In tribal societies, your family is your source of power. In institutions, it is your position in the hierarchy. In markets, dominance is through competition. We are a tri-form society: Tribal + Institution + Markets. The latter currently dominates how we organize as a society. It is competitive. School is competitive, with individual grades. Work is competitive, with many more applicants than positions available. Individual performance reviews dominate in the workplace. We are told that we have to create our personal brands, because the world is competitive.
As networks replace markets as the primary organizational form, will competition continue to be the best way for us to work? It is said that our parents had a job for life and we will have six jobs – but our children will have six jobs at once. For example, in the US there are already over 50 million freelancers. The salaried worker with a job is becoming rare. One new perspective on work is not to focus on jobs, or even roles, but tasks, in order to fragment work so that it can be distributed to many people.
“AppMakr is a real company and it has tossed out the notion of full-time jobs in a single location, in favour of having free agents, anywhere in the world, working on specific tasks which last for anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of years. All this is made possible in large part by a talent platform: Upwork.” – David Creelman
In such a world, where routine work is automated, specialized work is fragmented, and only highly creative work is valued, what is the best organizational strategy for work? From today’s perspective, one might say that everyone has to be highly competitive. But the long term effects of hyper-competition will decrease the value of any network. A value network consists of both tangible and intangible asset transactions. Trust is an intangible asset. It enables knowledge to flow. People do not share with those they do not trust. Imagine a network where people change tasks and roles frequently. They have to continuously form and re-form teams. A competitive strategy may work in the short term, but eventually the network will deny trust to such people. In the end, the competitors will become disconnected from the rest of the network. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, in networks it is best to start with trust.
We can already see this with a social network like Twitter. Unless you are already famous, you have to give in order for people to follow you. The more interesting or informative you are, the more connections you will get. These connections will increase your social reach and inform you of things you did not know, increasing the possibility of serendipitous encounters. Instead of competing with everyone on Twitter, you are cooperating to make the network of more value to everyone. As our organizations move to network models, cooperation (freely sharing without expectation of direct recompense) becomes the best long term strategy for work.
Neither our education systems nor our workplaces are preparing people to work in a networked and cooperative manner. But as the middle class, with its full-time jobs, continues to shrink, individuals will be forced to do the equivalent of six jobs at once. It will not be the technology, nor the platform capitalists who determine how we will work together. It will be us, collectively.
“Our one confident prediction is that digital technologies will bring the world into an era of more wealth and abundance and less drudgery and toil. But there’s no guarantee that everyone will share in the bounty, and that leaves many people justifiably apprehensive. The outcome—shared prosperity or increasing inequality—will be determined not by technologies but by the choices we make as individuals, organizations, and societies. If we fumble that future — if we build economies and societies that exclude many people from the cycle of prosperity — shame on us.” – Erik Brynjolfsson
As organizational leadership grapples with the implications of the changes to a network society, individuals can start to prepare now. Take a look at your networks. Where do you get trusted information? Is your network diverse enough? If you lost your job today, would your network help you find meaningful work? If not, then it’s time to start cooperating, for you, and for the rest of us.