True—and although I rarely discuss education per se, the concept of net work is an exception because it's so critical to understanding some of the shifting changes in work and the consequent challenges to education.
In the book, I use the term network to mean a heterogeneous assemblage of materials that make up a sustained, relatively coherent set of activities (p.16). These materials include technologies, texts, people, communications, and so on. "All are material, all are linked in complex and shifting ways, and all are brought to bear on the business of extending and developing the network, that is, bringing more elements into the assemblage and relating them in different ways" (p.16).
Such sociotechnical networks grow and change through net work: "the ways in which the assemblage is enacted, maintained, extended, and transformed; the ways in which knowledge work is strategically and tactically performed in a heavily networked organization" (p.16). In knowledge work organizations (such as the telecommunications company I studied in that book), it's relatively easy to extend these networks in formal and informal ways. That's because, although these organizations also do physical work, most of their work involves circulating, analyzing, and synthesizing information. And information is increasingly inexpensive to circulate (a fact that is beginning to disrupt manufacturing industries and the laws based on their material limitations). So we get a workforce that is increasingly mobile, increasingly incentivized to work remotely, with increasing opportunities to work in looser arrangements. We get a workforce that is increasingly distributed, increasingly able (and incentivized) to work independently. One which increasingly works in virtual environments and collaborates in virtual teams. One which involves organizations shedding non-core jobs, farming them out to contractors instead. One in which work is more loosely organized.
In knowledge work, strength comes from combining sets of expertise in unique ways. That means crossing borders—borders between fields/disciplines/trades, borders between organizations, borders between countries and agendas. Net workers must be able to learn at least a little bit about each others' work. Furthermore, cross-organizational work often means less leverage over aspects of the work—you can command, but not control, people in different organizations. Temporary, project-based, cross-networked organizations multiply, and they work differently, often tactically rather than strategically.
The upshot is that successful knowledge work organizations require different things from their employees. As I argue in the last chapter of Network, those with specific characteristics will tend to thrive in these environments:
- Rhetoric. When work reaches across unstable borders, when workers don't have strong leverage over each other, they must "understand how to make arguments, how to persuade, how to build trust and stable alliances, how to negotiate and bargain and horse-trade across boundaries" (p.201). In particular, trust-building can be a hard nut to crack, but it's essential to smoothly functioning collaborative communities.
- Time management. Net work often involves work fragmentation too. At Telecorp, the telecommunications company I studied, people could interrupt each others' work at any time—and that tendency has only strengthened in the studies I've conducted since then. Put a phone in everyone's pocket and you get the potential to form ad hoc teams at the drop of a hat. So "Workers must be able to adopt or adapt ways to deal with work fragmentation, including genres and rules that allow them to create their own stable transformations ... for prioritizing, organizing, and achieving work" (p.201). The more work becomes networked, the more individuals tend to take on the burden of managing their own time—and the more they need essential time management skills.
- Project management. Similarly, net work involves project management. In fact, "projectification" is an essential characteristic of cross-functional and cross-organizational work. And cross-functional or cross-organizational teams, which tend to be oriented around projects, tend to require rotating leadership in which people from different specializations take the lead during different phases. That means that the essentials of project management become vital.
- Adaptability. Finally, and implied by the other points, people have to be adaptable. As work becomes more projectified, cross-disciplinary, and cross-organizational, it requires more adaptability from its workers—workers who must be adaptable enough to learn about each others' work, organize around different projects, and adapt new technologies and practices and genres.