Three Principles for Net Work

Work is changing

The nature of work is changing in our increasingly networked economy. What was considered good, dependable work in the 20th century is now getting automated or outsourced. Automated tellers have replaced thousands of bank clerks but even more advanced jobs are getting automated as we connect the world with computers. The New York Times reported in March of 2011 that armies of expensive lawyers, who once did “discovery” work have been replaced by software programs that do the work at a fraction of the cost. The same applies to computer chip designers, loan officers and tax accountants. Furthermore, any work that can be outsourced is going to the place of cheapest labour, wherever in the world that may be.

The main driver behind this shift is the interconnectivity of the Internet. It enables hyper-competition, destroying geographical barriers for anything that can be digitized. This includes all information and visual products, from creative writing, to photography and video, to radiological images.

For knowledge workers, there is diminishing value in standardized work, as it will be either automated or outsourced over time. Standardized work usually falls into simple or complicated knowledge domains. According to the Cynefin knowledge management framework, developed by Dave Snowden, in the simple domain, “the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all” while in the complicated domain, “the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis”. For each of these domains, jobs can be standardized and training can be designed based on accepted practices.

But longer term value today resides in non-standardized work that requires creativity, imagination and innovation. This type of work falls into Cynefin’s complex domain where, “the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance”.

Consider that neither training nor education can adequately prepare workers for the complex domain because there are no best practices, only emergent practices that have to be developed as the work gets done.

This is why, in the network era, work is learning and learning is the work.

Known Problems and Exceptions

Look at a knowledge worker and how things can get done in an interconnected enterprise. Any situation can first be examined from the perspective of being a known problem or not. If it is known, then the answer can be looked up or the correct person found to deal with it. That answer may have been automated and put into a digital knowledge base or even outsourced to a company overseas.

Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management (KM) help us to codify it. We can also create tools, especially electronic performance support systems (EPSS) to do the work and bypass any background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how simple and complicated knowledge continuously gets automated.

If there is a new problem, or an exception, then the knowledge worker has to deal with it in a unique way. Exception-handling is becoming more important in the networked workplace as standardized work provides no competitive advantage in a hyper-connected economy. These complex exceptions need tacit knowledge to solve them, but tacit knowledge cannot be codified in a KM system or EPSS. Tacit and complex knowledge gets shared when people work together and develop trusted ties. Therefore, exception-handling requires more collaborative approaches to work.

In addition, once an exception is dealt with, it is no longer new. It is now known. As each exception get addressed, some or all of the solution will get automated. The exception boundary is a constantly changing edge that knowledge workers have to negotiate.

Yesterday’s exceptions will be tomorrow’s examples. The challenge is to make sense of both today. Today’s complex work is tomorrow’s merely complicated or even simple work.

Narration, Transparency and Power-sharing

Narration is making one’s tacit knowledge (what one feels) more explicit (what one is doing with that knowledge). Narrating work is a powerful behaviour changer, as long-term bloggers can attest.

In an organization, narration can take many forms. It could be a regular blog; sharing day-to-day happenings in activity streams; taking pictures and videos; or just having regular discussions. Developing good narration skills, like adding value to information, takes time and practice. Narrating work also means taking ownership of mistakes.

For example, just adding finished reports to a knowledge base does not help others understand how that report was developed. This is where activity streams and micro-blogging have helped organizational learning. Workers can see the flow of sense-making in small bits that over time become patterns. Humans are very good at pattern recognition. Narration of work is the first step in integrating learning into the workflow.

Transparency is an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to implement in an enterprise. It means switching the default mode to sharing. This can be enabled by social media, but social media also make the company culture transparent. A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency, it just gets exposed.

With complex work, failure has to be tolerated, as there are no best practices for exceptions (this is why they are called exceptions). Transparency helps the organization learn from mistakes, but only if the mistakes are shared. Organizations cannot know what is known unless the entire business ecosystem is transparent. Workers need to be able find information fast, which is what McKinsey & Company has reported in the last two years as the main benefit of using social media in the enterprise: increasing speed of access to knowledge.

Distributed power enables faster reaction times so those closest to the situation can take action. In complex situations there is no time to write a detailed assessment. Those best able to address the situation have marinated in it for some time. They couldn’t sufficiently explain it to someone removed from the problem if they wanted to anyway. This shared power is enabled by trust. Power in knowledge-based organizations must be distributed in order to nurture trust. But the challenge, as John Hagel describes it, is “One of the big challenges for companies is that unlike information or data flows, knowledge does not flow easily – as it relies on long-term trust-based relationships”.

Jon Husband defines “wirearchy” as; “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology.” This is the desired state, but getting there is difficult. Examples of shared-power organizations are growing (e.g. Semco SA; The Morning Star Company; W.L. Gore & Associates) but they are not yet the majority.


These three simple principles of narration, transparency, and shared power should provide enough guidance to motivated leaders in an organization. Implementation depends on the specific context of each organization and the ability to keep things in what I call, “perpetual Beta”.

Power-sharing and transparency enable work to move out to the edges and away from the comfortable, complicated work that has been the corporate mainstay for decades. There is nothing left in the safe inner parts of the company anyway, as it is being automated and outsourced.

The high-value work today is in facing complexity, not in addressing problems that have already been solved and for which a formulaic or standardized response has been developed. One challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they already know has increasingly diminishing value. How to learn and solve problems together is becoming the real business advantage.



4 Responses to “Three Principles for Net Work”

  1. Kim Scofield

    Well said – the world is changing and those who run with “creativity, imagination and innovation” will be the leaders – I also think of it as creative flexibility, and flexible creativity, and apply it to everything – lifestyle, career, work tools, education, communication, and problem-solving. Acknowledging, as you say, that what we already know “has increasingly diminishing value”, frees the creative spirit to constantly learn new things and search for new ideas. Thanks for the great article!


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