Why I’m adopting a new approach at Gigaom Research

For about a year and a half, I’ve written a steady stream of posts on the ‘social’ channel here at Gigaom Research. I calculated a few weeks ago that I wrote over 500,000 words in 2013 in blog posts and reports alone, which is just about 1400 words a day. Obviously, I think that the ideas and insights that I’ve been sharing stand on their own, independent of the volume of writing involved. And I am hoping to increase the value of what I am doing, while shifting the distribution of my attention slightly.

In this post, I am trying to lay out the framework for a new experiment — starting this week — in the line of research I am undertaking. The first and most noticeable change will be the Weekly Update, which will be expanded to a longer and different format starting next Monday, 10 March 2014. The longer format will include more commentary from others on the topic or topics I am pursuing that week, whatever they may be, as well as more in-depth treatment of the topics than usually found in the posts here: Weekly Updates will feel more like a short report, and less like a blog post.

Obviously, the greater investment of time in those weekly reports will mean a decrease in the number of posts, but I believe that the cream will rise, and so you can expect five or six really good posts as well, instead of the historic nine or ten. And maybe nine or ten was too many, anyway, in a world filled with so many voices, and so much noise.

I’d like to touch on two other aspects of this change: themes and perspectives.

I thought it would be useful for me and you, my readers, to try to spell out the themes I will be pursuing in 2014 in my line of inquiry. Here’s my first pass at a description, starting with the most macrocosmic and ending with the most microcosmic:

  • The economic and societal forces on business — I will continue to actively track the forces impacting the world of business, and seek to understand how businesses are trying to adapt. As I wrote recently, in Justin Kirby wonders about the future of social business,

    We are confronted by increasingly accelerated change in the economy, an explosion in computing scale in mobile, cloud, and connection technologies, and a sharp upheaval in the business/work dynamic — upended social contract, ephemeralization of work, rise of freelancing, disengagement — with the latter acting as an undertow, and the first two crashing together into a gigantic tsunami.

  • The changing nature of the workforce — We are witnessing demographic shifts and the rethinking of business practices — like those mentioned above — that are having an enormous impact on the workforce. I intend to observe those changes and try to extrapolate as to their impact on the workforce and business.
  • Work technologies and the ways to apply them — The tools that we use to get our work done are increasingly digital, social, and mobile, and there is a curious push-me-pull-you tension today between horizontally-oriented well-established enterprise work tech and more focused start-ups — mostly mobile-first, that are vertically exploring a small range of features for narrowly-defined constituencies. I intend to stay close to that tug-of-war. Note that many of these tools have social elements, but increasingly social features are not defining the tools: they are just one part of the mix. Technologies that I am tracking most directly include these:
    • work management tools — enterprise social networks, project management, social intranets, and allied communications oriented technologies, like chat applications, collaboration tools, calendaring, email, and a long list of related tech.
    • task management tools — tools geared to coordination of work around socially shared tasks.
    • social crm, social marketing, and social customer support — functional tools based on social metaphors of social cowork, and analytics based on their focus areas.
    • file sync-and-share — tools that are at the heart of the new distributed core model of work management.
    • office applications — the everyday productivity tools that we use to create, edit, manage, and share information artifacts that form the key non-human dimension of the work graph.

And of course I will be closely tracking the visionaries and companies that are bringing these tools and practices to our awareness.

  • Human cognition, social psychology, organizational culture, and social networks — These four fields are so tightly integrated that I could have said any one of the four and the other three would be implied. I intend to increase my coverage of this area,  because if we don’t look into how humans connect, and make sense of the world through being connected to others — at all social scales — we can’t understand human motivation, cooperation, or how we find meaning and purpose in work.
  • The fall of management and the rise of leanership — The role and extent of management is rapidly shifting, moving away from 20th century norms toward a very different near tomorrow. As companies adopt the principles of lean and agile outside of software and product development, and consider their business operations a means of competitive advantage, we are seeing convergence toward a new way of work, one that I have been characterizing as Leanership (and I am at work on a book of the same name, too). As I wrote in January, in Leanership trumps leadership,
  • We have a great deal to learn from lean thinking, and if applied to the the greatest extent, it undoes the conventional notions of a leader-centric business, where collective behavior is demanded and imposed through top-down consensus building (or squashing dissent). As I recently wrote in Today’s business organization is an oligarchy, and that needs to change, we need to move to much more democratic organizations, and soon:

