I recently put together a presentation deck on foundation insights that I think remain constant as we move into the future. This is my considered opinion after almost twenty years of reading, writing, talking, thinking and doing:
1) Creating and destroying customer-focused value happens through what people do together – it’s an outcome of our relationships, and the sum of our individual and collective behaviours.
2) There are a multitude of ways to design work flows and structures that attempt to harness, direct and influence our complex interactions.
Internal performance environments are made up of interacting systems – information, technologies, enabling HR systems, governance, physical workplace etc. They influence but do not determine performance outcomes. Our interactions are too complex for that. Outcomes are probabilistic.
3) Whichever set of structures, processes and protocols are the flavour of the moment, the entity that is ‘the organisation’ (increasingly porous and connected) interacts with external environments – competitive, legal, financial, cultural, political, safety, technological – that both enable and constrain.
4) Since it is people who sense and adjust, their skills and capabilities need to be up to the job of monitoring what they think they see happening in the internal and external environments – what will enable or stop people from achieving the organisation’s objectives?
And what they think’s happening depends on the capabilities, beliefs, values, cultural influences, motivations and perspectives that everyone brings to the party.
Learning is not an add-on – it needs to be sewn into everything everyone does.
5) We know that people crave autonomy, they “yearn to learn”, and they need to be connected to each other for camaraderie, fun and support.
6) We also know that whole systems of learning and distributed leadership are a key element of high-performance work systems – which are rarely seen in practice. So how might this situation change?
7) By people taking responsibility for their own experience of work, as far as they are able – this is Stowe Boyd’s call for us to “sharpen our own shovels”. The ‘bring your own device’ movement and the rise of co-working spaces point to people asserting choice in how they work.
This unfortunately depends on the bargaining power you can exert – how scarce are your skills? It also depends on the work you do. Many people remain tied to specific locations and shifts.
I’m persuaded by various theoretical positions that suggest that people are not prisoners of their work environments, that they shape their environments. I still think that people constrained by the work they do can exert a degree of autonomy. This needs another post, I think.
8) So what have I learned that will help us change our own experience of work? That knowledge is becoming more abstract, conceptual, distributed and complex.
9) We know what social and thinking skills are needed for complex contexts – we know how to hone these skills through practice.
10) And finally, I’ve learned that I continue to learn. Only a few days ago I heard the phrase ‘community as curriculum’ from Carl Gombrich, who runs the Arts and Sciences programmes at UCL in London.
Who knows what the future of work will look like? All we can do is set initial conditions, if we are able to influence the ‘rules’ and performance environments that let people get on with what they’re supposed to be doing. And if doing that is not part of our remit as an HR, IT or Workplace specialist? We set about seeing if we can do it for ourselves.
One thing is certain. The future is us, the future is connected. It unfolds from what we do now. So that’s it. What have I been doing for 20 years?