adapting to constant change

Perpetual Beta

The future of [human] work is perpetual beta: adapting to constant change while still getting things done.

“Basically: technological innovation and artificial intelligence are going to accelerate at a pace we’ve yet to really comprehend. (Fifteen years ago, Facebook wasn’t even around. Now it’s so efficient at micro-targeting that it helped sway a democratic election. Imagine what it might be capable of in another fifteen years.) That means automation will likely disrupt your current job (and your next one, and the one after that), and you’ll be the target of attention-grabbing, behavior-modifying algorithms so exponentially effective you won’t even realize you’re being targeted.

The best defense against that? An emotional flexibility that allows for constant reinvention, and knowing yourself well enough that you don’t get drawn into the deep Internet traps set for you.” —GQ Interview with Yuval Noah Harari

How do we deal with Perpetual Beta?

The human work of tomorrow will not be based on competencies best-suited for machines, because creative work that is continuously changing cannot be replicated by machines or code. While machine learning may be powerful, connected human learning is novel, innovative, and inspired. Unique customized work is in ‘perpetual beta’.

New methods and practices — often ‘just good enough’ — can be developed, used, modified, and eventually discarded as the nature of the work changes. This kind of work cannot be prepared for in advance. Beyond formal training and education (a good base for many skills), people will also need to keep learning while working with others. The only way to stay ahead of the machines will be by using our unique human capabilities. In addition, people will have to understand how the machines and algorithms work, to ensure proper human oversight. Trying to be better than machines is not only difficult but our capitalist economy makes it pretty near impossible.

Communities of Practice

We can deal with perpetual beta by working and learning together. We can do this in communities of practice. If you are not in at least one community of practice, you are already ill-equipped for life in perpetual beta.

What is a community of practice? Here are three things it is not:

  • It is not a help desk filled with subject matter experts.
  • It is not a work group, or even task focused.
  • It is not a place where one is appointed by management to join.

Some characteristics of communities of practice:

  • People want to join them.
  • They usually have a higher purpose, that one person alone cannot achieve.
  • People feel affinity for their communities of practice.
  • There are both strong and weak social ties.
  • More diverse communities can be more innovative.
  • You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice.

While our larger social networks are great places for serendipitous connections, they are not safe places to have deeper conversations or to expose our points of view. In an open network the potential for online outrage and group orthodoxy increases with its size. It is the major criticism of social network platforms like Twitter. In a community of practice, membership is usually controlled and activities are monitored by people who want the community to be a place of learning. I belong to several of these and have had heated debates in them. But in the community we have mutual trust. While we may disagree, we respect each other. Too often in social networks we see the shaming of people in public. Communities are places to become better professionals. We have to be able to make mistakes in a place that provides psychology safety in order to venture out of our comfort zones.

There is no perfect recipe for creating or supporting a community of practice but there are many good and emerging practices to draw upon.

For example — drawing upon history — a community manager can play the role of a social convener at a community dance hall. Many people may have come, some will dance well, some poorly with gusto, and others will watch. The aim is not to make it perfect for everyone but to make sure that people come to the next dance. That means changing the tempo of the music or perhaps introducing new dance partners or maybe taking a break. It takes keen observation, pattern recognition, suite of subtle tools, and a gentle hand to help guide the knowledge flows in a community. A community of practice is a constantly negotiated space, dependent on who shows up, who plays, and who dances.  It depends on getting introduced to interesting people — some to dance with and others to talk to.

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