A governing principle for work literacy

Work literacy aims to help people develop skills necessary for the knowledge-intensive and interconnected workplace, or as the website says:

Work Literacy is a network of individuals, companies and organizations who are interested in learning, defining, mentoring, teaching and consulting on the frameworks, skills, methods and tools of modern knowledge work.

I’m all for that and believe it’s necessary; it’s just not enough. Michele Martin says on the Work Literacy blog that:

… knowledge workers need to figure out how to leverage the social aspects of the web to make their traditionally solitary online activities more effective and useful. As Tony [Karrer] points out, this will be a big challenge because people are not necessarily aware of the extent to which these social changes impact how they do their work. We first have to make them aware of this changed context and then help the develop the skills to be successful in this new world.

The context of work is definitely changing.

When Henry Ford developed his automobile mass production system he based it on the results of the time-motion studies of F.W. Taylor. Taylorism was the unifying theory that work could be standardized and workers could be organised around jobs, tasks and responsibilities. Ford implemented that theory. I think that for work literacy to become part of the workplace it needs to be grounded on a common vision. If not, then work literacy is just an incremental way of making the industrial workplace (with its org charts, line & staff, job classifications, etc) a bit more efficient.

The industrial model needs to be replaced because more and more work cannot be organised along Taylor’s guidelines. I think that the governing principle of Wirearchy, “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology” is a good start. Embracing this principle would create havoc in most organisations though.

A two-way flow of power and authority exists in few organisations but it is possible and I think necessary in an interconnected world. It’s how open source projects work and it is part of the tacit pact in many Web 2.0 ventures. Companies have to treat their customers in a trustworthy way or they may all leave, which of course will destroy the company as most of the value resides in the community. Think of YouTube without contributors.

Work literacy focuses on the tools and techniques for social media but there is an underlying subversive component. Social media are the equivalent of an industrial factory for each worker. Almost every worker has the ability to get a message out to the world in the blink of an eye. That message can go viral and the organization has no control over it. Workers can also connect to massive amounts of information or find specialists in any field. They don’t need the company database, which is probably out of date anyway.

As anthropologist Michael Wesch states, “when media change, then human relationships change“. The Internet has already changed everything. The social contract that we call employment has been changing for a while. Unions are shrinking, the self-employed are growing (2 million in Canada, which is more than all manufacturing workers) and low wage service jobs are our largest growth sector. What unites us is our ability to easily connect with each other, without traditional intermediaries. We’re just not used to it yet, but initiatives like CarrotMob show what the future may hold.

For me, work literacy is showing people that they have access to the most powerful communications medium in history and that individuals have to grab hold of it, understand it and use it for the good of society, because we are society. Work literacy is not about doing your job better. It’s understanding what it means to work, to create and to be responsible, all within the context of being visible to everyone else. For workers, work literacy means growing up, damn fast.

So here’s my reading of the situation. In an interconnected, interdependent and highly-stressed world there’s no more us and them. It’s just us. We can all figure this out together and maybe our organization will survive. It may not, but we may have learned how to cooperate in the process and then some of us may create something new. Trust is the foundation of the new workplace and work literacy can help us build trust because these social media tools are transparent. That means that bosses are going to lose control – better now than later.

Work literacy is the way in which we connect with information, build knowledge, gain trust and strive for credibility in the Internet age.

15 Responses to “A governing principle for work literacy”

  1. Virginia Yonkers

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think there needs to be more discussion of the power structures (who are the gatekeepers in this new organization, for example).

    However, I think this is going to be a hard sell for most companies (especially those at the top who are making record salaries). The implication is that if there is a more democratic power structure, and there are no longer easily measured output benchmarks, than how can such a disparity in distribution of wages/salary be justified?

  2. Michele Martin

    The subversive nature of all of this is really interesting, Harold. I agree with you completely that social media is like essentially giving knowledge workers their own individual factory. We already knew that the knowledge and skills that we’ve been developing are valuable, but for a few decades, we needed to rely on traditional organizations and power structures to give us a means for showcasing those skills. Now with social media, we can essentially become tiny “factories” unto ourselves. We also have greater flexibility to link up with others like ourselves in a sort of knowledge-based version of just-in-time manufacturing.

    Given that, as I’m understanding your point, we could actually use your final sentence as a framework for thinking about the specific skills we need to develop:
    *Connecting with information
    *Building knowledge
    *Building and sustaining trust
    *Creating a credible online presence

    I don’t know if you meant these as categories or not, but I could see them working that way potentially.

