What will the 21st Century organizations aspire to?
I know that my phone and my credit card are spying on me. I am certain that this is not a good thing, and yet I choose not to think about it as I continue to live my ordinary life, occasionally wondering if we’ll all eventually have to turn to the Amish in the post-apocalypse as the last remaining community of people who actually know how to do anything.
But as businesses and a society, we really do need to examine the contents of our pockets and make some decisions. Our technology, if not our instincts, are enabling us to connect and monitor each other, ourselves and the world around us. Business needs are driving us to seek out new models for growth and efficiency, and our humanity is driving us to find more ways to ensure prosperity for individuals and communities -- it's an awesome thing.
But it's going to be complicated. Perhaps I have read too much sci fi, too much 20th century Orwellian angst-lit. We know the next generation of organization (and society) is going to be super connected. We want this to be so. We want this to democratize and meritocritize, we want to leverage the true capabilities and aspirations of the work force. We want organizations to be more "unified" -- but what kind of "unified" do we want? What will it look like? Is it all rainbows and unicorns?
Back in 2009 David Armano was trying to express his theory of social business, and among other things he had this notion of “Hive Mind.” It was clear that a) David was onto something -- but even he was not really sure what, b) that he was a brilliant illustrator and c) that “Hive Mind” creeped me out. My imagination drew an ugly Borg-like picture. A totalitarian construct. I’m sure that’s not what David meant. So what do we mean?
If we must now reject the “well-oiled machine” metaphor for business, it would be handy to have something to replace it with. Machines, no matter how well-oiled, are incapable of the agility and complexity business needs to thrive. Further, people are not cogs in machines, and why would we want to be?
So the mechanistic model fails both the business and the humanity test. We are individuals and communities of staggering complexity -- how will we use that to achieve what is currently beyond our grasp or imagination? What is the metaphor of the 21st century, humanistic, connected, buzzing (but not seething) organization?
We will choose -- with intention or without. If we are building a world of possibilities, we want the better ones to prevail. We will have a hand in what dominates, and so we have to recognize and prepare our choices. There will be ambiguity. This article on Disney’s idyllic, planned community -- asks if its “Cool or Creepy?” This will be increasingly difficult to answer in many contexts.
Organizational Design for Century 21 - More than One Metaphor
In the last couple hundred years, business and government have been dominated by hierarchical, command and control structures -- though there have been some other models. Family models, some decentralized models (the "bad guys" have taught us some things about decentralized control) -- but hierarchies are so ingrained in our society as to be barely questioned.
Now we have “Valve” -- a purely self-directed organization (that I still need to understand better). We had the “Occupy” movement and Crisis Commons, Wikipedia, and of course Arab spring -- and perhaps one enduring organizational theme of the future will be purely emergent organizations.
But other than Valve, none of these has an ongoing, durable organization designed to deliver value in a sustained way -- a way that can bring economic prosperity to its members. I do not quite believe yet that the Valve model will dominate, though I hope that model will become better understood and more frequently used. Leadership and vision will play an enduring role, and leadership that can activate the potential of other people will dominate organizations of the next epoch.
In all likelihood, we will have two or three enduring models, ranging from purely emergent to purely directed, that will hopefully bring greater diversity to the types of problems we can solve, and the types of people who can make breakthrough contributions.
As new structures slowly emerge, we need to think about five things. We need to assign societal values to each and ultimately determine whether we are building Big Brother or a chance at universal self-actualization.
1. Free Will
A command and control hierarchy is ultimately about discipline and submission to authority. Free will is intentionally constrained. Do what you are supposed to do, and do it well (or else). The Borg epitomizes this same end, but through a networked and decentralized model rather than a hierarchical one. I’m thinking it's not the direction most of us actually want to enable.
Zen translates to “direct understanding.” People have spent thousands of lifetimes understanding what that means, but at a novice level, it means un-intermediated learning. That there is a direct relationship between all things, and that you do not need the wisdom of others to guide you to see it. There is no official holy book of Zen. But there have always been those farther along the path, and they have often served as guides for others. This may be a new model of leadership. The wise guide still pursuing their path, willing to help others.
The new networked organizational collective, or “Connective,” in its ideal form, will give each person “direct understanding” of the ecosystem. In fact, as we discuss complexity and emergence it may be that “direct understanding” is really what all this design thinking and system thinking is really striving for.
But free will is limited. Often by our understanding of our own culture and paradigms. This recent, brilliant rant by James Altucher is hard to ignore. It describes the illusion of free will created by a society whose patterns leave only an impression of choice.
He’s not the only one to share this view. Some sound bitter and angry and, frankly, nuts. But others are increasingly difficult to ignore. Our society -- for all its greatness -- has ingrained patterns of behavior and decision making and for better or for worse, it's not easy to see beyond its assumptions. But things are happening and what worked before may not work forever, and we have some collective thinking to do.
