Social Computing in the Connected Workplace – The Mass Customization of Knowledge Work

The book Work 2.0 – Rewriting the Contract was published several years ago by Bill Jensen (@simpletonbill) which outlined four principles for the rapidly-approaching interconnected workplace of the near future.

That “near future” is now here and the impact of Jensen’s four principles are growing.  The principles are:


1. Embrace the Asset Revolution – this speaks to Peter Drucker’s observation that “knowledge workers (now) own the means of production”. It’s a two-way street now – employees are deciding where they’ll invest their time, energy and intellectual capital, just as does the employer.


2. Build My Work My Way – Employees know they own the means of production … and they don’t want to waste time, in a complex, ever-flowing world. They’ve got other things to do as well … like try to lead a balanced life … which they’ll define, thank you very much.

3. Deliver Peer-to-Peer Value – Increasingly, employees are aware of how being networked together via email, IM, PDA’s, the Internet and the corporate Intranet necessitates collaboration. They like collaborating, and they don’t want artificial barriers to collaboration to stop them from adding value.


4. Develop Extreme Leaders – Leaders must be accountable … to exercise that accountability in a networked world, leaders must be willing to listen and to be challenged regarding the way work gets done.


The Interconnected Workplace – An Ever-Changing Flow

The new conditions of an interconnected workplace world – free-flowing information delivered via integrated information systems, linked together in networks of relationships – are rapidly redefining the nature of work.

Knowledge work happens in workers’ heads and in the interactions and communications in which they engage.

Carrying out knowledge work usually involves interacting with large integrated information systems and communicating via email and conversations (whether one-on-one or in meetings). These information systems (such as SAP and PeopleSoft) are now second or third-generations systems, designed to have greater flexibility and customizability than the versions that first appeared in the early to mid-90’s. Nevertheless, due to the nature of information and the paths along which it flows … from the markets and the customers inwards to the organization … the work activities demanded of employees are becoming more complex.

No amount of business process reengineering can prevent this, and no system will be infinitely flexible. Customers’ needs, wants and tastes change. Most business processes that are effective today will need to change over time, with a horizon of several years at the most.

In The Flow – Knowledge Work Keeps Changing

Let’s combine this view of how work has changed with the observation that in many organizations competency models have become as important or more important than the core job description.  Competencies are the sets of skills, attributes and behaviours needed to provide flexibility and effective performance. Competency models are just that … models … and are often accompanied by Personal Development Plans. What we have is a new equation – from the employer’s side – about delivering focused performance and results.

Now, let’s look at it from the employee points of view.

During the past fifteen years or so, we’ve all experienced the large impacts of information and knowledge being brought to bear on most products and services that we need, want and use. We’ve learned about the one-to-one marketing relationships, in which what we consume is personalized to our “user profile”. We’ve witnessed an explosion of products and services available in all sorts of blended combinations, based on the understanding that personalization and a wide range of choice will enhance customer choice. This phenomenon is aided and abetted by the realization that tastes and appeal change rapidly – there’s a flow here too. Employees are the ones that buy Jones Soda, or move from one style of jeans to the next, depending upon what the latest buzz is.

The same dynamic is starting to appear in the workplace … and it seems as if it will be the way of the future. For at least the last five years (it actually started about ten years ago) people have been encouraged to:

  • Forget about guaranteed employment … the business environment is unpredictable and unforgiving
  • Think of themselves as a transferable set of knowledge and skills
  • Focus on doing what they have a passion for, and take responsibility by believing first and foremost in themselves

Knowledge Workers Respond To The Flow

Today, a second wave of factors is combining to lend added impetus to these trends. The interconnectedness of networks, joined by the sophistication of information systems capabilities, is combining with a year-after-year wave of well-educated new employees entering the workforce. These employees are rapidly demonstrating that they know it’s their energy and their working capital that employers are using to drive organizational results.

They’re aware that it is their life energy, and their life choices, that are being impacted by the relentless demands for performance.

Guess what? – they like performing well, they like being competent and being well-rewarded, and they’re in tune with the markets out there. They usually know what it will take to deliver a good experience to a customer. They don’t have a lot of tolerance for policies and procedures that have been built to satisfy the company, not the customer.

They’ve been told, time and again, that they’ll have to be continuously learning. In order to learn continuously, they’ll tell you ! “I know how I learn best and work best, and I’d really appreciate it if you asked me how, rather than presuming to know“. People bring themselves to work each day.

What’s that famous line ?

Treat your employees like volunteers, they can (often) choose whether or not to be at work each day

The range of cultures, personalities and lifestyles in our society is vastly expanded compared to a decade ago, and it’s abundantly clear that people are infinitely variable. As this infinite variability continues to penetrate workplaces defined by business processes, individual employees will increasingly respond to continuous performance demands by needing, wanting and insisting on working their own way – in the way they know that they can deliver the best they have to offer. Their very own voice will be heard, their very own style will be seen.

The Mass Customization of Work is coming … a wide range of individual working / learning styles, combined in collaborative networks, generating a continuous flow of the necessary results.

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