Blogging is one way I make sense of the world. This past year I wrote about 120 posts on various topics. What follows is a summary of some of my thoughts during 2017. My ways of seeing the world have changed over the years and blogging has helped to keep my thoughts in a state of perpetual beta: strong ideas, loosely held.
One effect of the network era, and its pervasive digital connections, is that networks are replacing or subverting more traditional hierarchies of our institutions and markets. Three aspects of this effect are: 1) access to almost unlimited information, 2) the ability for almost anyone to self-publish, and 3) limitless opportunities for “ridiculously easy group-forming“.
The desire to relate is what drives people to support global social movements on one hand and to take shelter in tribal identity politics on the other. In politics, social media extend participation but also make information manipulation by small motivated groups much easier. Understanding this deep desire to relate to others should be foremost in mind in understanding human dynamics. We will not have organizational transformation, or political reformation, without people feeling like they belong. To counter Tribal populism, we also need to appeal to emotions and our feelings of relatedness. The same goes for education and learning.
Tribalism & Populism
If we want to avoid a return to Tribal conflict and a narrow view of society, we need to build and test alternative network models. We are in desperate need of new models for living, working, and learning. The great work of our time is to design, build, and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world. Failure by current generations to do so will leave the next ones to deal with the reactionary forces of tribalism, corporatism, and perhaps even fascism.
Open information and access to our common knowledge assets is required. We can only deal with complex systems and problems collectively. I used to think that the great work to be done at the beginning of this century was the democratization of the workplace. This is no longer enough. Our great work today is the re-democratization of society. Everything is now being communicated, and fragmented, at an electric pace. Change happens quickly in an electric, and now digital, age.
Self-mastery of our own thinking is necessary to counter the effects of a networked world, where words are electrically extended by social media. Information manipulation is becoming widespread, driving identity politics. This of course makes a fertile environment for demagogues to wave the flag of populism. In the network era, populism is the first refuge of a scoundrel. A literate, engaged, and networked citizenry gives no such refuge.
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” —Thomas Paine: The American Crisis, No. 4, 1777
Democracy needs open and transparent communications to exist. The ancient Greeks had a form of democracy but it was limited by oral discourse. Such a democracy could not grow beyond its immediate borders. The printing press enabled the French revolution and it was essential for the American revolution. There is even a postal clause in the US constitution. Communications technologies can enable as well as disrupt democracy. We live in a time where technology provides immense potential for human communications but we lack the organizational structures to take advantage of this. Faith in the future is low, especially in democratic and developed countries.
We are stuck in a period similar to the early era of the printing press. Printed books enabled the Protestant reformation which flamed conflicts like the European wars of religion, and only many years later developed into the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. A reversion to tribalism in our times may result in a period similar to the tumultuous 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe.
We do not have to have closed borders and homogeneous nationalistic identities. It is time to develop global identities and organizations based on our common humanity, enhanced by diversity, and enabled by digital communications technologies. If we build organizations that enable this we just might survive as a network society.
Here is our collective challenge. Firstly, tribal values are not democratic. Secondly, institutions cannot react fast enough due to their inherent hierarchies. In addition, markets are focused on competition, often leaving institutions to clean up their messes. As our institutions are not set up to deal with complexity, we now need new structures that can counter the ill effects of markets, especially crony capitalism and platform monopolies. Changing the dominant policies that guide governments is the right direction to move toward a network society and avoid the reversals to inferior but comforting, tribal, institutional, or market forms. This will take ‘group comprehension’.
“More and more, the unit of comprehension is going to be group comprehension, where you simply have to rely on a team of others because you can’t understand it all yourself. There was a time, oh, I would say as recently as, certainly as the 18th century, when really smart people could aspire to having a fairly good understanding of just about everything … Well that’s the fragility, the hyper-fragility of civilisation right there. We could all be bounced back into the 19th century.” —Daniel Dennett
Communities of Practice
As organizations get decentralized and work teams more dynamic, individuals need a long-term approach for their professional development and knowledge sharing. They cannot rely on the increasingly temporary nature of companies. Today, all professionals need large and diverse knowledge networks. They also have to find and engage with professional communities of practice in order to continuously change their practice to deal with a fluid external environment. If not, they will fail to create value.
As computers increasingly take over routine work, we cannot turn a blind eye to how they make decisions. Not only do we have to focus on human work, we have to keep a careful eye on what the machines are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are making their decisions. For complex work we need strong knowledge networks, and loose (temporary & negotiated) hierarchies. With the machines making so many decisions today, we cannot control them with authoritarian organizational models. We should leave the hierarchies to the algorithms.
