The problem of work

Posted by Mike Walsh

8/6/14 10:32 AM




Some of us are lucky enough to do work that we love, but most of us work because we must. And while we like to imagine that we work to live, in fact we end up spending much of our lives at work. Curiously, that’s only part of the problem. 


Improving the experience of work would be easy if we only had to work alone, but real work means working with others. That’s not a bad thing; after all, our interactions with co-workers can provide meaning, purpose and a sense of community. But making changes to the pattern of work is a complex challenge and highlights a fundamental truth—the future of the work lies not in the design of your office, but the design of your networks. 


We know more about life inside companies these days than we did in the past, largely due to online communities like Glassdoor. These Tripadvisors for work provide a fascinating, if not somewhat biased, perspective on what makes different companies tick. As you read through the commentary, similar themes emerge. Employees seem happier when they feel that their efforts are being recognised, and make a meaningful contribution to a bigger vision. Equally, people appear unhappy when no one listens to them, and their roles become embroiled by internal politics. Purpose and politics seem like very different things, but in a way they are two sides of the same coin. Both represent examples of human networks in action.


Long before Facebook and Twitter, scientists and anthropologists studied the impact of social networks in communities. They measured ties of friendship and kinship, how influence and trust were established, and the way that information and ideas spread. More recently, the science of social networks also began being applied to companies.


Organisational network analysts studied the emergent networks inside corporations. Instead of traditional hierarchies, they mapped the informal connections between people—the way that employees really communicated, and the true distribution of power. 


One of the most famous sources of data in these studies was known as the Enron corpus—some 600,000 emails generated by 158 employees that were released as part of the government’s investigation into the company’s collapse. Researchers use information like this to try and understand the Social Capital inside a company—or the sum of the connections between people that make co-operative action possible.


Here’s my take on this: in the 21st century, it is not enough just to study Social Capital, or how people are connected in an organisation. We have to go one step further and understand the technologies that can augment and accelerate this process. Years from now, when we peel back the layers of successful companies, I believe we will discover that they have made very deliberate design choices around collaboration and communication.


One of the most important measures of future will be what I call Network Capital, which describes the effectiveness of the processes, platforms and practices that facilitate the way employees connect. Network Capital will be the future driver of productivity—not as an economic concept of output or as a set of technological tools. This is productivity as the creative experience of innovation in action. 


So for example, a business that relies purely on email for co-ordination would have relatively low Network Capital as compared to a business that had a fully functioning enterprise social network. In such a high Network Capital company, intuitive technologies would encourage people to become densely connected, both with each other and their customers. They would feel supported by the people around them, understanding how their actions impact the business and its mission and would know how to get the right help and resources. 


I know what you are thinking. I’ve heard about these enterprise social networks, and it’s all hype. Maybe your IT team even deployed a pilot version to see who would use it—and not surprisingly—no one did. The reason for that is simple. New technology alone is never sufficient when you are dealing with human beings rather than inanimate servers. Building your Network Capital requires a total company commitment that blends both new technology as well as deep insights into your culture. It is about designing systems that shift behaviour. 


Atos, the French software company, are an interesting case study. They set an audacious goal in 2011 of becoming a zero email company. Email, they believe, was a counter-productive technology. An internal social network was better capable of capturing the knowledge of employees and improving their work/life balance by reducing the number of messages they had to respond to every day. Several years on, they have made good progress toward that goal, but more importantly, they have started to innovate around the human forces that really influence the dynamics of their workplace.


A couple of suggestions to get you started:

  • Map the different work models inside your company. When people work on a project, what platforms do they use? How do you they give feedback on ideas or review documents? If someone has a great idea, how do they share it?
  • Run an audit. Prepare a list of potential technology solutions to enhance your communications infrastructure, and run a pilot. Is there scope to internally develop or create a novel use of an existing application that might provide a competitive advantage?
  • Get your best people on it. Put an adoption team together from a variety of departments (HR, marketing, sales, IT, senior management), and get them to use your internal social network to solve a real enterprise problem. 
  • Become a thought leader in new collaboration techniques. Start collecting stories and case studies of how your employees work together in new ways, and share these regularly—both internally and externally.


Designing companies for the future is more than just upgrading to the latest technologies. It requires a radical rethink of the human factors behind innovation. 

For more tips on re-energizing your employees and re-imagining a new future for your business, click here to download “10 Ways to Survive the Future: A Guide to 21st Century Business.” 

Topics: Culture

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