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The quiet bottoms up wirearchical 'revolution' and why it matters

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 23, 2018
Socially mediated workforce activism is emerging in lieu of formally organized unions. Where does this go and should we encourage these emergent changes.

The original revolution

I don't know if you've noticed or not but the almost imperceptible rise of the bottoms up 'revolution' is becoming a thing. This, among other shifts in the workplace and beyond, will have profound effects on how the workforce is organized and what it means for customers. Kick back, grab a brew, This is a long one. First some history.

The good old days

I'm old enough to remember the post-World War 2 reconstruction in the UK. Our family was among the early beneficiaries of relocation about 20 miles from London to Luton, famous for being a dominant player in the straw hat market of the early 20th century but which was also something of a poster child for opportunities in the then rapidly expanding automotive market.

At the time (think mid-1950s) Vauxhall Motors, now part of German group Opel, was hiring engineers like crazy. My father was among them and at the tender age of five, I along with my mother and younger brother was transported in a cramped Morris Minor to what for me was a foreign land. We moved into a brand new house where the roads were still mud tracks and where the smell of fresh paint hung in the air. It was an adventure.

As was normal in those days, my father became a member of the local branch of the amalgamated engineering union (AEU) and while never an activist, he always supported union decisions, even when that meant the Luton plant was affected by strike action at its sister plant in Ellesmere Port near Liverpool, some 200 miles away. We were never poor but never rich. My mother went to work for what was then British Rail and she too joined the local railway union.

After more than 25 years service in their respective jobs, my parents retired early, almost unthinkable today, and with small but lifetime pensions that allowed them to live out their lives in relative comfort. Right up until the day my father passed away in February this year, he was entitled to a limited number of free train journeys based upon the fact of my mother's employment.

Their retirements came as a result of their jobs being automated away. In my father's case it was the introduction of CNC machines and in my mother's the automatic telephone switchboard. They were not concerned because, as I said, they had pensions that were worth something and, in my father's case, he had skills that were transferable to other engineering businesses. Twenty plus years after he finally retired, it's fun to know there are still satellite guidance systems flying around the world that rely on his craftsmanship.

Labor disenfranchisement

Fast forward 20 years by which time I'd trained to be an accountant. In those days, whether moving into the so-called professional classes or going out to train as a craftsperson or even as a laborer, the expectation was that you'd have a job for life or if not, only a very few career moves. Unions had started to come under threat, a trend that has continued for more than 30 years so that today, labor participation in unions is almost an anachronism.

Today, the notion of organized labor is often tainted with whiffs of 'socialism,' an expression that in both the US and UK is almost synonymous with Marxist Communism, something that is still feared in the US, regarded with disdain in the UK and considered a proven failure following the fall of the Soviet Empire. We can argue the toss about that ad nauseum, go sideways into corruption if you want but hold that thought.

The Obvious

Zero hours
The Rise of Zero Hours Contracts

It seems like yesterday but about 17 years ago, Euan Semple started to advocate for the rise of the bottoms up organization. He (broadly) theorized that management could never truly 'manage' in the accepted sense of the word and that change had to be sparked at an individual level. He based that on success in the work he'd done at the BBC while leading 'knowledge management' and the early development of user-generated content via wikis and blogs. He also theorized that ideas that stuck would naturally spread through the bottoms up organization, eventually emerging as practices the whole organization could profitably take on board.

Semple recognized that for this to work in an authentic manner, people needed to find their voice. His only problem - and a source of many discussions - was that without explicit permission, individuals felt action of that kind meant taking unnecessary risks to their jobs. And with good cause.

As Semple continued to spread that word, including at some of the world's largest organizations, we saw the rise of rent-seeking capital and the erosion of workers' rights accompanied by zero hours contracts, the UK equivalent of US hire at will practices, and the instability that ensues.

I am oversimplifying and if you want to understand more then it's well worth skim reading The Obvious, but that's the gist of Semple's argument. To that extent, I vividly recall our sitting outside the London Festival Hall one afternoon chewing the cud on this and related topics. It was probably 10 years ago. At one point I asked how long this 'transformation' would likely take and he said it's generational as in 25-35 years. At the time I recall going slack-jawed at the prospect of grinding out that many years advocating a message but Semple was perfectly at ease with it. I now understand why.

More recently, Semple wrote this about digital transformation:

To me it is about the pressure to change that organisations are experiencing due to the fact that their customers and staff are finding their voice. We are able to talk about them as never before. They don't own their brands, we do - their staff do.

Whether it is marketing teams using digital means to promote their messages, employee engagement programmes to attempt to reclaim the attention and commitment of staff who are ever more aware of better opinions, or even the use of real digits in the form of big data, AI, and automation to change processes, it is all about responding to pressures that most organisations haven't had to deal with before. Many are struggling.

