We started Mavenlink because we recognized that the world of work is changing dramatically, and that we are on the cusp of a new era in the workplace. Here at the Mavenlink blog, we’ll be exploring various aspects of change in the work-world by connecting with leading ideas and points of view, and bringing those perspectives into focus with the help of our community.

The modern work-world has always been dynamic, and constant adaptation is a given for both organizations and individuals. Today, however, economic, technological, and social forces have converged to produce change at an unprecedented rate. Hagel, Brown, and Davison argue that we have reached the point of permanent disruption, distinct from the periodic, temporary disruptions followed by periods of equilibrium that characterized previous eras.

The financial upheaval of 2008 sent a shockwave through the global economy that has accelerated and amplified the trends of the past few decades, namely, increasing productivity, disruption, and individual responsibility. In addition, digital networks for information and communication are having a profound effect on the direction and velocity of these trends. Now, as the world economy struggles to recover from recession, the employment landscape is permanently altered. Where some see a ‘jobless recovery’, however, we see the nature of employment itself shifting toward what G.A. Marken describes as the era of the empowered independent worker.

Increased Productivity through the Network

Given the current state of the economy, it’s easy to forget that improved technologies and business processes are making workers more productive, in part by exposing a broad range of networked resources for communication, collaboration, and production to individuals. Workers are now capable of delivering entire projects individually or in small autonomous groups, free from time and location constraints.

While businesses are enjoying networked productivity gains, people who work for them, including many influential ones, are using the new social features of the web to form and join online communities. For some, these communities, organized around specific areas of knowledge, are a primary locus of contribution and reputation, as important to their careers as the positions they hold within corporations. Meanwhile, businesses realize that the social web now holds valuable knowledge that they can access only on the communities’ terms.

Both individuals and organizations have expanded beyond corporate boundaries to participate in a new, expanded knowledge environment which is not governed by traditional employment relationships. It remains to be seen whether new types of economic relationships develop as businesses strive to tap into community knowledge while simultaneously coping with continued disruption.

Emerging Strategies in the Face of Constant Disruption

The current business environment is hyper-dynamic, global, and characterized by rapid change and rising uncertainty; re-organizations, re-alignments, global initiatives, mergers, and acquisitions are increasingly frequent occurrences even within formerly sedate sectors of the economy. With organizational structure and staffing levels and locales in constant flux, and institutional memory often lost in the shuffle, even workers whose positions remain intact can find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Voluntary and involuntary mobility reinforces the need for a network that extends beyond the corporate org chart.

The scope, speed, and frequency of change, along with diminished workplace loyalty and increased workforce volatility, have weakened the effectiveness of the traditional command and control approach. As businesses look beyond their walls to access (and contribute to!) wider community knowledge sources, they must rely on what Tammy Erickson calls ’discretionary effort’ to meet their goals. This means developing strategies to ‘pull’ in contribution and collaboration from the most talented and motivated resources across the network, regardless of employment status and reporting structure. Given the fact that knowledge work can only be evaluated at completion, not when it is in process, successful ‘pull’ strategies will depend not only on matching skill sets, but more importantly, on reputation.

In the new environment of constant disruption, both individuals and businesses must rely increasingly on networked relationships and knowledge sources that extend beyond corporate boundaries.

From Entitlement to Individual Responsibility

The work world, and society in general, has been moving away from the 20th century model of benefits, guarantees, and entitlements toward an individual ownership or entrepreneurial model (see CNNmoney.com – The demise of the ownership society). As part of that trend, businesses are shifting responsibility for major items, such as long-term financial stability, healthcare, etc. to the individual. No one expects that businesses will discontinue benefits entirely, but it is reasonable to assume that the network will play a role in transforming this arena as well.

As HR systems become more powerful, flexible, and transparent, businesses will be able to offer more variety by allowing employees to partner with a range of service providers. And as compensation and benefit models become more flexible, individualized, and decentralized (perhaps ultimately becoming independent of the traditional employee relationship), individuals will assume greater risk and responsibility for negotiating and managing those resources; we expect that knowledge communities will arise to help close the gap and enable individuals to take on and excel at this considerable task.

In our next post… we’ll talk more specifically about the emerging network economy, how it might affect the very concept of career, and how knowledge of one’s strengths and values will be even more critical for success in the future.

In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you… Are these trends affecting your job or the companies you work with? Do you feel like constant disruption is now the norm? What successful strategies have you found for dealing with it? Would you welcome more freedom from the constraints of traditional employment relationships, or does the lack of viable options for corresponding support services make it too risky?

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