

  1. Hierarchical management styles break down in the face of the inherent complexity and scale of the modern business environment.
  2. New digital tools have put us in constant and direct contact with nearly every person in the developed world at virtually no cost or effort. Thus businesses are now primarily subject to the power laws of networks, rather than the legacy rules of business.
  3. There has been a sustained shift in the power of creation, as the edges of our organizations and marketplaces now have readily in hand as much — and often more — productive power and reach than our institutions. The obvious cause is today’s pervasive global platforms for self-expression (yes, by this I largely mean social media, but also all forms of digital connectedness.)

Harold Jarche calls the reaction of our existing businesses to this new operating environment the “industrial disease” for which complexity is the single biggest challenge to working effectively:

Today’s complicated organizations are now facing increasingly complex business environments that require agility in simultaneously learning and working. Typical strategies of optimizing existing business processes or cost reductions only marginally improve the organization’s effectiveness. Faster markets challenge the organization’s ability to react to customer demand. Decision-making becomes paralyzed by process-based operations and chains of command and control.

Organizations need to understand complexity instead of adding more complication.

The long and short of it, despite many attempts, is that we still don’t have generally accepted management theories about how to cope with these changes. That’s not today there haven’t been many attempts to describe aspects of it. Over the years these have included Enterprise 2.0, social business, wirearchy, podularity, holacracy, to name just a few of the more well-known ones.

But as we are still in early days — although we’re perhaps past the end of the beginning — of the story of how digital networks are remaking work, and it is still very much unfolding. Frankly, we’re just trying to learn enough about what’s really happening to our organizations to articulate it well. Certainly, the reasons why we must try to understand how work is changing are many, not the least because it’s what we must do to create value for ourselves and society. But we’re finding even how value itself is created and evaluated is in the midst of change.

Network Collaboration: New Modes and Scale of Work in a Digital, Social Workplace

Currently, I believe we’re about to enter another major phase of conception in how we think about work in general, even though we’re not yet done absorbing the last few generations of ideas. This new phase will be more comprehensive, transformative, and almost immediately challenging (yes, even that overused word, disruptive) to our businesses and institutions.

The Three Major Collaborative Changes

Furthermore, I now think we can get a glimpse of this new conception. Over this weekend I came across Eli Ingraham’s terrific exploration on CMSWire of how collaboration is currently changing. I believe she’s come as close as anyone has been able to get in framing up this new way of thinking about the transformation of work in our times.

Eli says that today’s overall changes to work can be organized and described as top-level concepts:

I see three major forces in The Collaborative Intervention: the Future of Work, the Collaborative Economy and Global Solutions Networks. Their tenets transcend geography, generation, gender and any other constructs that divide us. They are about how we co-exist, and co-innovate, on the planet as human beings.

I’ve rearranged it a bit in my framing of these three major and interlocking new dimensions of work in the visual above but I think this is the right articulation.

First, we are seeing the emergence and primacy of network collaboration. Today’s technologies are remaking team, departmental, and organization-wide collaboration, primarily via social tools, online communities, and other new systems of engagement such as rich collaborative experiences.

Second, at the next structural level, we see that businesses are beginning to use industry-wide and/or domain-specific business networks (communities) to come together to solve problems they are not able to solve by themselves. Don Tapscott’s global solutions networks is probably the clearest articulation to date, but the ideas have been evolving for a while.

And finally, third, we have the collaborative economy, best identified and described so far by Jeremiah Owyang, which is how a large section of the global economy is rapidly being restructured around open and highly-scaled digital collaboration between new network-centric businesses and their communities of users.

The implication, if this summarizes the most significant things happening in work today, is that most businesses will have to come to terms with these transformational changes and restructure themselves around them. Given how rapidly this is taking place in certain quarters, particularly the fast-growing and highly disruptive startups of the collaborative economy, they will have to adapt to this new reality fairly soon.

As I wrote recently, digital communities are upending our organizations, and not slowly any longer. But they don’t have to. There is growing and decent evidence that organizations can make the change, if they are fully committed and pro-active. What’s more, the results seem to indicate they’re very much worth making, if you’re prepared to change what’s necessary.