    There is still room for visionaries, as much as before. There will still be founders, and leaders, and owners. But in order to be fast-and-loose the notion of direct supervision — and the strong ties involved — must be diffused. Increasingly high performing staff will demand greater autonomy, and not for selfish reasons, but to get things done quickly. Companies will create, find, and retain top performers, and create the context for high performance. As before, the narrative will be legitimacy of the organizational structure by efficiency, but a much greater degree of democracy will be involved since all work participants will voluntarily select the work to be done, and who to work with, rather than being told.

A lot to be watching and analyzing, but I can’t imagine leaving anything inside this sphere of inquiry outside, at least not without losing a great deal of value.

Lastly, here’s something about the perspectives I plan to bring to my work.

In the past few years, since I started working with Gigaom, the discourse around the changing nature of work has shifted considerably. As just one indicator, the idea of ‘social business’ has shifted from a rallying cry for humanizing work to a shopworn term increasingly dominated by software vendors in service of their marketing efforts (see ‘Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, eitherMoving toward a third way of work: leaving the first and second behind, and Justin Kirby wonders about the future of social business).

Other practitioners and I have transited to other ways of talking about work technology and practices, not limiting ourselves to the ‘integration’ perspective of organization culture that seems almost inescapably intertwined with the social business meme.

Joanne Martin is the organizational psychologist who offered up the three schools of thought about organizational culture metaphors and how they frame discussion (in her Organizational Culture: Mapping the terrain. This characterization owes a great deal to Liese Gerritsen from Metaphors of the Organization: Discourse in Public and Private Worlds):

Integration perspective — This perspective ‘focuses on those manifestations of a culture that have mutually consistent interpretations.’ Ideas like ‘shared values’ dominate in these studies and discussions. Organizational culture is generally rendered as if it is clear and unambiguous. And this perspective focuses on management, and therefore, power and control. Deviations are cast as problems to be fixed.

Differentiation perspective — Here we see a focus on inconsistency across subcultures, and an examination of harmony or discord between organizational subcultures, and suggest that the differences  between subcultures are inevitable and desirable.

Fragmentation perspective — In this perspective, ambiguity supplants clarity at the foundation of organizational culture. This school of thought considers consensus as possible, but that it is likely to be impermanent and context-bound. In this way of thinking, organizations and individuals in them have inconstant identities, and the culture can have elements that are in contradiction each other.

I must confess that I get the least value from the integration perspective, which tends to exclude anything that is outside of the conventional and mainstream as dangerous and illegitimate, and seeks to squeeze out discussion of dissent and ambiguity. My tendency is to start from differentiation and fragmentation perspectives as a means of exploring the context for new tools and techniques in business, and to only return to integration views — if at all — once they have been stretched to include dissenting or contrasting views, the notion of a non-homogeneous community of workers and businesses, and the balancing of the needs of the workforce and the individual with the aspirations of management or the vagaries of the marketplace.

However, this interest in perspective — which may seem a little too ‘inside baseball’ for many — is meant to temper the central purpose of my research, which is the new tools and techniques that businesses need to accomplish today’s work, instead of working with the tools of the past.

I anticipate that in a relatively short time we at Gigaom Research might be transitioning to a term more broad and rewarding than ‘social’ for this channel, perhaps ‘work tech’ or ‘the future of work’.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this shift in my work patterns, the range of themes I plan to follow, and the proper noun we should tack onto this channel at Gigaom Research. Please send your thoughts to me at Twitter: @stoweboyd.