Stowe Boyd’s Socialogy Interview (December 2014)
Jon describes himself in this way:
I am a coach, sale consultant, writer and public speaker regarding the structure and dynamics of organizations and the struggles to move past industrial-era assumptions towards the deep engagement of knowledge workers.
I have been studying the structural, sociological and psychological aspects of collaborative knowledge work for the past 35 years. I have been a practitioner as a consultant and a coach for the past 25 years.
Stowe Boyd: I believe you’re the source of the wonderful term wirearchy. I wonder if you could summarize the term, and its applicability today?
Jon Husband: Yes, I am. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out that today we’re in conditions that are effectively very new for most human beings on the planet. You and your readers know them as well as do I .. interconnectivity, hyperlinks, pervasive computing, cloud, big data, Internet of things, algorithmization, robotization, etc.
What I call wirearchy represents an evolution of traditional hierarchy. I don’t think most humans can tolerate a lack of some hierarchical structure, primarily for the purposes of decision-making – Jon Husband
The suffix ‘archy ’ signifies the principles and rules or the arrangements for power and authority for large widespread social systems. Only one of the ‘archy’ words – hierarchy – is also found in nature and elsewhere than in the arrangements of social structures. Socially-situated hierarchy has been with us since humans began grunting at each other and trying to get things done. Hierarchy isn’t going away.
More generally, the « archy » words represent the general rules for large social systems, which are derived from statements of architectural principle. There is no commonly-accepted statement of organizing or architectural principle for the patterns, shapes and impacts we are beginning to witness in all areas of human activity due to hyperlinks, connected people and information flows.
However, as David Weinberger famously said 15 years ago, “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”. Since the mid-90’s and the arrival of the browser and applications of IT in many areas of human activity, we’ve been speaking of living in a wired world (and yes, that includes wireless). One day 15 years ago when I was thinking about all this, I realized that the conditions we were facing would continue to evolve and spread (futurists had been talking about the Information / Knowledge Age for a while by then). I played with combining ‘wired’ and ‘archy’, and voilà! Luckily given 20 years of prior work with the methods used to design organizational hierarchies, I had some sense of what it may have meant.
Generating new economic and social value through new and effective goods and services requires the focused and intelligent use of information and knowledge, notably in the forms of creative exchanges and feedback loops. Where does this happen most organically and effectively? Between humans in structures that enable and encourage such exchanges with as little unnecessary friction as possible from traditional management practices. – Jon Husband
Even though hyperlinked interconnection of information and peoples’ cognitive and social interaction capabilities is increasingly the new knowledge-work environment (this stuff isn’t going away!), the structural capital in organizations of any size is too great to permit the deconstruction and reconstruction of the organization whilst it is in perpetual business operations mode. Permit me to offer my perspective.
The methods used to design such organizations have over the past 60-plus years codified core assumptions of division of labour, specialization, centralized coordination, optimization for efficiency, etc. In my opinion these assumptions are today too deeply embedded to allow for significant experimentation with new hyperlinked and flow-based forms of activity that are not seen to be predictable and controllable. Only start-ups and extremely progressive organizations seem to be able to adapt to today’s conditions in flexible, agile and responsive ways.
These methods are embodied in job evaluation (the sizing and measurement of defined roles ) in order to rank and place them on an org chart in relation to the core assumption of division of labor. The methods are intended to enable access to and deployment of expertise, pertinent knowledge arranged in vertical structures. Other related methods (also defined in vertical structures of power-and-influence) are also intended to harness human potential and energy, such as competency models (the behaviours understood to lead to success in a role or domain), performance management schemes in which coordinated objectives are cascaded through the organization, and remuneration practices designed to support and reinforce the designed-for-optimal performance organizational structure.
I have been involved in a long and intense process of study of the sociology of work, organizations and institutions for 40 years now. Today I believe that a major transition towards what some futurists call a “knowledge-based society” is underway. In that context what I call wirearchy represents an evolution of traditional hierarchy. I don’t think most humans can tolerate a lack of some hierarchical structure, primarily for the purposes of decision-making. The working definition I developed (and which has been ‘tested’ br a range of colleagues and friends interested in the issue(s) recognizes that the necessary adaptations to new conditions will likely involve temporary, transient but more intelligent hierarchy. The implication is that people in a wirearchy should be focused on seeking to better understand and use the growing presence of feedback loops and double-loop learning.
The current definition of Wirearchy as an emergent organizing principle is « dynamic interdependent flows of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and the generation of social and economic value, enabled by interconnected people and technology” »
The conditions to which this proposed new organizing principle speak are essentially generated by the significantly increased rapidity and densification of connected information flows coming from all angles. Given how deeply embedded are industrial-era mental models in management thinking and practices I believe the issues you and I explore as professional researchers and consultants are going to be under review and subject to ongoing experimentation for quite a few years yet.
I think there will many more attempts to adapt in iterative but predictable and manageable ways. Money will be spent, consulting firms will be hired, and .. we’ll see how it goes.
