Innovation comes from the edge, almost never from the centre. Sometimes it’s cool to live on the edge but for the most part it’s hard work. Things keep breaking. The business models are not proven. The procedures aren’t fixed. The models and metaphors are not understood by everyone. It’s difficult to connect with the mainstream. This is life on the edges.
I have been living on the edges for over a decade and it has given me a unique perspective. Twenty years ago I saw the power of the internet and that it could have as great an impact on society and business as the printing press did. My graduate thesis discussed this and I have since examined in depth the world as it has changed into the global village that Marshall McLuhan saw. I chose to move to the edges of business and technology to explore the emerging network era, giving up mainstream employment in order to do so. I figured that to be a good teacher I would first need to be a good learner.
In the near future, the edges will be where almost all high-value work will be done in organizations. Change and complexity will be the norm in this work. Most people will work the edges, or not at all. Core activities will be increasingly automated or outsourced. This core will be managed by very few internal staff.
This is a sea change in organizational design. Some companies are already playing with new designs, tweaking their existing models. A few, mostly start-ups, are trying completely new models. Any work where complexity is not the norm will be of diminishing value. Freelancers and contractors, already increasing in number, will be needed to address continuously evolving markets. The future of work will be in understanding complexity and dealing with chaos.
A core organizational design challenge in this shift will be addressing our inherent tribal nature. People have a strong need to belong to something identifiable. But this need for a sense of belonging can detract from critical thinking and questioning the inherent assumptions of our existing structures. However, this questioning will be essential as organizations test out new work models. Unfortunately, anthropology does not scale as easily as technology does. While some organizations may have the software networks in place, most lack pervasive network thinking and social skills.
As organizations become more technologically networked, they also face skilled, motivated and intelligent workers who can now see systemic dysfunctions. But those who talk about these problems are often branded as rebels. Pitting tribes of rebels against tribes of incumbent power-holders only detracts from the serious organizational redesign that needs to be done. In addition, traditional external consultants will be of little help because trying to solve this challenge from the outside will only result in the problems being changed from the inside. Organizations will have to solve their own problems, and this takes time.
From my perspective on the edge, a new type of business relationship is needed. Change management has to be seen as a way of working, not a separate process, and not an event. It needs to involve all tribes. On the edges the answers may not be clear, but they are less obscured than in the centre. A new business partnership is needed, between current management on the inside, workers moving to the edges, and others living beyond the organizational edges. Organizational development and change management need to move to the edges, and quickly.
This post is a follow-up to Rebels on the Edges.