As I’ve shared here before, about a week ago I participated in the Social Now event where I got the opportunity to finally meet face-to-face Stowe Boyd, one of the best thinkers about the future of businesses and work.
Stowe did the closing keynote of the event and if you want a summary & tweetable version of his talk it would be something like this:
“The future of work is cooperative and we don’t have the right tools yet”
Let me try and explain why: the world has changed. Radically. Permanently. Stowe, as other great thinkers like John Hagel, believes that we are not, economically nor financially nor as a society, going through some sort of phase that will sooner or later go away, and put us back on track from where economies were before the financial crisis.
We now live in a VUCA – Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous – world (though Stowe doesn’t call it that): fast-paced, networked and based on pull (vs push) communications. Welcome to the post normal world!
In a post normal world, the structures, strategies and principles that guide our economies, societies, businesses and even the way we approach work need to be redefined. And in Stowe’s view in such a world the future of work will increasingly rely on fast-and-loose projects based on swift trust between weak connections (per opposition to traditional projects based on deep trust that one establishes with stronger ties through many interactions over time), thus developing the necessary agility businesses and individuals need to thrive in a fast World.
— Pedro Custódio (@pedrocustodio) April 19, 2013
(note following comment from Stowe: below processes should read push and not pull)
And a second side note: companies are made up of informal networks, they have always been. Only those networks are not visible and surely not represented by the org chart. For a better understanding of this topic I recommend the work of Valdis Krebs and his company Orgnet, and the research of Rob Cross.
FROM COLLABORATION TO COOPERATION
“The central economic imperative of the new economy is to amplify relationships” (Kevin Kelly cited by Stowe Boyd)
Stowe sees the future of work developing from the collective nature of collaboration to the connective nature of cooperation, which ties in with the fast-and-loose approach to projects he introduced: networked work, built on loose social affiliation and on the value of weak ties.
“Collaboration is just getting things done. Cooperation is what drives the extended enterprise — customers, suppliers, partners and anyone else touched by the business”
This good comment also explains the difference between both concepts by using the cycling peloton metaphor.
Stowe had already unveiled what would be the topic of his keynote in a blog post for GigaOm:
In brief, we are seeing a transition from process-defined work, where tightly defined rules and narrowly constrained roles shape people working lives, and organize the company culture into a collective mindset, toward relationship-framed work, where people use creativity, innovation, and connection to determine how to accomplish increasingly nonroutine work, and where we see a shift to fast-and-loose cooperation from tight-and-slow collaboration
“Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!” Marshall McLuhan RT @alexosterwalder
— Daniel Hudson (@webtechman) April 20, 2013
The above tweet was shared by Daniel Hudson just a day after Social Now and immediately led me to consider something that Stowe shared with us: we don’t have the right tools yet to support a cooperative model of work as the majority of tools around are based on collaborative models (check this post by Stowe on how cooperative tools need to become engines of meaning). That’s probably why he keeps track of so many different tools, especially those being developed by startups that can (in theory) more easily innovate by breaking away from existing mental models of how we approach work.
His vision of the future of work seems to me to imply a freedom of choice to pick whatever tool is best suited for the job at hand or for the end goal in mind (“do I need to collaborate on this or just cooperate/share something/tap into my network of weak connections?”). But ideally an interoperability or some sort of connectivity between these different tools is needed and here I guess a true challenge lies (not innocently, one of the questions the panel most asked was related to the ability of the tools presented to integrate or connect with other different applications).
THE ROLE OF BUSINESS PROCESSES
In a fast-and-loose, networked, post normal World, what is the role of business processes? With cognitive (complex and based on problem-solving) work on the rise, organisations will need to reconsider how they approach business processes that usually aim at routinising work.
Stowe hinted on this topic also, stating that processes will act more like guidelines of “consider doing that this way” than rigid and prescribed models of what to do.
CHANGE AND LEADERSHIP
With my head spinning (in a good way) after his talk, I had the opportunity of asking him two questions: how do companies transition to this new model of work (should they start at the edges as John Hagel and co suggest?); and what is the role of leadership in a cooperative, post-normal and networked model of work?
On the topic of change Stowe compares the movement needed inside companies to that of a complex contagion that needs a high level of advocacy to reduce the risk. Most probably, changes are sparked by what happens outside the organisation (at the edge) starting with individuals that have high betweenness. To him, all change starts at the individual level, a characteristic even more important in a fast-and-loose model.
So where should companies start? They should find the positive deviants, those already changing towards a future model, and involve them in figuring out how to build that positive contagion throughout the organisation.
Which leads us to question number two: the role of leadership. In Stowe’s view the role of the leader is to find those positive deviants and encourage those behaviours and change. The leader will increasingly act as a mentor. This reminds me of Richard Collin‘s idea of leaders as farmers of trust and harvesters of skills (interestingly, Richard cites Stowe Boyd on this presentation).
THE ROAD AHEAD
We are now in a time of transition, a period for rethinking how we organise as businesses, as individuals working for businesses (or setting up our own business) and as a society. I am particularly thrilled to be living in such a time. The opportunities are vast. The challenges are immense. There is no map of the future, no blueprint of how to navigate in a post-normal World. But this is a big part of the thrill: we can pave the road to the future as we make the journey!