  3. Harold Jarche

    Yes, it’s going to be a hard sell but we need to try out new frameworks so that we can discuss and elaborate on these changes to the whole notion of work using new ways to mediate meaning between us. For me, wirearchy has come closest as an overarching framework. I’m posting these musings as a way to make sense of this myself. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  4. Tony Karrer

    Harold – I went back and looked at a few of your other posts around this and reflected on some of the questions I get. There is a definite cultural change aspects, but I’m also wondering if we aren’t shooting ourselves in the foot thinking about that aspect. I constantly recommend looking for pain points or opportunities to do things in small, isolated ways. Have a project adopt a certain approach. Start with a Wiki in a limited context and open up slowly. Etc.

    Convincing people that a big cultural shift, management style shift, etc. is the way to go seems daunting. Convincing someone that there’s a better way to address a particular work task doesn’t seem daunting.

  5. Harold Jarche

    It’s definitely easier to implement a tool or two than try for systemic change, and I said that skills development is necessary. I still think that it won’t be enough and that a new work relationship with these new media is necessary as well as inevitable. I’m not attacking workliteracy.com, as I believe it fills a void. I’m just trying to define the larger context of where “work” is going and how we can help shape it.

    Without social media skills, it will be even more difficult for workers to handle what I believe will be major shifts in how we work and live. The tectonic stresses of population; energy; environment; climate and economics are very serious and quite real.

  6. Jon Husband

    Convincing someone that there’s a better way to address a particular work task doesn’t seem daunting

    Does that mean that making substantive change when (potentially) everyone is (potentially) connected is about task literacy, not work literacy ?

    Harold notes the “context of where “work” is going and how we can help shape it”. As often as not “work” is bifurcating .. either dumbed-down for the individual worker by highly structured systems where the worker is effectively a part of the input mechanism, or being “smartened up” wherein the worker is creating, usually together with others, pertinent and useful knowledge.

    For the sake of this discussion let me focus on the second, and note that it is likely to become less and less effective for smart talent to work in systems or cultures that do not value the individual’s role in a web of exchanges, wherein she or he will need to gather information, interpret it, shape it, and continue to participate in flows of information and conversation. The tasks in that context often get both more generalized and at times more specific, but are almost always shaped by the flows and the circumstances they address or create.

    There used to be (and no doubt still is in many organizations) the notion of delegated authority, from a given level on down. I think it is getting clearer that it’s the design of work and the structures in which work happens that must be changed to adapt to ongoing flows of information and connection, and I tend to think that doing things in “small, isolated ways” to realize slow incremental improvements one project at a time, while useful, won’t be enough to obtain the probable benefits, both for the organization and the individual knowledge worker.

    As well, the limits to the effectiveness of industrial era command-and-control have been chronicled over and over again in countless management and org effectiveness books, but in many instances those limits are still in place.

    I am fond of this quote by Gary Hamel in his recent book “The Future of management” …

    While Management 2.0 won’t completely supplant Management 1.0, the two versions aren’t entirely compatible. There are going to be conflicts. Indeed, I think the most bruising contests in the new millenium won’t be fought along the lines that separate one competitor or business ecosystem from another, but will be fought along the lines that separate those who wish to preserve the privileges and power of the bureaucratic class from those who hope to build less structured and less tightly managed organizations. Richard Florida sees the same battle shaping up. In The Rise of the Creative Class, he puts it bluntly: “The biggest issue at stake in this emerging age is the ongoing tension between creativity and organization.” This is, perhaps, the most critical and intractable management trade-off of all, and therefore, the one most worthy of inspired innovation.

    It will take more than advances in technology to issue in the post-managerial age. As I noted earlier, management and organizational innovation often lags far behind technological innovation.

    Right now, your company has 21st-century Internet-enabled business processes, mid-20th-century management processes, all built atop 19th-century management principles.

  7. Jon Husband


    The implication is that if there is a more democratic power structure, and there are no longer easily measured output benchmarks, than how can such a disparity in distribution of wages/salary be justified?

    Yes, that’s the implication. The way(s) work is measured and ‘weighed” (in terms of what job gets what kind of wages/salary) are contained in methodologies that were invented in the early 1950’s. Computers and women working as equals in knowledge-work roles weren’t even conceived of then, let alone work being carried out in a networked environment wherein information and creativity are (theoretically) but a click, a search and a conversation or two away from creating a result.

    It probably goes without saying that most white-collar output benchmarks and attendant performance management schemes are still using similar ancestry (as indeed are most competency analyses and profiles …. stemming from work by theorists in the 60’s and 70’s).