We can no longer rely upon traditional gatekeepers of information and knowledge. Each of us must engage with others and develop our trusted knowledge networks. None of us are smart enough to handle all the connections in our digital lives on our own. We need to use both our human networks and our machines in concert. Our professional connections, especially those outside our current workplaces, are our security. They will help us learn, find work, and push our professional boundaries. In the long run, the more we contribute to our social networks and communities of practice, the more resilient we will make them and in return will weave a stronger social safety net for ourselves.
Work in a Digital Age
Automation is a force that is continuously changing the nature of human work. First it replaced brute force with powerful machines, changing the nature of agriculture, mining, construction, and other fields of human activity. Then automated programs replaced simple work like withdrawing money from a bank account. Now automation is replacing complicated work, like coordinating drivers and passengers within a community, in real time. Any process that can be mapped, analyzed, and understood will be automated. As networked computers and the algorithms behind them become more powerful, even more complicated work will get automated.
But work that is continuously changing cannot be replicated by machines or code. Unique customized work is in perpetual beta. New operating models, often ‘just good enough’, are developed, used, modified, and even discarded as the nature of the work changes. This is work that cannot be prepared for in advance. Instead of formal training, people will need to learn while working with others. They will have to be continuously learning, socially and informally. It will be the only way to stay ahead of the machines. In addition, people will have to understand how the machines and algorithms work, to ensure proper human oversight. The future of human work is dealing with complexity.
Complex problems do not have simple solutions and require a deeper understanding of the context. But our close-knit social groups will not provide us with the diversity of knowledge we need to navigate the complexities of our networked world. Simple solutions, or worse, those based on our emotions, will fail us.
This requires a rethinking of how we categorize work, define jobs, attract and retain talent. It also means a rethinking of our entire education system. Permanent skills (e.g. curiosity, creativity, empathy, humour) are not developed through standardized curriculum based on temporary skills (e.g. cloud computing expertise, data mining, statistical analysis, or whatever else is current). It’s time to take the long-term view on human work and learning. Current skills for market and technological conditions are temporary. Permanent skills are our long-term value as humans to each other.
Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be our work teams, or they become echo chambers. In our work teams we can focus on incremental innovation, to get better at what we already do. Communities of practice then become a bridge on this network continuum, being part individual and part interactive. My observation over the past decade is that most organizations focus primarily on incremental innovation and do not allow time and resources to be expended on social networking activities that are officially perceived to be frivolous. This is a major error in a time of rapid technological change. Strong networks and temporary hierarchies need to be connected by learning while working, and sharing knowledge freely.
Today, learning has to be part of work for everyone, and that is the foundation on which all of my models are based.
A new dominant organizational form (the network) requires new leadership models. The command and control model of a hierarchy, a simple branching network, is inadequate. The corporate world has been significantly influenced by American business models and business schools (assertive, aggressive, goal oriented, optimistic, and ready for change) for the past century. Most of these are obsolete. Instead, we can learn from Nordic leadership models (decentralized and democratic, control only in crisis, egalitarian) and create organizations that take advantage of a networked world. The problem with the American model is that it leads to hubris, with few checks and balances on the person in charge. Using a consultative and open Nordic model could lead to more democratic workplaces. In networks it is best not to inflict too much power on individuals and instead learn how to distribute power to help the whole network make better decisions.
In networks, everyone can be a contributor within a transparent environment. Effective networks are diverse and open. Anyone can lead in a network, if there are willing followers. Those who have consensus to lead have to actively listen and make sense of what is happening. They are in service to the network, to help keep it resilient through transparency, diversity of ideas, and openness. Servant leaders help to set the context around them and build consensus around emergent practices.
Traditional management and planning models strive for order and use periodic change management to deal with complexity and chaos. But complexity is becoming the more common state in the network era. This means shifting the focus from analyzing situations to making constant experiments and learning from them.
Managers acting as servant leaders should spend much of their time focused on complex situations, where the relationship between cause and effect can only be seen after the fact. Actively listening requires an engagement with networked contributors who are closely in touch with their environment. Everyone should continuously question the contexts in which the enterprise is working. Appointed servant leaders have an even greater responsibility to look at the big picture, not manage the contributors, who for the most part can manage themselves when everyone’s work is transparent. Managers can then propose changes and build consensus around suggested responses.
This is how I made sense of the world in 2017. The conflict between developing a new society based on the network form versus a retreat to the tribal form is just beginning. It will only be through our collective desire to learn with others and build networked organizations that we can build a better world. It starts by each of us becoming better networked learners. Our education systems have not prepared us for this but I have faith in the power of motivated, curious, and creative global citizens.
“If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?”
—John E. Lewis