Busyness vs. Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive

There’s a culture clash inside office buildings where workers from the busyness economy sit in cubicles next to workers from the burst economy — web workers. Yes, that’s right: even if you work as a corporate employee in an office building, you may still be a web worker, using the Web for radical and unconventional productivity. If you are, your coworkers who don’t get how the Web changes work may think you’re a malingerer, given your incessant online connecting and surfing combined with your lack of attention to the old rules of work.

The busyness economy works on face time, incremental improvement, strategic long-term planning, return on investment, and hierarchical control. The burst economy, enabled by the Web, works on innovation, flat knowledge networks, and discontinuous productivity:

We used to talk about two steps forward and three steps back, and so on, but today it’s more like 50 steps sideways and 2000 steps forward. Networked, social-based opportunities are so explosive today than when we pursue them we’re flung forward at pace.

Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee identifies the culture clash between these two economies:

We’ve spent the past couple weeks in my MBA class discussing E2.0 technologies (including blogs, wikis, and prediction markets), approaches, and initiatives. One of the most interesting things for me about these classes has been how often students bring up one specific concern: that people who use the new tools heavily — who post frequently to an internal blog, edit the corporate wiki a lot, or trade heavily in the internal prediction market — will be perceived as not spending enough time on their ‘real’ jobs.

The lack of understanding between busy and burst goes beyond just the inability of the busy to see the value in using Web 2.0 tools. In almost every aspect of work, bursters look entirely unproductive and irresponsible when judged by busyness economy rules.

Let’s see how.

Busy: Show your face during all standard working hours.
Burst: If you produce what you need to, we don’t care when you do it or how long it takes.

The busy economy relies on face time as a proxy measure of real work. The burst economy relies on workstreaming — the flow of output that a worker creates, documented online as automatically as possible. With the Web, we don’t need to use proxy measures like face time any more. We can see what people are doing, through their blogs, the knowledge they put onto wikis, via source code check-ins or online to do lists showing marching progress towards a goal.

For those still stuck on face time, though, the burster who doesn’t show up at normal hours looks unproductive no matter how much he produces. The busy aren’t watching your workstream — they just want to know whether you showed up before 9 am and left no earlier than dinnertime.

Busy: Immediate response to email required.
Burst: Use better ways to communicate when available including blogs, wikis, IM, chat rooms, SMS, and RSS.

Email is the natural habitat of the busy — everything goes there, from reminders of tasks they need to do to documents they’re collaborating on with colleagues to read-only announcements to an archive of project information. The busy expect immediate response to email. They live in their email and they expect you to also.

Bursters realize they don’t need to live in their email or respond immediately because the information will find them in other ways. They look irresponsible to the busy who jump on each email as soon as it arrives. Bursters know you should try instant messaging if you need a quick answer, go with a blog post if you’re announcing something, and use a wiki for archiving information useful to the entire team. Bursters know that you can use RSS readers with RSS alerts to track all sorts of useful events from system management to code check-ins to development schedule updates to mailing list messages — your email doesn’t have to serve that role. Bursters know that the less they respond by email, the more their colleagues will seek them out using other channels.

Busy: Manage the hierarchy inside your company.
Burst: Connect laterally outside your department and company.

The busy prioritize good relations with their boss and their boss’ boss and their boss’ boss’ boss. The busy spend time managing down also, by making sure their subordinates are not slacking off on showing their faces and immediately responding to email requests.

Bursters see that opportunities to take 2,000 steps forward in one hyperleap are more likely to happen through connections with people outside the company. To the busy, bursters look uncommitted to the company because they’re not playing by the old hierarchical rules.

Busy: Always available during working hours.
Burst: Declarative availability.

The busy wouldn’t dream of announcing on Twitter that they were headed to the mall to stock up on underwear — because that would ruin the carefully constructed illusion that they’re always working from 8 am to 6 pm.

Bursters don’t hesitate to declare what they’re doing whether it’s personal or professional, because this makes it easier for colleagues to connect, collaborate, and coordinate with them — it makes teams more productive and binds them together on a human level. Of course, this is yet another way that bursters look to the busy like irresponsible, unproductive goof-offs.

Busy: Web surfing is bad.
Burst: Web surfing fertilizes and seeds the soil of the mind.

Bursters spend some working time each day surfing the Web, so they can understand the present and see the future. To the busy, that’s just wasting time.

Busy: Long-term planning rules.
Burst: Try agile experimentation and fast failure instead.

Bursters try crazy projects and watch them flame out fast as the busy look on with smirks on their faces. “How dumb,” the busy think. But it’s not dumb, because one day those bursters will fly forward at warp speed, when one of the experiments works. Meanwhile, they’ll have learned all sorts of things from their failures and made good connections in the process.

We need the busy AND the burst economy. The busy economy gives us our groceries, our electrical power, and our newspapers every morning. However, many companies will find themselves at risk of not benefiting from the hyperproductivity of the burst economy because to the busy, it looks like an excuse for slacking off rather than blasting off.