Technology that democratizes expression, learning and even production can give more people more free will and opportunity to self-actualize than ever before. This appears to be our human aspiration and destiny. But this combined technological determinism and “solutionism” will take us places we haven’t imagined yet. Caveat emptor. We should not go blithely forward without at least attempting to understand what we want society to become. Somewhere between 1984 and The Matrix are some truths we need to explore.
2. Connected Decision Making - Power, Sense and Consensus
Decision making is increasingly complex as sense making is increasingly complex. We have the opportunity to understand so much more now than we ever did, but our ability has yet to catch up. The challenges of big data (did any of you miss this classic chart of murder rate vs. internet explorer market share? Big Data gone goofy) and collective organizations -- where expertise, authority and awareness can be widely distributed -- are holding us back.
To some extent, this is addressed by our increasing ability to re-act rather than anticipate. This is learning, doing, failing fast -- but still and all, action requires decisions. Some organizations will always need more explicit decision making than others (think governments and armies for instance) at least for some decisions.
Gordon Ross wrote a great piece on the nature of power in Networks. He warns that we will eventually need to move past our warm and fuzzy view of organizations and power as purely shared, and realize that while power is not strictly zero-sum, power and equality and egalitarianism are not easily and purely balanced. Some will be more powerful than others. That means that we need to better understand the nature of power, and be thoughtful and more deliberate in how and when we allot, distribute, give up and attain it.
3. We are Cyborg
Since humanity first picked up tools, we have been enhancing our biological capabilities with man-made constructs -- eyeglasses for example (which I now need). Google glass is just another step in a long path here. My favorite, too-often quoted Gibson description of the internet -- “our continually improving, communal, prosthetic memory” -- describes the internet, but also suggests that it will be a lot more intimate than it is now.
We are augmenting ourselves in biological, sensorial and cognitive ways -- and it's a great thing. I have a couple extra parts in my knee that were not original equipment. My first job out of college was writing code to test an artificial ear (which is now in use, I’m proud to say). We will soon have visual analogs of cochlear implants that let the blind see.
Google Glass, even the iPhone and this latest “personal environment monitor” are giving us constructed ESP and other capabilities. And I don’t think any of us will resist it. Why would we? We absolutely want our doctors to have Watson, as I want new eyeglasses to read with.
Two or three generations from now people will wonder how we made do without these things in the way we wonder how people managed without central heating and telephones. Our grandchildren will consider us medieval. They will create PBS reality shows of people trying to survive with bare eyes and no broadband in their human operated cars.
But ESP and complete connectivity lead us to another wickedly complex topic:
Here’s my question. Need we begin to consider what life and fairness means in a post-private society? Will our connectedness and our rapidly increasing dependence on digital technology for all of life's transactions inevitably lead to a society with no reasonable expectation of privacy?
At last fall’s TEDxMidatlantic, Alessandro Aquisti gave a tidy demonstration of the fact that our privacy is an illusion and that our identities and personal information are available to those who want them. Will this return us to small town values where everyone knows everyone else’s business? Would that be a good thing? Will this be humanizing or dehumanizing? What of our “rights”? What of our security or independence?
What will that mean at work? Will our actions be perpetually scrutinized? We of the “knowledge worker” class may feel we are free from the nightmares of keystroke analysis and time scrutiny of “management,” but will our next decade increase everyone’s work-freedom or diminish our own? Will we spread enlightenment or contract it?
5. Choose. Now.
These questions may not seem like core “Enterprise 2.0” questions, but I assure you they are. We are building new business constructs and free will, privacy, decisionmaking and even a reexamined notion of what it means to be human will be profoundly affected and will profoundly affect those new businesses. We cannot know that Visa knows if we will divorce, possibly years before we do, and not decide whether or not that is ok. Will having fully quantified selves, customers and teams means that we rush past the humanity we were trying to unleash? We must face what we've put in our pockets.
We cannot predict the future, but we can choose its flavor by making fundamental declarations, and basing the rest of our decisions on those simple, powerful truths.
Do we believe that competent, well qualified people will do the right thing given the opportunity? Do we believe that we can help people see and pursue opportunity and capability where they haven’t in the past? Do we need to reframe the right to privacy debate? Do we believe that societies and organizations thrive based on cooperation or social Darwinism? How do we skew toward one and not the other? Do we believe that control is the same thing as power? Do we believe that work people believe in is of value to both shareholders and society? Do we believe in ourselves?
We hold these truths to be self evident. In the United States we have found that it is the embrace and examination of the values set forth by our founding fathers that have endured our few short centuries. Will we and in what way will we need to reimagine the values -- business and otherwise -- of the next few centuries?
(The best is yet to come)
Editor's Note: Ready for more Deb? Read her Social Business: It is NOT Culture. Or Technology. But Maslow Gets It