New models of organizing work

This week MIT's question for readers to debate is 'In five years, what new models of work and collaboration will we see?' I love the word 'will' because it suggests we can predict with accuracy and make it so. What is it that keeps people, including me, wanting to hazard a guess on what new models of work will be (or rather more appropriately might be since we don't know)?

I need to follow discussions on possible futures because my clients are all aiming to be capable of meeting the future. They want to be resilient, adaptive, flexible, able to scale up and down, turn on a pin-head (or, actually the current buzz word 'pivot'), and so on in response to whatever happens. No-one wants to be a Kodak, BlackBerry, or Tesco (not now) in the US.

What's interesting about asking about new models of work is that there are lots of competing notions of what 'work' is. Take ironing, for example. If you iron your own shirt is that 'work'? If you pay someone to iron your shirt for you is that 'work'? Kahlil Gibran, a poet, suggests that 'work is love made visible' and I like this idea although doubt it is what the MIT people had in mind in posing the question about new models of work.

For the purposes of this piece I'll take 'work' to mean a flow of activity that results in payment of money. I suggest that 'work' is a process and along the process are 'jobs'. Even in the ironing example you can see a work flow – A gives B a shirt to be ironed. B irons it and hands it to C to fold it or put it on a hanger. C passes it to D to put in the collection point. A collects it. Each person in this work flow has a 'job' and each job may have a description, authority levels, competencies for fulfillment, a salary attached to that level of job content in the work flow, etc. There are whole organizations helping other organizations with 'job design' e.g. Hay Group.

So implicit in 'new models of work' are 'new jobs' or at least some new types of job content. Looking from this perspective job content has the potential to shift rapidly, perhaps in some sectors more than others.
In 'The work of nations' published in 1992 Robert Reich talked about three types of 'work':

  • Routine, assembly line work.
  • In person face to face work.
  • Symbolic analytic work (now called knowledge work)

Add in another category – 'artisan' work: hand made guitars, for example – and you have four models of work that are as valid now as they were 20 years ago. I can't think of any other possible new models of work but maybe my brain is limited by what I know. It is the job content in all of these four models that is new – the artisan may be 3D printing all or part of the guitar, the assembly line worker may be working alongside a robot, the doctor may be doing remote operations, the knowledge worker may be interpreting big data rather than personally number crunching. In some cases the job content may be different because within the model of work the product or service is new – social media directors for example did not exist as a job before social media but the model of their work still falls into the category of knowledge worker. I don't think we will see new models of work within the next five years.

I do think though, that if the question read 'What new models of organizing the work (and by implication, jobs and job content) will we see?' there will be significant differences. Take the pronouncement made last year that 'The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories: people who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.' Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2012 That bears some thinking about. It suggests that some work and jobs will be organized by computers rather than humans. Talking about this phrase to some colleagues one of them wanted to know who would be telling the people who told the computers what to do? Having just read the incredibly scary book 'The Circle' by Dave Eggers, which is about who tells the computers what to do – it's possible that if this new model of organizing work takes hold at the top will be two megalomaniacs intent on 'doing no evil' whilst destroying everything human in the name of information transparency.

An alternate way of organizing work is to look at self organizing models and I think that this is a new model of organizing work and will continue to spread. – I was just reading about taxi hire and how the organization of that workflow is changing though 'smartphone apps that are reshaping the taxi market'. In this model (of in person work) there is a centralized hub – one that is supporting the development of the software for the self-organizing, often monetizing the offering, lobbying for changes in legal frameworks, and so on.

Another new model for organizing work that I see talked about a lot is 'everyone is self-employed'. Obviously self-employment is not a new model of organizing work (and can be seen within all four of the models of work) but if literally everyone is self-employed then it would be. There does seem to be a trend towards freelancing, self-employment and what Charles Handy, a management writer in the 1980s, called 'portfolio careers' that is people who work for themselves and serve a portfolio of individuals and entities . (Not to be confused with low paid workers who are employed by two or more employers in order to make a living wage).

A further model that I think is going to gain a great deal of ground is the organization of work (self employed or employed) not in 'offices' as we traditionally think of them but in the various co-working/liquid space type places that are springing up. I noticed another new one close to where I live had opened in the week I was away. This newish model of organizing work will give a different perspective on leadership, management, and performance measurement. Similarly production of many items could be done not on assembly lines in large plants but in small 3D printing facilities. Each of the four types of work I think will increasingly be organized in this distributed model. (Perhaps less so the artisan but certainly the other three).

In direct opposition to the distributed form of organizing work I think there will be new models of organizing work around campuses. Campuses are not a new idea but there does seem to be increasing interest particularly amongst technology giants to get all their staff on campus ('The Circle' mentioned earlier highlights this trend). The incentives provided by these companies to encourage a totally on-site are very attractive for some types of people or in some types of labor markets.

So far, I've suggested that there are unlikely to be new models of work – I think the four categories hold good, but clearly there will be new job content within these models of work. But I've suggested five new models for organizing work. These new organizing models are a) a high level centralized authority figure dictating what goes on b) self organizing c) everyone is self-employed d) distributed work e) campus work.

I haven't forgotten the second bit of the MIT question which asks about new models of collaboration. Think of collaboration as a group of people working together to achieve a common purpose and it is clear that the model is unchanged even with new forms of organizing work. However there are many (and increasing numbers) of new tools available to support collaboration.

  • Campus workers, for example, could be using wearable sensing devices that give insight into communication patterns which can be manipulated to increase collaboration e.g. by making face to face interaction more likely in the way workplace interiors are designed.
  • Distributed workers or the self-employed will benefit from increasing sophistication of on-line forums and special interest groups that can rapidly source information and insights to problem solve.
  • Self-organizing models of work lend themselves to collaboration via social media of one type or another.
  • The dictatorial method of organizing work doesn't square too much with collaboration but rather with instruction and 'how to', and there's no shortage of new tools that provide this. One that caught my eye was on the monitoring of compliance with hand washing requirements in health facilities.

My response to MIT then is no new models of work but new methods of organizing work, and no new model of collaboration but many new tools for collaborating. What's your response? Let me know.