Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Future of Work Salon: An account and some thoughts

The Shift101 Future of Work Salon was held March 6. Shift101 is a consultancy based in Australia, focusing on outworking solutions (teleworking, coworking, alt-work communications applications, etc.). Drew Jones and Todd Sundsted of NotAnMBA.com have recently joined Shift101 and are conducting salons in Austin, New York, and Sydney.

Drew Jones invited me to serve on the respondent's panel, which also included Bruce Eric Anderson of Dell (who runs the Digital Nomads blog) and John Erik Metcalfe of Conjunctured. Todd Sundsted presented on behalf of Shift101.

We had a light crowd, but a good one: Representatives from Launchpad, Conjunctured, The Creative Space, and Dell - and the University of Texas, I suppose, since I was there.

The presentation
Drew opened the session by discussing trends they had seen. He sees shifts in performance management, security, flexibility, and work-life balance due to demographic changes: the rise of Gen Y and the approaching retirement of the Baby Boomers. Those shifts point to the increasing popularity of "outworking" as people move from the corporate environment to other spaces.

This trend is not exactly making the office obsolete. But a generational transition is the elephant in the room. As Drew pointed out, we have 70 million Gen Ys. Ten thousand Baby Boomers reach retirement age every day. The two trends constitute what Drew calls a "demographic transfusion." And Gen Y brings in different values: they want individual, meaningful work.

Todd followed up by starting the presentation, entitled "Bold Moves." The 2008-2009 recession, he said, can be the great business school of the modern era.

Todd noted several "forces" that characterize the current moment and the near future:
  • Increasing unemployment
  • Corporation natural selection wiping out companies
  • Workforce will get both older and younger - deferred retirement - but then much younger.
  • Huge chunk of Gen Y
  • Laptops, wifi, secure networks -> mobility
These have consequences:
  • Executive: compensation more tightly coupled to performance, especially long-term
  • Results: focused environment -> advantages of full-time employee under scrutiny
  • Companies must justify growth of staff size, addition of full-time employees. Must justify $ of desk, office for each employee. Real estate utilization is about 40% in an office.
In 10 years, Todd added, 50% of the workforce will be Gen Y.

Todd thinks we're facing a fundamental shift on the scale of the last century's shift toward scientific management. He expects 5-10 years of innovation in the next round of work. In particular, outworking will become not just tolerated but necessary, due to the costs of commuting coupled with costs associated with maintaining underutilized buildings.

At this point, John Erik added: His generation is used to measurement in terms of video games and grades. Now they want that feeling back. (I understand this to mean that he wants clear measures of achievement coupled with autonomy in maintaining that achievement.)

Todd added that new work will involve new management skills:
  • Managing remote teams becomes a necessary skill.
  • Managing multiple generations, perhaps up to 4 generations - never before.
So he predicts Bold Moves:
  • Companies must get by with fewer, more productive employees
  • Companies will exit lease obligations, reduce real estate expenses
  • Companies will develop robust methodologies for managing employees and contingent workers
  • More teams will be allowed and encouraged in outworking
  • Performance-based management will replace subjective measures (e.g., face time)
  • Effective corporate leaders must become masters at framing, defining distribution. Innovation -> growth.
  • Companies must pay more attention to workspace design as a factor in recruitment, retention, and productivity
John Erik adds here that Conjunctured (the coworking space) is a "loss leader" for Conjunctured (the design firm). Conjunctured functions as a brand - a company with many possible employees working in the space - and John Erik functions as an account manager. Drew adds that such distributed organizations rely on trust and nimbleness, and speculates that peer-to-peer banking will be the next necessary step. Privately, I wonder: are such organizations necessarily business-to-business?

The dialogue
And at this point, I lost track. I presented some of my own work here on federations - if you went to ATTW or CCTE, or if you're going to IA09, I covered the same ground as here - and we talked about the differences and similarities between my Gen X participants and Gen Y participants. We also had some great discussion with Cody Marx Bailey and Roby Fitzhenry of The Creative Space, a College Station-based coworking space, about their different perspective on outworking. The most important takeaway was that Cody and Roby didn't worry at all about facework the way that my Gen X participants did: they said they were entirely transparent about their lives and work, and didn't want to work with clients who didn't respect that.

Bruce Eric Anderson at Dell then talked about Dell's efforts in this space. Dell is concerned with recruitment and retention of Gen Y, but also lost work time during the commute, carbon footprint, and similar factors. They believe that "digital nomads" will become more prevalent, particularly in some highly desirable knowledge leadership positions, and they want to make sure they can support such work and evolve with it. Bruce also brought a prerelease netbook that Dell will soon release. Nice machine.

