Learning to Breathe in the Network Era

Learning to Breathe in the Network Era

The networked workplace is the new reality. It’s always on and globally connected. This is where all organizations are going, at different speeds and in a variety of ways. Some won’t make it. In many organizations the outside world is better connected than inside the workplace. This makes it difficult to connect at the boundaries, which is where we have the best opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

At the edge of the organization, where there are few rules; everything is a blur. It may even be chaotic. But opportunities are found in chaos. Value emerges from forays into the chaos. In such a changing environment, failure has to be tolerated. Nothing is guaranteed other than the fact that not playing here puts any organization at a significant disadvantage.

When dealing with work problems we can categorize the response as either known or new. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management can help us map it. We can also create tools to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish a known task. New problems need tacit knowledge to solve them. The system handles the routine stuff and people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. As these exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution can get automated, and so the process evolves. Exception-handling is becoming the primary work for people in the networked workplace.

Complex and new problems cannot be solved using standard methods. Customized work is the realm of people, not machines or software. People are the best interface with complexity but they need to be connected and not work in isolation. This increases the need for more cooperation (freely sharing without any specific objective) as the primary long-term activity, and collaboration (working together on a given problem) for short-term specific projects.

Another challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they know has diminishing value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business imperative. Sharing and using knowledge is where business value lies. With computer systems that can handle more and more of our known knowledge, the network era worker has to move to the complex and chaotic edge of the organization to do the valued work of exception handling.

communities of practice

Three major changes are needed for the network era workplace.

First, power must be distributed. Distributed power enables faster reaction time so those closest to the situation can take action. In complex situations there is no time to write a detailed assessment. Those best able to address the situation have marinated in it for some time. They couldn’t sufficiently explain it to someone removed from the problem if they wanted to anyway. Shared power breathes trust into the workplace.

“One of the big challenges for companies is that unlike information or data flows, knowledge does not flow easily – as it relies on long-term trust-based relationships.” – John Hagel.

Second, transparency must become the norm. Transparency ensures there is an understanding of what everyone is doing. It means narrating work and taking ownership of mistakes. Transparency helps the organization learn from mistakes. Of course this is very difficult for any command and control organization, with its published organization chart and sacrosanct job titles, to embrace. Transparency is a breath of fresh air that cleans the cobwebs from the hierarchy.

Power-sharing and transparency enable work to move out to the edges and away from the comfortable, merely complicated work that has been the corporate mainstay for decades but is now getting automated. There’s little comfortable, stable work left to do inside the organization. But there will always be complex problems that cannot be solved through automation. These will require active, engaged, and constantly learning professionals.

Third, everyone in the organization must take control of their learning. It cannot be left to the Training Department. Continuous learning is now a critical workplace skill. Work is learning, and learning is the work. This is an ongoing process of moving knowledge from the edge (social networks) to the core (work teams) and back out to the edges. It is how knowledge can be pulled on a daily basis. Connecting the edge to the core is a major challenge for organizations.  It means connecting emergent practices and cooperative behaviours with collaborative project-based work. Part of the solution is more open management frameworks but another part is “edge-like” individual skills and aptitudes. Personal Knowledge Mastery covers the latter. It is a continual process of seeking from the edge (networks), filtering through communities of practice, sense-making at the core (work teams), and sharing back out to our communities and networks. Once habituated, it’s like breathing – in and out, regularly.

Originally published at Jarche.com