Jon: For the majority of my adult life – my career timeline, if you like – I have been a consultant and facilitator, working on strategy, organizational design, organizational effectiveness and organizational change. These days I tend to call myself a techno-anthropologist. I got interested in the sociology and design of organizations as social systems early on, in my second year of university. I’ve been interested in that issue ever since.
I started my career as a junior consultant with a large global HR and organizational effectiveness consulting firm, the Hay Group, headquartered in Philadelphia. Its methodologies for work design and job evaluation, techniques which essentially “create” the skeleton for hierarchical organizations, are widely used by the global Fortune 1000 companies as well as educational institutions, governments and large not-for-profit organizations around the world.
By 1991 I was in London, UK working as a Senior Principal with large multinational organizations on work design, HR and talent management strategy and organizational change issues and I could see the first waves of flattening out organizations, making the management “span of control” wider. People had begun realizing that the days of the Industrial Age were numbered and that the Information Age was beginning to take hold.
I left the Hay Group in early 1994 because I felt that its core methodologies were only reinforcing the assumptions of the Industrial Age and began working as an independent strategy and OD (organizational development) consultant and facilitator, immersing myself in systems thinking and large-scale systems change methodologies.
After the dot-com bubble burst, along came blogs, personal publishing, wikis and a couple of years later widgets and widespread web services and along with it the growing realization that these could and would be used by both customers and employees to pass information around, to check on things and to do more things more quickly and with more flexibility.
Today, after two or three years of Web 2.0 and the growing awareness of what is called Enterprise 2.0, it seems clearer and clearer that in general things will never be the same as they were. The Information Age is now here. With respect to the relationship between information technology and organizations, the last thirty years have been mainly about the technology; the next thirty years will mainly be about the sociology. The game has changed for leadership and management.
Traci: So what do you think about knowledge workers and the need for more democracy in the workplace?
Jon: Basically, I think it’s an inescapable long-term trend. It’s been developing for a long time.
The application of information technology at first encoded deeper into the skeletons of enterprises the structure and dynamics of hierarchy, but also unleashed some additional forces that kept the pressure for democratization growing. The more recent arrival of hyperlinks and the Web have only strengthened and accelerated these forces, pushing and pulling transparency relentlessly into the nooks and crannies of most organizations.
“Knowledge is power” or so the saying goes. It is undeniable that today there are forces pushing for the decentralization and distribution of power. Peter Drucker noted in the 1999 article,“Beyond the Information Revolution” that in an increasingly knowledge-based economy “knowledge workers now own the means of production” and that inexorably this would lead to them wanting to share in the power and rewards that go along with productive economic activity.
Since the appearance of the Web in the lives of hundreds of millions in the more affluent countries on this planet, it has been stated, observed and refuted that the capabilities of an interconnected digital infrastructure of hyperlinks and XML support an ongoing flow of information that tends towards the democratization of activities and institutions. It is enabling peoples’ voices, and doing so through easy push-button publishing and the equally easy-to-use hyperlinks and copy-and-paste work habits.
Traci: Has this view then led you to coin the term “wirearchy?” Can you tell us more about what that means?
Jon: I have for several years now suggested that these capabilities and dynamics are creating an emerging organizing principle I call wirearchy — a dynamic flow of power and authority based on trust, knowledge, credibility and a focus on results enabled by interconnected people and technology.
Traci: How do you think wirearchy relates directly to organizations and their changing structure?
Jon: One of the areas where this issue is gathering impact is with respect to the structure, processes and governance of organizations, those workplaces where adults spend most of their time and much of their creative energy and life purpose.
Enterprise 2.0 (the use of social software for productivity and collaboration inside the organizational firewall … a term coined by Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School) is just around the corner, and implies coming to terms with the emerging force and impact of wirearchy.
How does today’s new set of conditions … hyperlinks, XML, integrated enterprise systems, social software, dynamic employee churn and just-in-time talent and so on … come into play? Increasingly, employees seek meaning and/or satisfaction in their work and want to be able to connect their values and aspirations to what they do. Customers want authentic and honest responses to their needs and the purchases they make with their money. Both sets of voices will be heard.
People connect, talk and link. They talk and link about what they buy and about their work … why, what for, how they think it should be, how things could be better. These are all democratizing forces, key elements of engagement organizational leaders can use as levers to enhancing and sustaining performance in service to vision and mission.
Traci: What do you see then as the relationship between wirearchy and democracy in the workplace?
Jon: It is irrefutable, I believe, that the spread of the wired workplace has brought significantly greater degrees of customer and employee voice into the process of leading and governing organizations. To respond effectively to the complex conditions of wirearchy, organizations today will do well to adopt the core principles of democracy in their everyday operating governance.
This means listening more and harder to the ongoing conversations and exchanges about what matters and what does not matter coming from customers and employers. It also means learning to use the tools, services and behaviors of an interconnected wired workplace to maintain a consistent focus on principled and responsive delivery and performance.
Traci: Thanks Jon for sharing your thoughts!