Knowledge workers, the future of jobs and the Taylorism of management
We are at a fascinating point in the history of organisational development – probably more dynamic than the industrial revolution but equally critical for organisations to understand. A recent economist article put it beautifully, on clutter in management and how tiers of managers, meetings and emails and killing our productivity.
Office politics, management dysfunctionality and complex organisational structures, combined with badly thought out visions will be the demise of major institutions in the next decade. The shocks to the system that companies both large and small experience are becoming stronger and more regular than ever before and our existing defence mechanisms simply can’t cope.
We are no longer entering, but firmly planted within a digital and knowledge economy, everything we do today is captured, stored, classified and analysed; this means that even if you aren’t today, someone, somewhere, at some point will hold you accountable. It was said recently that politicians of the future will have to be ’more than squeaky clean’ because the old techniques of spin-doctors and cover-ups will not work in a transparent data economy – this is equally true for businesses.
Agility, data and deep knowledge to make strategic decisions on-the-fly are not skillsets that we necessarily attribute to large organisations – be they industrial or professional – but this is the future.
As a result we see a new breed of OD consultants cropping up in this space – putting our traditional McKinsey, Bain and BCG on the back foot in how they approach the complex structure of organisation; boxes-and-lines on Powerpoint are not cutting it as they simply deliver theory without practice. My current favourite is Undercurrent with their dynamic vision for a corporate operating system (best described in their CEO Aaron Dignan’s video here) and a recent spin-off by one of their partners to create the Nobl collective (an even more intuitive organisation bringing together knowledge workers based on client need).
Many companies are turning to consultants, contract workers and professional services companies to actually ‘get work done’; while long term employees are stuck in a rut of internal management, these external implants bring focus, drive and the efficiency against the work in hand – added to this the need for specialists, means that existing employees are not keeping their own skill sets up to date. In the growing knowledge economy it is becoming impossible to stay ‘at par’ with current ‘training programmes’, a shift to continuous learning is critical, but our management structures can’t seem to fit this in.
Much as Taylorism revolutionised the production line, we now need a new brief for the future of management. Applying Taylorism here and optimising for the division of labour might be a solution. This creates three major changes for the organisation:
Firstly a change in the way we are structured – cutting through the clutter, reducing layers and allowing for more jobs where people can focus on the work. As the Economist article clearly stated, looking for more efficiency today means removing some of the classic management ‘symptoms’ that we have added over the last ten years.
Secondly two clearly different groups – a true separation of managers and experts which was once applied to the factory floor and production lines now needs to move into the desk based environment. Many start-up and technology companies have made the clear distinction between people managers and ‘individual contributors’ whose job descriptions can be very different. As Google made it very clear in one of their own organisational overhauls, the best developers don’t always make the best managers.
And finally the use of experts from the outside as much as ‘lifers’ within an organisation; a new approach to staffing and careers means that we would be more agile with our use of temporary workers around specific projects and full-time employees might be best placed to guide the strategy and management of an organisation rather than the execution. These experts could potentially cycle in and out of the organisation as needed and thereby maintain their expertise – much like management consultants today, but hopefully not at the cost of confidentiality and strategic vision.
But there is also another part of this brief for the future – and it is about learning – everyone, managers, employees, contractors, must stay up to date on what they do and how they do it. The opportunities for learning organisations will be massive and alongside this, an understanding of how to properly use technology to connect people better, drive focus and efficiency – and above all remain agile.
What will careers look like in 2020, 2030 and beyond? I often think about the world that my children will evolve into and how their professional lives will look different from our own – and then obviously how my own professional life has evolved from that of my parents.
In the last twenty years, technology has overtaken the workplace – it is exceedingly rare today to find a desk without a laptop or a mobile phone, even those of blue chip CEOs – but video conferencing, phones and email haven’t stopped us travelling (when we thought it would). Old people in an era of new technology still need to ‘press the flesh’ and business travel has in fact exploded. Almost as a by-product of the technology, the amount of content and data that is produced has also grown exponentially, way beyond our ability to assimilate it, and this has created the mass of meetings to use our combined brains to discuss and handle the outcomes of the data society.
For our children, the true digital natives, the changes will be in the way they work. They will be the first generation to properly benefit from our technology and managerial revolution – as business technology catches up with consumer technology in terms of true functionality they will be part of an era of business enlightenment. They will not be burdened by the need to meet physically as their offices will be permanently virtual through IM, VC, and the cloud, they will be mobile powered. Machine learning will take on the mounds of data we have available and distil it down to useful insights delivered through intelligent dashboards, requiring fewer people to make complex decisions. Careers in general will be less about the companies and brands and more about a deep skill set and knowledge allowing them to be globally mobile between countries and organisations, but probably all without moving from a farmhouse in Kansas (with a fibre connection!).
So what advice can I give my children (and the next generation)? Be careful of business and management as a career choice early on – good managers will be bred out of their social, strategic and leadership skills. Find a craft that you enjoy and dig into it – keep learning at every opportunity – the world is picking up speed and much like a marathon, the winners will be those that can stay the distance.
Be an expert and manage your own brand to stay in demand; but above all, find true balance in life – where professional and personal can dovetail together – there won’t be a clock to sign on and off.