Timescales and commodification
First a word about timescales. I grew up with mainframe computing. My father was head of computer systems for a large local authority and my scrap paper at home was punch cards. I remember being impressed by an ascii printout of Santa Claus and his reindeer and feeling amazed that a computer could do something so clever and so interesting. Now we have 3-D printing and the prospect of printing things that are useful in our lives. That's in the space of little more than a generation.
I recently rediscovered a video made by Apple in 1987. It is called The Knowledge Navigator and is a wonderfully cheesy, American detective style, video of a busy exec walking into his office and reacting with a book sized device on his desk which performs the role of his assistant, prompting him in a human voice about meetings he has that day, emails he needs to write, articles he needs to read. It is fascinating that Apple knew with such clarity where they were headed thirty years ago. With Siri and our iPhones and iPads we are almost there. Not perfect, but getting closer all the time.
So in some ways our technology is speeding ahead, in others it is stumbling along. Certainly the full impact of new technologies still lags behind what is possible, but the gap is closing all the time. The most obvious set of changes facing our businesses are technological. With the advent of the block chain and increasingly advanced automation we are looking at the very real prospect of routine, white collar knowledge work being consigned to machines in the next decade.
Routine bureaucratic work in accountancy, the law, medicine, and even journalism is ripe for the picking. IBM’s Watson recently not only wrote a number of essays but edited and produced the magazine in which the material was published. It is only a matter of time before Amazon, which knows the content and patterns of every Kindle murder mystery or page turning romance, is able to anticipate a shortfall in any genre of novel and meet the demand from its own generated content.
Even routine managerial functions could be automated. Our phones and smart watches reveal we have been late for work five days in a row. The system writes us a better written, more grammatically correct email than our boss ever managed telling us that if we are late once more we will be in trouble. And our boss isn't there anymore. We hardly saw him anyway so who's going to notice?
But we are also experiencing significant societal upheaval. I often say that we are going through a social revolution aided and abetted by technology rather than a technologically driven one. Recent events with Brexit and the US election are symptomatic of this upheaval. Old orders are struggling to keep up, new and unpredictable forces are at play. We are losing trust in our institutions and those in authority.
In a relativistic mush of ephemeral views our attitudes are polarising. Authoritarian voices are attracting followers and the checks and balances of governance are outmoded. Determining what is true and what we believe has never been harder, or more important, and the press, who we used to trust to help us are in disarray. It is all happening so quickly, and all around the western world. Volatility is replacing stability and we are feeling the strain.
The individual response
And this leads to the last, and in many ways most significant, challenge. How we as individuals respond to what is happening around us and to us. There is increasing confusion about our roles in the world and the part our work plays in our lives.
The old days of a job for life have gone for most of us to be replaced by the gig economy for some and cautious compliance for others. Levels of “employee engagement” are stagnant and fear plays a large part in the day to day work experience of the average corporate employee.
But wasn’t the internet meant to sort all this? Wasn’t it meant to afford new and exciting possibilities for creativity, collaboration, and growth? What went wrong?
The early prospect for egalitarian networks of committed, thoughtful people to collaborate on solving the world’s problems got hijacked. Mainstream media and marketing colonised the new online world with old attitudes. Content remained king and we remained consumers. But it not over yet. I have been quoted elsewhere saying that we are only at the start of the changes brought about by the internet.
The whole ark of disruption and opportunity is likely to take more like fifty years. Think of it, we have had the internet for more than thirty years, the web for more than twenty, and most of the population are only now beginning to realise the power of the tool they have at their disposal.
From consumption to creation
I have recently watched my network “grow up” through the experience of Brexit and Trump. Yes there has been polarisation and extremes, fake news, and manipulation, but more people have used their online conversations as part of how they have made sense of what is happening around them than ever before. As we consume less packaged news, we are learning to work out what we really think. This is a good thing. And this is the opportunity. A massive opportunity to shift from consumption to creation.
However modestly to start with we are beginning to learn to tell our own stories online and to share them with others. Whether Snapchat or Whatsapp, Facebook or Linkedin, we are learning that we have more power than we realised.
We are, as David Weinberger once said “writing ourselves into existence” and we are getting better at it. We will get through our current crisis of fake news on Facebook, will will work out how to engage with each other without descending into flame wars. We will realise that we all have a volume control on mob rule. We get to decide what we link to and what we like, what we ignore and what we argue against. We will learn to take responsibility for our impact on our networks and the collective outcome of our apparently unimportant micro decisions.