    The language of what is being done and required as ‘work” is (perhaps) changing to reflect interconnectedness, but the assumptions about structures, while being deeply impacted by the activities, are not often being addressed at the fundamental level.

  8. Harold Jarche

    Thanks for adding much to this conversation, Jon. I’d say that Hamel’s book is required reading if you’re interested in the future of work.

  9. Harold Jarche

    Another perspective on work and organisations from Mark Federman:

    “It seems to me that Giving-a-Damn is an emergent effect of individuals having a strong, reciprocal Socio-Psychological valence connection to the organization. Smaller organizational units within the larger organization that have similarly strong and reciprocal SP-valences can equally Give-a-Damn. If you care about your organization, and your organization demonstrably cares about you, then you’re likely to Give-a-Damn”

    A two-way flow of power & authority enables people to give-a-damn. A one-way flow turns that off. Work literacy, without a framework like Wirearchy, or Federman’s valence theory, may just wither away if workers don’t see their new-found literacy valued by the organisation. Just like Mark’s post about ‘Leslie’:

    “Over the past number of months, both Leslie’s direct manager, and the organization as a whole have been sending signals that they don’t Give-a-Damn very much about Leslie, and others in Leslie’s organizational milieu. It’s not that they don’t like Leslie, or don’t appreciate what Leslie does (as demonstrated by the pretty good salary bump Leslie received at the last review). It’s more like organizational apathy towards the people, and maintaining a tight focus on bringing in those results for stockholders …”

  10. Jon Husband

    Yes, to Mark’s and your last point. I call it having pride in what you do and who you work with and for. I remember that feeling from long ago.

  11. Jon Husband

    Another phrase I’ve run into increasingly frequently these last fie+ years is “It’s business, it’s not personal”. That’s often code for “I don’t give a damn”.

  12. Jon Husband

    Couldn’t help myself, harold .. hope you’ll understand 😉

    I went back to the 2002 essay titled From Hierarchy to Wirearchy – the future of workplace dynamics, and pulled this out:

    Yesterday’s success factors involved secrecy and control, size, role clarity, functional specialization and power. Today’s emerging factors are openness, speed, flexibility, integration and innovation.

    The concept of wirearchy allows readers to develop a strategy for creating, implementing these factors in ways that respond with value to continuously changing conditions. The core components of wirearchy are:

    a crystal clear vision and values

    a strategically designed and integrated technology infrastructure

    comprehensive, clear and completely open communications
    pertinent objectives and focused measurement

    characteristics of culture that create, support and enable responsiveness, adaptability and fluidity

    leadership that is clear, focused, open, authentic and shared

    It will take time and experience in this new era to know what “success” and “effectiveness” mean and look like. In a wired and wirearchical world, where there is literal meaning in the phrase, “everything is connected to everything else,” we will have to watch, learn and imagine how to lead and manage in ways that foster ongoing growth in human development.

    The concerns about control and responsible behaviour in a workplace festooned with hyperlinks, social tools and flows of information will be (would be) largely mitigated by the work of leaders in developing a clear (and shared) vision, honest and tangible values, and an open culture .. imho.

    This area has been the province of OD in the past .. as I imagine it will be in the future. The game is sharper and the stakes are higher than ever before, i think.

  13. Harold Jarche

    That’s it, Jon. You can’t teach a new literacy and then dictate what can be read or created. The Church in Europe tried that and failed during the Reformation & the Enlightenment.

    Social media tools are empowering. As workers use them, they will see how the managerial workplace limits their use. A new work literacy is only half of the equation. We also need literacy-friendly workplaces.

  14. Jay Cross

    This is a great thread! These issues have been weighing on my mind, for I’m trying to work out how people can put this stuff to work. There’s no universal answer, for some people have drunk the web 2.0 koolaid and others are repelled by its implications. The changes afoot are so deep that some people will fight the new order until they drop.

    For the clued, workplace literacy and what does with it is a no-brainer. Our course, you want people in your organization to share ideas, collaborate, take control of making customers happier, and so forth.

    For the unclued, trying to sell the new culture is a waste of breath. Better to attack a few things piecemeal. Chop back on email with wikis. Use RSS to share news. Set up ways to collaborate with customers. Implement some self-service learning. Adopt new techniques that show a high payback compared to traditional means.

    The unclued will not reap the benefits of the flexible, fast-moving, transparent, empowered corporation, but they will be better off than those who condemn everything internet as worthless.


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