Microbes and the future of work

Produced by DALL-E

This article first appeared on Adobe’s CMO.com - July 2015

Views not necessarily those of my employer

“The views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer”. How many times have you either seen that written, or written it yourself, on a social technology profile? I see it all the time. It feels like an apologetic self-defence measure of some kind. “I work for a company and they might not be very pleased about me having my own opinions about things”. It says that, while you work for a company, you don’t represent that company.

Well, you do. Even if your views are completely misaligned to those of your employer, the fact that they still employ you says a great deal about that company. Your very existence on the payroll means that you represent the organisation, even if you hate everything about them. As an aside, if you do hate everything about them, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your position.

If you are reevaluating your relationship with your employer, you’re far from alone. In a deliciously provocative article by Clay Parker Jones at Undercurrent, “The Organisation is Broken”, he reveals that 70% of employees in the US are either actively or passively disengaged from work. The overwhelming majority of the US workforce are living through an episode of The Office every day and either hate it or simply endure it. I have anecdotal evidence to suggest that the picture is similar outside the US.

Perhaps this explains the rise of what Intuit call “contingent workers”. Contingent workers are people who have chosen to work for themselves. Consultants, freelancers, self-employed, flexible staff, free agents etc. Intuit estimate that by 2020 fully 40% of the US workforce will be contingent workers. Traditional employment will no longer be the norm and “more than 80% of large corporations are planning to substantially increase their use of a flexible workforce”.

This shift is going to have profound implications for the structure, operating model and purpose of businesses. It’s little wonder that search terms like “business transformation” and “future of work” return so many results these days (over 58 million and 533 million respectively).

Future businesses are organisms

Businesses in the near future are going to experience a great deal of change. I like to think of businesses as organisms. It can sometimes make complex change easier to grasp.

In terms of composition, a future business may be compared to the human body. 90% of your cells are microbes - microorganisms that either live on or inside you. In a sense 90% of you is not “you” at all, unless you think of yourself as a walking ecosystem of creatures and not a singular thing at all.

This sounds very similar to the businesses of the future. A large percentage of the active ingredients that keep the future business operating are not owned by the business at all. “Microbial” contingent workers, that have a definite relationship with the business but are not it, are essential for its continued operation.

Using this biological metaphor, perhaps consulting firms should be talking about Business Metamorphosis rather than Business Transformation. Metamorphosis being the biological development of an entity from an immature stage to an adult form, adapting itself to a new environment, like a tadpole metamorphosing into a frog. Or the Very Hungry Caterpillar finally turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Networks of agents

In order to meaningfully serve a variety of hosts in the future, contingent workers are going to need new forms of dynamic organisation that respond to emerging needs. Loosely coupled networks of agents that spontaneously organise around a given problem or project for a host, collaborating seamlessly then dissolving the group.

Network technologies clearly have a significant role in making this happen. Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision” from earlier this year (see below) paints a compelling picture of how this might look in practice. It does, however, raise a few questions that need to be answered.

If these contingent workers dynamically gather for a problem and then disperse, how do we refer to them? They are clearly not the host business that hired them. They may represent a large number of individual micro-businesses. How will marketing address the uncomfortable notion of “personal brands”? How will they be rewarded for their efforts as connected individuals? How will they collectively agree on their purpose or shared principles to avoid “infecting” the host?

Beware of walled gardens

Technology may well be able to help answer many of these questions and give even more disengaged employees the opportunity to go microbial too. However, biological diversity is critical to the health of any ecosystem.

An open, interoperable internet is necessary to make this manner of dynamic networking and collaboration possible. We are increasingly seeing a trend towards the opposite, however: corporate monopolies, banks and governments attempting to control, restrict and monetise their systems and services. As we drift seemingly unconsciously into a world of walled gardens, we should be aware that the more walls there are, the less the gardens of the future are likely to flourish.

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