And we will learn to do this at work. If our ability to influence the world around us through conventional democratic means is becoming more problematic, we have the opportunity to exert influence inside our organisations. So many of us work inside the large corporations that wield so much influence in the world. Others work in the institutions and bodies who steer our policies and legislation. Still others exercise huge impact on the world of finance - and we can all do more to affect the ways our organisations operate in the world.
If there had been large enough, grown up enough, engaged enough internal social networks in the banking industry when someone suggested sub-prime mortgages were a bad thing then maybe, just maybe, if enough quiet voices had said “Really? Do we really think that is a good idea” then perhaps they may not have come about. Or if enough people in our heavy industries exercise their concerns about the environment, or our food industry workers begin to question our consumption of sugar. Take your pick, we have more influence than we think we do, we just need to get better at exercising it.
If we are going to survive the onward march of technology and add value over and above the ability of machine driven intelligence and robotics, it is our human qualities that we are going to have to rediscover and celebrate. Our vulnerability, our fallibility, our creativity and our passion. The very things that we have been discouraged from bringing to work.
These qualities are our USP, they are our hope for the future. We need to get better at supporting each other in bringing about these changes. We need to find our voice and share our thoughts. We need to get better at thinking harder and sharing better.
What does this mean? How do we do it?
The first step is to re-discover our curiosity, to notice what is happening around and and to wonder why. So much of our time at work is spent nose to the grindstone, pushing through processes and buried under busy work. Just the sort of work that machines are made for.
Humans though are good at understanding context and meaning, although you'd be hard pressed to know that given the rate at which fake news has been gobbled up.
We can train ourselves to notice things, to wonder why they are the way they are, to ask ourselves how they could be done better. And we can then share what we have seen and learned with others. This is something that we can practice.
Discerning what is likely to be useful and interesting to others in our network, taking responsibility for finding the right people to share it with, and at the right time. Not just writing forty page reports that no one will read or firing off ill considered scattergun emails. Using the right tools in the right way at the right time to convey meaning. Respecting the time and attention of others is also key. Asking important questions such as, why am I sharing this? Who will it benefit? Am I just doing it to look smart or will it really make a difference? Am I using the most clearly understandable, jargon free writing? Am I aiming for concision rather than indulging myself at my readers’ expense? What is my intent in writing this?
Intent is key and people can smell dubious intent a mile off. Life is too short and too complicated to read others’ self indulgent lengthy prose. TL:DR (Too Long Didn’t Read) is not just a symptom of reducing attention spans, it is a survival technique against indulgent writing.
Resist the temptation to only write about things that seem special or important. It is often in the daily detail that real value lies for others. The things that seem routine or obvious to you because you have been where you have been and do the things you do, can be revelatory to others.
The intensity of the mundane is powerful so don’t be reticent about stating the obvious - it might not be to others. And don’t be too “professional” in your communication.
We have all become too adept at talking management bollocks and not really saying what we mean. In fact remembering how to talk normally, and to say clearly what we actually think, is difficult for most people in business. But anyone can write fluff. Even machines can write fluff. We add value by sharing meaning and only human’s can do that, at least in the short term.
So we are talking about celebrating and rediscovering our humanity in the workplace. Reversing decades of depersonalisation and professionalisation. Getting back to the imprecision, imperfection and messiness that makes us human. This is our USP, it is what will help us to stay ahead of the bots.
Building and maintaining trust and relationships, sharing vulnerability, being brave together to reverse the tide of conformity. This is the nature of work that matters and doing work that matters is more important than ever before. If you are not working for an organisation that is making the world a better place why are you working there? If you are not doing work that makes you a better person and those around you happier and more effective why are you doing it?
We need to find greater purpose on our work. We need to feel that we are making a difference. Often it can feel overwhelming, what difference can we make? But if not us then who? If not now when?
We have at our disposal in the shape of the internet and social tools, an amazing platform on which to influence each other and to have agency. We have the potential to change the world, one conversation at a time. And isn’t this the real work of work? To change the world?
Life is too short for boring meetings. We should be putting our energies into making a difference rather than rearranging the deckchairs on our version of The Titanic. To do this means stepping outside of the norm, breaking ranks with accepted norms. We need to support each other as we do this. Find others who have had enough of the status quo and have a desire to raise their game.
We need to forget what we have taught is right and wrong and start working this stuff out for ourselves. I leave you with three quotes which together encapsulate the thrust of this article. Take them to heart, remember them, think hard about them - and share them.
...the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in contact with our feelings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and underlings. - Marshall B Rosenberg
In a knowledge economy there no such thing as conscripts, there are only volunteers. The trouble is we have trained our managers to manage conscripts. - Peter Drucker
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead