Learning to breathe in the network era

The networked workplace is the new reality. It’s always on and globally connected. This is where all organizations are going, at different speeds and in a variety of ways. Some won’t make it. In many organizations the outside world is better connected than inside the workplace. This makes it difficult to connect at the boundaries, which is where we have the best opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

At the edge of the organization, where there are few rules; everything is a blur. It may even be chaotic. But opportunities are found in chaos. Value emerges from forays into the chaos. In such a changing environment, failure has to be tolerated. Nothing is guaranteed other than the fact that not playing here puts any organization at a significant disadvantage.

When dealing with work problems we can categorize the response as either known or new. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management can help us map it. We can also create tools to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish a known task. New problems need tacit knowledge to solve them. The system handles the routine stuff and people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. As these exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution can get automated, and so the process evolves. Exception-handling is becoming the primary work for people in the networked workplace.

Complex and new problems cannot be solved using standard methods. Customized work is the realm of people, not machines or software. People are the best interface with complexity but they need to be connected and not work in isolation. This increases the need for more cooperation (freely sharing without any specific objective) as the primary long-term activity, and collaboration (working together on a given problem) for short-term specific projects.

Another challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they know has diminishing value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business imperative. Sharing and using knowledge is where business value lies. With computer systems that can handle more and more of our known knowledge, the network era worker has to move to the complex and chaotic edge of the organization to do the valued work of exception handling.

Three major changes are needed for the network era workplace.

First, power must be distributed. Distributed power enables faster reaction time 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. Shared power breathes trust into the workplace.

“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.” – John Hagel.

Second, transparency must become the norm. Transparency ensures there is an understanding of what everyone is doing. It means narrating work and taking ownership of mistakes. Transparency helps the organization learn from mistakes. Of course this is very difficult for any command and control organization, with its published organization chart and sacrosanct job titles, to embrace. Transparency is a breath of fresh air that cleans the cobwebs from the hierarchy.

Power-sharing and transparency enable work to move out to the edges and away from the comfortable, merely complicated work that has been the corporate mainstay for decades but is now getting automated. There’s little comfortable, stable work left to do inside the organization. But there will always be complex problems that cannot be solved through automation. These will require active, engaged, and constantly learning professionals.

Third, everyone in the organization must take control of their learning. It cannot be left to the Training Department. Continuous learning is now a critical workplace skill. Work is learning, and learning is the work. This is an ongoing process of moving knowledge from the edge (social networks) to the core (work teams) and back out to the edges. It is how knowledge can be pulled on a daily basis. Connecting the edge to the core is a major challenge for organizations.  It means connecting emergent practices and cooperative behaviours with collaborative project-based work. Part of the solution is more open management frameworks but another part is “edge-like” individual skills and aptitudes. Personal Knowledge Mastery covers the latter. It is a continual process of seeking from the edge (networks), filtering through communities of practice, sense-making at the core (work teams), and sharing back out to our communities and networks. Once habituated, it’s like breathing – in and out, regularly.

Note: This is an update of several older posts, as I try to solidify some half-baked ideas.

7 Responses to “Learning to breathe in the network era”

  1. Nick Shackleton-Jones

    People are poor vessels for knowledge: they were not designed for knowledge, but for reaction. They struggle to retain any of it – invented books as workarounds, then the internet so that nothing needed to be learned. Knowledge has moved on. Knowledge is moving to the technology: storage and analysis of data beyond our wildest imaginings. There are some odd people swimming upstream – using google maps to memorise routes rather than trusting to SatNav – but as you note, with chaos comes turbulence. I am not sure I entirely welcome becoming a node – a neuron – but sure that I don’t really have a choice.

  2. Harold

    The power is in networks, I think, Nick. Therefore we nodes will only have any influence if we engage as networks. As nodes contribute to their networks they become more influential. I’m betting on networks of interdependent people for the future, though of course I could be completely wrong.

  3. Brent MacKinnon

    I think you are right Harold. Your breathing in and out – regularly via PKM is a very delightful and apt metaphor for how PKM “edge” skills, connects networks, communities and work.

    I believe that it is becoming increasingly apparent and difficult for workers to stay relevant and useful if they choose to stay confined in hierarchical structures and mindsets. There is power in the networks – and such creative energy to enjoy!

  4. Jane McConnell

    This is an outstanding post, Harold. You’ve nailed the flows I have attempted to describe in several of my posts and drawings over the last couple of years.
    It also makes crystal clear the difference you and recently talked about between cooperation and collaboration.
    However, in your drawing above, I’m a little uncomfortable with your placing “jobs and projects” together at the level of “controlled and hierarchical”. Job titles, yes, but projects (even those with deadlines) can be handled in more open and networked ways (even if they often are not).
    Are you familiar with MIT’s article from 2012 on project networks versus project teams? http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/why-project-networks-beat-project-teams/ (requires subscription).
    That research changed by view on “projects”. Also, at last year’s conference in Paris that I’ve chaired for several years (Rencontre internationale des responsables intranet et RSE) I was noticed for the first time several case studies from global companies about using their social networks for project work rather than the traditional “project room-type” solutions.

    • Harold

      It sounds like the world is finally catching up, Jane 🙂

      I use the term projects in the traditional sense of the word, as in “managed projects” using “project management” methodology. In some cases, this type of management may be required, especially for complicated projects like building bridges. For knowledge work, I agree, a looser approach may be better.

      Look how Yammer manages projects (not sure if this is still the case):

      “Yammer’s biggest rule of thumb is 2 to 10 people, 2 to 10 weeks – which means they generally don’t do projects that are larger or more complicated. There is a non-linear relationship between the complexity of a project and the wrap-up integration phase at the end. If you go anywhere beyond ten weeks, the percentage of time in the wrap-up phase becomes disproportionate.” – http://firstround.com/article/Why-Yammer-believes-the-traditional-engineering-organizational-structure-is-dead


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