My thoughts
I left the salon thinking that Shift101 and the respondents have done some good thinking. But many questions remain about the future of work. I see the following additional trends:
  • Mobile work accelerates.For instance, I strongly suspect that in knowledge work sectors, the mobile phone, home broadband, and smaller prosumer computing will continue to enable and accelerate the trend of mobile work. (The three technological trends are collapsing, and I expect smartphones+peripherals to take over basic email, word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations in the next couple of years.)

  • New standards develop for distributing work. As work becomes more mobile and distributed, I also expect to see much more outsourcing and attempts at modularization in the corporate sector. But that's a very complicated and messy proposition, and to make it work, we'll probably see a lot of sub rosa workarounds and growing pains. Trust and accountability must be distributed too, and those mechanisms will be hard to lay out and enforce across an increasing number of subcontractors. So we'll see a proliferation of answers to that problem, probably including (a) rebounds: bringing subcontracted services back in house; (b) trade standards: articulation and voluntary policing of trade guidelines; (c) APIs for making work transparent across elements of emerging federations; (d) redundant subcontracting, leaning toward spec work. It will take a while for these innovations to settle down.

  • Social media become essential communication services. I further expect that the use of social media for b2b contacts will continue and increase. I won't be surprised to see not just b2b versions of popular services (e.g., the corporate services that mimic Twitter, currently cropping up) but also b2b features of existing services (e.g., b2b features built into Twitter or layered over the Twitter API). OpenSocial and others in this space will become increasingly important. So will web-based collaboration services, which will increasingly depend on corporate accounts for revenue.

  • Your social graph becomes your resume. Social media and collaboration services will return value for these corporate accounts by suggesting subcontractors, a really critical aspect of distributed work. They will increasingly include reputation systems, which have mostly been applied to products and sellers, but will increasingly be applied to service providers and independent contractors. Reputation systems of some kind will have to perform the same service that merit reviews do within organizations.

  • Strategic planning becomes very difficult, then very easy. Transitioning to radically distributed organizations means a period in which getting a strategic overview becomes very difficult. This, by the way, is something that has bothered me about Zuboff and Maxmin's envisioning of federations: since federations are essentially project-based, with the federation dispersing at the end of the project, time horizons are very short and the federation is essentially tactical and reactive. I don't know that the business community currently has the tools to perform strategic planning in such an environment. But as subcontractors begin generating relatively stable social graphs, I expect a new equilibrium to be developed, meaning that strategic planning will become much easier - particularly as gobs of data become more available and aggregated.
If these trends are on the money, short-term winners include Google and Facebook (who are pushing APIs to connect different social networks); broadband providers; and nimble organizations. Long-term, the more stable and rich social networks become more valuable. I envision the day when people's social graphs are traded in portfolios - though I don't endorse that move.

Anyway, the FoW panel was great. I don't think Shift101 has plans for another one in Austin soon, but if they do, I will encourage everyone I know to go!


Alex Reid said...

Thanks Clay. It sounds like an interesting conversation, and I appreciate your thoughts on it. Though I am reluctant to ask the pedagogical question, I will anyway. How do you see these work practices shaping higher ed writing pedagogy?

Clearly many faculty work this way already, except when they show up for their FTF classes. Will we be teaching the rhet/comp of the social graph? How do you see strategic planning working in our profession?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I have been thinking about this a bit. My sense is that people are going to have to become a lot more self-reliant during this shift. So I've been pushing certain things in my classes: time and project management, collaborative projects, and collaborative software and strategies for using these projects.

In my tech writing class, I also emphasize chained projects that end with a mixture of static and dynamic documentation. The idea is that even when they develop static documentation (such as a manual), they need to think strategically in terms of how users will generate their own solutions, develop dynamic spaces (such as mailing lists or Google groups) to share them, and develop long-term plans for cyclically folding innovations from the dynamic space to the static one.

In terms of the social graph, someone pointed out that given the huge bubble of Gen Y moving up, soon the people interviewing our students will have the same social graph sensibilities. In other words, recruiters will not be put off by students' drunk pictures on Facebook because the recruiters themselves will have similar pictures. I'm not sure how broadly this applies, but I do think people are generally becoming more comfortable in terms of generating a large, surfaced arc of documentation about their lives. Nevertheless, I think that for our classes, it would be a good idea to maintain protected spaces for student work, and give them the option to surface that work later in their social graph or a more controlled portfolio.

Strategic planning would be a good thing to teach, and it goes beyond project management skills. I edge toward this a bit in my proposal writing and qualitative research courses, but we have a lot more to do in our field to achieve it. That's partially why I have been so interested in relating activity theory to the strategic, tactical, and operational levels (as you saw in my CCCC presentation). My sense is that this three-level view is going to help students to better understand what's going on in a much more dynamic job market.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I need to think these through much more, and I'd love to see other, smarter people take a crack at this issue as well.

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