Small wins, thinly spread

'Struggle' is a loaded word but I hear what is behind it. Only now is that manifesting in a variety of ways, some interesting, some that hark back to past times but all providing a sense that the voice of the worker-customer matters and is becoming stronger. Check this story from New Labor Forum in 2016 which notes that while tech uptake among traditional labor unions has been slow, newer efforts have been effective:

Digital technologies have been usefully employed in organizing non-union workers., for example, developed by two SEIU alums, allows non-union workers to organize petition campaigns to seek workplace changes. This model, which has existed in the political space for years through platforms such as and, has been an effective strategy for low-paid workers who otherwise lack the ability to organize collectively for change. An example is the Tupelo Honey campaign, launched when the restaurant chain cut workers’ wages from $5.15/hour to $2.13 (the legal wage for tipped workers). Over 1,200 people signed the workers’ petition, and in 2015, the company restored wages at three of their locations to $5.15/hour. In fact, it just announced that, as of April 2016, it will pay a “total wage” of at least $11/hour at all of their locations and create a paid leave accrual policy (for workers who have completed training).

Elsewhere, we have seen the battle between representatives of Uber drivers in London and Uber take to Twitter and the traditional media in an effort to both publicize their cause and trumpet victory. I have no issue with the argument but where I do have an issue is with the language that accompanies the argument. As I said to James Farrar on Twitter, to me it harks back to the days of  Derek Robinson aka Red Robbo, a trades unionist who was a big thorn in the side of troubled automakers British Leyland during the 1970s and a near constant target for attack in the Conservative British media as Communist-inspired, if not aligned.

It is that association between two different worlds that leaves me uneasy, yet the topics raised are certainly legitimate. My spat with Farrar on the issue of language started as a result of this Tweet:

What makes this story interesting is that per The Guardian:

The move comes after more than 650 Salesforce employees signed a petition calling on chief executive officer Marc Benioff to end the contract.

That contract hasn't been terminated and, I suspect, it would be very difficult to simply cut it down.

More to the point, this is the latest in a string of stories that speak about tech workers making their concerns known through a combination of internal memos, communications, and leaks out to mainstream media. Some have a greater impact than others but the basic informal organizing principle that was the foundation of the old style labor unions holds true.

Fuelling activism

In the Tweetstream that followed, Vinnie Mirchandani came back with:

That's not a position with which we will agree any time soon. In the past, we've lavished praise on Benioff for his many outspoken positions on topics as wide-ranging as discrimination, diversity and the gender pay gap. Tom Raftery responded:

Raftery's position appears to reflect something of the shift that Semple predicted. If Semple is right about the generational nature of change then following the timeline of his starting out on this quest in 2001, when we talked around 2008 and where we are today in 2018, you get to a position where the next 5-10 years sees significant and substantial shifts in the rebalancing of power between workforce-customers, employers, and, almost inevitably, the state.

This is super important because when we see a change of this nature occurring in the real world, it matters. It can portend the improvement of living standards, hiring practices, customer relationships, worker relationships and many other effects we have little way of predicting with confidence or certainty. So what next?

As Semple and others have opined, today's business hierarchies are in trouble. But a straightforward view of how hierarchies manifest should tell us why. If you're standing on top of a pyramid it is easy to see all the way to the base. But all you see are the edges, not the inside, not the beating heart. This, among other things, is why I understand more clearly why projects fail, but equally, it is why the rise of internal activism comes as such a surprise to business leaders. Despite their exhortations to the contrary, leaders in hierarchically organized business and institutions simply can't see what's happening.

Hierarchy or wirearchy?

via @gapingvoid

A much better way is to consider hierarchy as a kind of elastic circle. In a circular arrangement, everyone sees everyone else. In the modern connected way in which we communicate, we can extend that idea to wirearchy, a concept developed by Jon Husband, that is elegantly wrapped up in this expression:

wirearchy is about the power and effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration … taking responsibility individually and collectively rather than relying on traditional hierarchical status.

If we accept this as an emergent trend then it is but a short step to management rethinking many things.

Activism may have been stifled through the evisceration of union power and rights. But it doesn't prevent people from having the need to organize. My question then is this: Since we have already seen how effective the use of social media can be in driving partisan political support by both those in power and those who aspire to power, is there any reason to assume social media and the vast networks of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (in the developed West) cannot be as effective in driving workforce-customer wants and needs? We will discover the answer to that in a few short years.

But in the meantime, I strongly believe we need to develop a common language that is capable of being heard and acted upon. We need to move away from pejorative terms that invoke the nightmares of the past but helps lead us towards a better future. That won't be easy but it is doable.

Final note - the other day I saw Phil Fersht liking this:

People love to talk about the "Future of Work" as if it's some far off place that is completely different from today. The reality is we can already see what is going to happen - it's not coming as a surprise. The key issue is our ability to adapt now to stay ahead of the curve.

Really? Perhaps I need to change my brand of binoculars.

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