A new social contract for creative work

In the TechCrunch article, What if this is no accident?, Jon Evans looks at the current boom in software engineering jobs in comparison to the lack of jobs elsewhere. He wonders if this is how the new economy will look for a while.

It’s beginning to look like we might have entered a two-track economy, in which a small minority reaps most of the benefits of technology that destroys more jobs than it creates. As my friend Simon Law says, “First we automated menial jobs, now we’re automating middle-class jobs. Unfortunately, we still demand that people have a job soon after becoming adults. This trend is going to be a big problem…”

I’ve been saying for a while that simple and merely complicated work will continue to get automated and outsourced (read this post if you don’t believe it or look at this example of legal work getting automated). To keep a job in the creative economy (with core skills of Initiative, Creativity & Passion) one  must become an indispensable linchpin in the organization.

I think more opportunities are being created than destroyed, but our institutions and our cultural mindset still are not ready for this change. Politicians continue to think in terms of jobs. Universities still have job fairs, hinting that such a thing as a career will exist in a hyper-networked world. Parents push their children into undergraduate programs that cost more than graduates can ever repay. Laws are structured so that corporations create wealth in return for indentured servitude, where employees own none of the intellectual property they generate. In such an environment, why would workers try to innovate? The indicators that the underlying nature of work and wealth generation have changed are everywhere.

I’ve questioned the rationale of continuing practices such as:

  • Mass training with standard performance objectives for everyone. What two people really have the same job any more?
  • Limited  options for part-time work at the control of the worker.
  • Standard HR policies that drain the initiative out of people.
  • Banning access to online social networks at work and disconnecting workers from their social safety nets and innovation sources.
So why aren’t we all working for learning organizations, in this day and age? The work that we will be paid for in the foreseeable future is the difficult, innovative, one-of-a-kind, creative stuff. Educational institutions need to help get people ready for this, and standardized tests or common curriculum are of little use in the networked workplace. A core part of this change, in my opinion, is integrating learning and work, because change is continuous, not some special initiative to implement and then get back to normal. I’ve recommended some changes that I now see taking hold in a few places:

  • Abolish the organization chart and replace it with a network diagram (some new tech companies have done this).
  • Move away from counting hours, to a results only work environment (with distributed work, this is becoming more common).
  • Encourage outside work that doesn’t directly interfere with paid work, as it will strengthen the network (such as Google’s 20% time for engineers).
  • Provide options for workers to come and go and give them ways to stay connected when they’re not employed (like Ericsson’s Stay Connected Facebook group). Build an ecosystem, not a monolith.

Our challenge is not saving those jobs that will be automated and outsourced anyway, but focusing on creating more opportunities for creative work. For institutions, employers, educators and workers, that means giving up control and co-creating a new social contract for the creative, networked economy.

I wouldn’t wait if I was in charge of an organization. I would get these changes going as soon as possible. Successfully implemented, this organization would not have a talent acquisition or retention problem for a long time.

2 Responses to “A new social contract for creative work”

  1. Samuel Driessen (@driessen)

    Great post, Harold. Question: you say, abolish the org. chart. Do you also mean: abolish hierarchy? And processes/procedures? To me even networks have hierarchy. Not hierarchy based on position, but on expertise/experience, opnions, etc. And not all processes/procedures are bad as long as we don’t overdo it and skip the network being the propeller of the process.

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