I spoke at the UNL Extension conference in Nebraska last week. The theme was on the changing nature of work as we enter the network era and how learning is becoming integral to individual and organizational success. I noted how the period of 1900 to 1920 saw a significant shift in the American economy, with manufacturing replacing farming as the dominant economic activity. The resulting demographic shift was millions of men leaving farms and moving to factories. The Cooperative Extension program was created in 1914 while this shift was taking place. One hundred years later and we are witnessing a similar shift, from the industrial economy to the network era and a creative economy. For a deeper look at this phenomenon, see Nine Shift.
Today, knowledge-based work is replacing manufacturing jobs. Robots and software are displacing routine work. Meanwhile, collaborative work is dominating both transactional and production work. The future of valued, human work is in addressing complex problems and coming up with creative solutions.
One major difference between the 21st century and the work shift of the last century is that there are no jobs waiting for displaced workers today. One hundred years ago farm hands could move to the city and get a job. Today, the future of work is not in the form of a job. This may be a shock to those already in the workforce but it is an accepted reality amongst many younger people.
With creative work, much of the knowledge required is implicit. It cannot be found in a manual or text book, and there is no training program to become creative. Informal learning, often with peers, is how how creative workers have learned through the ages. We need to take the best aspects of what the artist studios and artisan guilds offered and find ways to replicate these. Social experiments, such as co-work spaces and crowd-funded projects, are emerging in the creative economy.
Networks are beginning to replace hierarchies as the organizational model to get work done and exchange value. Jobs are relics of hierarchies. In networks, there is no need for standardized and replaceable jobs. Every node is unique, which strengthens the overall network. In a network, relying on standard approaches only erodes trust, as it does not treat each node as an individual. Knowledge networks are built on human relationships and trust emerges over time.
How can an organization like Cooperative Extension adapt to the network era? First, it needs to structure as a network because the initial design of the organization influences everything else. Creating the best, and most human, environment for people to get work done should be the only job of a CEO.
Social networks have to be supported so that people can connect to do their work better. Frameworks such as personal knowledge mastery ensure that everyone takes responsibility for sense-making and knowledge-sharing. By practicing PKM, everyone can engage in critical thinking. All workers should continuously question the contexts in which they are working.
Active experimentation in the organization can be encouraged through constant learning by doing, as established best practices are useless in dealing with complexity. Everyone needs to be connected to the goals of the organization (network), not just doing their job. Results will emerge from the entire network, when everyone is responsible in a transparent and open organization.
A networked organization is more resilient and flexible. We do not know what the future will hold but it will be more complex. The ability to learn by doing will enable organizations to actively engage their communities and societies. Freedom will not be in independence but interdependence, which is something we can retrieve from 19th century America.
The book, Democracy in America, is, I think, the most useful book I know to help understand who we are. And he [de Tocqueville] says, if I can summarize him in a rather gross form, that he came here and he found a society whose definitions and solutions were not created by nobility, by professionals, by experts or managers, but by what he identified as little groups of people, self-appointed, common men and women who came together and took three powers: the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem – that is, the expert’s power – and then the power to solve the problem. These little groups of people weren’t elected and they weren’t appointed and they were everyplace, and they were, he said, the heart of the new society – they were the American community as distinct from the European community. And he named these little groups “associations”. Association is the collective for citizens, an association of citizens. And so we think of our community as being the social space in which citizens in association do the work of problem-solving, celebration, consolation, and creation – that community, that space, in contrast to the space of the system with the box at the top and lots of little boxes at the bottom. And I think it is still the case that the hope for our time is in those associations. – The Careless Society, John McKnight