Characteristics of social business design for the maker generation in the workplace

Excerpted from a contribution on social business design by JP Rangaswami:

“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 within the enterprise, 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.”

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