SB: Perhaps it’s less of a ‘knowledge-based economy’ than one where all non-cognitive and routine work is going to be performed by AI, robots, and algorithms. Those that aren’t involved in creative and innovative work might have no jobs.
JH: I think your interpretation is very probably correct. As a part-time pedant, I can observe that “all non-cognitive and routine work” is effectively knowledge work, it’s just packaged as repetitive use of standardized knowledge.
Work as we know it today is bifurcating, whereby at one end relatively routine work is being automated to one degree or another and humans are standers-by who lend some emotion, authenticity and/or very basic oversight to what goes on. – Jon Husband
But your point is correct, I think. I think a number of your articles have pointed out this growing split, which I have taken half-jokingly to calling The Great Bifurcation.
In turn, that leads to the probability that a great number of people will work in more precarious situations, from contract to contract. I find it interesting as an early weak signal that there seems to be a rise in discussion of and calls for a universal basic income scheme in some western countries. It may become necessary.
SB: I saw you wrote a piece ‘Post-Normal — Things Will Slide In All Directions’, with a nod to me and Leonard Cohen. You — at some length — characterize the postnormal economy (I now leave out the hyphen) much as I do, as a time of great uncertainty and compelling innovation, but I want to focus on your thoughts on new ways of working, one that is about participation and inclusion. Thoughts?
JH: New ways of working?
I don’t think it can be avoided that what we are seeing as early and arguably small steps today towards deep and permanent changes to work will continue to grow, spread and mature (notwithstanding that it’s been 8 years since the term Enterprise 2.0 appeared and 5 years or so since ‘Social Business’ began to be used). And we know more change is coming from applying big data analysis, the use of artificial intelligence(AI), the development of sophisticated algorithms, etc.
Work as we know it today is bifurcating, whereby at one end relatively routine work is being automated to one degree or another and humans are standers-by who lend some emotion, authenticity and/or very basic oversight to what goes on. At the other end, higher levels of creative and generative knowledge work are increasingly both ‘mass-customized’ and being carried out in social interaction. The social interaction involves all of the forms or work that arguably used to be oriented towards ‘learning and development (L&D). Absent hyperlinks, self-directed work teams and self-managed work was practiced in rudimentary (and slower) forms and was seen as developmental, necessary to adapt to change, generally.
Generating new economic and social value through new and effective goods and services requires the focused and intelligent use of information and knowledge, notably in the forms of creative exchanges and feedback loops. Where does this happen most organically and effectively? Between humans in structures that enable and encourage such exchanges with as little unnecessary friction as possible from traditional management practices.
I believe it was Peter Drucker that said « Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done. ». As set out above, the past 75 years have seen the birth and growth of an industry focused on the codification of industrial era assumptions about work into mainstream methods and practices of « management science ». Today, we continue to witness significant resistance to the emergent new ways of working as traditional hierarchical management has held on, ignored, denied, sought tangible (traditional) ROI, etc.
I’ve watched as this resistance has hung on tenaciously, but believe change will continue inexorably, in waves, towards greater participation and inclusion. It seems clearer and clearer every month that exchanging information and knowledge in context is the new raw material for innovation and effectiveness. Doc Searls, one of yours’ and my old friends, once wrote about hyperlinks and connected people leading to the scaffolding of knowledge where and when it’s needed.
I think that’s basically correct. More high-tech will mean more high-touch, something John Naisbitt saw coming about 25 or 30 years ago.
SB: Yes, Drucker also said ‘management is a necessary evil, and we should therefore have only as much as necessary, and no more’, or words to that effect. Can you imagine the disruption of management, where people are mostly self-managed, or co-managed in groups, or orchestrated by AI?
JH: I agree with Drucker’s observation, which is why I cited “temporary, transient and intelligent hierarchies”. Of course, self-management (of individuals, groups and other configurations of people) implies an accepted set of rules. The rules can be few and they can be simple, but I think any organism needs some basic rules to function effectively.
With specific reference to the workplace and self-management, I’m reminded of Fred Emery’s 6 Principles of Participative Work Design (PWD). They are not community rules per se, but pertinent rules for self-management of a work group could be derived therefrom, I think.
1. Adequate elbow room.
The sense that we are our own boss and that, except in exceptional circumstances, we do not have some boss breathing down our necks. However, not too much elbow room so that we don’t know what to do next.
2. Continuous Learning.
Such learning is possible only when people are able to (a) set goals that are reasonable challenges for them and (b) get accurate feedback in time for them to correct their behaviour. This learning drives innovation.
3. An optimal level of variety.
The ability to vary our work so as to avoid boredom and fatigue and so as to gain the best advantages from settling into a satisfying rhythm of work.
4. Mutual support and respect.
People need to be able to automatically get and give help from their work mates. There also needs to be respect for the contribution made regardless of matters such as IQ.
We need a sense that our work contributes to social welfare in some way. That is, it should not be something that might just as well be done by a trained monkey. Nor should it be something that society would be better without. Meaningfulness includes both the worth of the work, and having knowledge of the whole product or service.
6. A desirable future.
Work that will continue to allow for personal growth and increasing skills.
SB: Thanks, Jon.
JH: Thank you for the opportunity.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.