Also Read:

Does technology improve employee engagement? | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

Social Business: Frameworks for Next-Gen Organizational Structure | Slideshare

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

As we’ve watched digital networks reshape just about every aspect of business these days, I’ve found that we’ve struggled to come up with the right words and ways to describe a very different way of working. From vast app stores and pervasive streams of big data to enterprise social networks and customer engagement, the rules that Internet-based models of business impose are often very different.

Yet some well-known elements of business haven’t necessarily changed and have only become more pronounced: For example, scale is one of the single biggest challenges in moving to digital and social business, but has also been a challenge in our globalized world for some time. Today’s pervasive network connectedness is making this factor ever more pronounced. For organizations now this typically means having to maintain tens of thousands, or even millions, of simultaneous conversations with the marketplace for critical activities such as marketing, sales, and customer service. It also means most businesses will have to manage an order of magnitude more suppliers, business partners, and other 3rd party relationships (example: open APIs are a great harbinger of high scale in digital supply chains.)

Thus, the challenges of magnitude infuse everything in digital: Distribution, supply, engagement, control, competition, and even — or perhaps especially — security and sustainability. However, in other areas, especially where digital and social networks fundamentally change the fabric of things, we still don’t have clearly identified constructs, or even good words that we can use.

Digital and Social Business Ecologies: How Workforce and Market Engagement Are Blending

For instance, it’s been abundantly clear for a decade now that open digital communities are a new and revolutionary construct that have gone on to literally change the world. From upending media and software (social media and open source communities, respectively) to remaking the fundamental nature of how business in all industries gets done (collaborative economy), large, self-organizing communities are taking the lead. Digital technology even changes the underlying forces of the age-old concept of community. For example, even though the idea of community has been around since there have been people, the digital incarnation seemingly does something a bit different: Instead of forming insular walls that group people together, digital communities tends to group people together and break the walls down.

It’s here that I think we’re missing the name of a key concept, or at least, we’re not using one that needs to be applied here. Specifically, I believe that the relationship between the traditional enterprise and online communities has been greatly underexplored. For sure, we have many good examples now of enterprise communities that have created results across our value chains today.

But what we don’t have is a good understanding of what relationship communities should have to business at a strategic level. Are communities an adjunct to a specific function under certain conditions, such as customer service communities or product development/innovation communities when existing traditional processes underperform? Are communities to be the primary delivery model, or a secondary? My belief is that this thinking is now too incremental.

Instead, I believe businesses should now focus directly on moving to community-led business structures and processes as a first class citizen. The force multiplier of social technology here has simply proven far too great not to put at the core of our businesses, and not doing so has begun to have significant competitive and sustainability implications.

To get there, we need to talk about digital communities and business in new ways that explain their new relation to the enterprise much better than we do today. I’d like to suggest that as digital business practitioners we starting exploring this landscape in the form of ecologies, when we talk about business and community. Why ecologies? Because of what the term means:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the study of interactions among individuals and their environment.

Therefore, it behooves us to much better understand — in relation to our stakeholders — the exact nature, interaction, and possibilities of communities and business, a twin environment we’ve not really had before in business as the highest order concepts. The motivation here is that the new fundamental environment for business in the 21st century is the digital network, and specifically, online communities of every description. Given the way they are upending what’s possible in terms of how to achieve just about every function in business, it’s time we capture a more complete conception of their role. I believe this means articulating their centrality to the operating model of many or most activities in the enterprise today.  While that sounds like a bold statement, I believe the results we’ve seen so far (see the nearly 100 case examples we put in Social Business By Design for a small sample) fully bear this out.

As my good friend Stowe Boyd recently wrote [my emphasis]:

We need a CDO-style figure in most businesses — if not the CEO — to make that transition to a postnormal footing, where work technology is at the core of what everyone does, not an afterthought or add-on. The inability of traditional IT to deliver on the promise of today’s technology is the universal business facepalm of our day.

Network technology is dominating the transformation of business today. Now we need to successfully adapt our management theories and practices to this new reality.

Additional Reading:

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the CDO and CCO | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

A new reality between the CMO and CIO | ZDNet

Enterprises and Ecosystems: Why Digital Natives Are Dethroning The Old Guard | On Web Strategy

Four key takeaways for digital transformation | Econsultancy

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