Anne Marie McEwan takes stock on the future of work

[Update: In an earlier version of this, I attributed Anne Marie McEwan’s post to Anne McCrossan. Apologies for the confusion.]

A friend of mine, Anne Marie McEwan, wonders about the barriers that might block the adoption of new ways of work, such as management’s investments in established control structures, and union unwillingness or cultural resistance to new work practices. But she read something I wrote here — Beneath the chatter about the Future Of Work lies a discontinuity — and she creates a useful counter to my premise which I stated like this:

We need to conceive of the company as a world — an ecology — built-up from each individual connecting to other individuals. And stringing these together into an interconnected whole involves associations like sets, and discernible elements like scenes, but increasingly, nothing like brigades and squads.

Anne points out that thinking about companies differently is not new. Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization (which I explored here: Metaphors matter: Talking about how we talk about organizations), and Karl Weick’s Social Psychology of Organizing both do that, as have many others. But, Anne says, correctly that these ideas haven’t actually led to much change in organizations.

Anne hopes for consumerization of work as the path forward:

Anne Marie McEwan, Taking Stock Of The Future Of Work

I’ve written about the consumerisation of work in an ebook I’m putting the final touches to. Choice is beginning to personalise our experience of work – where and when – but at the moment this remains for the relative few. How far people can impose their expectations of work depends on the extent to which the balance of power shifts in their favour away from organisations. People whose skills are in short supply have always been able to dictate how they work.

The real opportunity for consumerisation of work for the many – choice in changing how we experience work, even if businesses continue to be organised and structured as they currently are – comes through connecting, sharing and learning outside of organisations.

My hope is that change will come through people taking responsibility for their own experience of work and learning, challenging the status quo, creating meaningful work for themselves and their colleagues – and ultimately for the business that employs them. I wrote about how they can do it in this post, How Mentored Open Online Conversations nurture 21st century skills.

It’s also the premise of the book I had published last year, Smart Working: Creating the Next Wave – that we are not prisoners of our work environment and that transformation of work and the systems that support it come about by people taking back control for themselves.

In my Discontinuity piece I make the case that there must be a disruption: a break with the past. Like Anne, I believe one pillar has to be people reengaging with their own work (see Dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel) and affiliation with others in a shared deep work culture that transcends the narrower and shallower organizational cultures ‘created’ in businesses.

I suggest that our thinking about change in the world of work must be, therefore, oppositional, at least in part. We must actively try to end many business practices, perhaps more than the new practices we hope to initiate.

Anne softens that a hair:

In an information-rich world, we need to be able to ask better questions. How do we think this future of work is going to arrive? Stowe talks about “a looming discontinuity, a break: perhaps a revolution led by a global movement.”

I have spent a long time researching new ways of working, working with people trying to innovate, and trying to do the same myself.  What I can say from all this experience is that there is always a visionary person leading the charge to do things differently, for example Chief Executives, Production Directors, Finance Directors (two I can think of), Area Managers, Marketing Directors, HR Directors and so on.

I wrote about my favourite example in Smart Working – a senior nurse who changed the performance culture on the hospital ward for which she was responsible. Apart from being inspiring, this gives me hope that there are equally value-driven people out there taking responsibility for changing how they and their colleagues experience work for their own and customers’ benefit – and ultimately the business.

So the discontinuity that Stowe envisages is, on reflection, perhaps not a discontinuity at all but a possible acceleration and exponential increase in the number of these people taking action – connected instigators kicking off change within their organisations and learning with others how to do it outside of organisational constraints. And using the loosely-connected, small and simple apps that Stowe speaks about. It’s about a whole lot more than apps though.

Stowe senses a flood coming. I hope he is right. I am more cautious about how long a global movement would take to get off the ground. I hope I am wrong.

I hope so, too, Anne.

I have created an organization — the Future of Work community — trying to create a global network of people who would like to learn more about new ways of work, and perhaps be may be part of that movement. Our first local chapters have formed in New York, Boston, and Austin, and the first monthly meetings start this month. Please join Anne and me, and many others. There is a lot of change ahead.