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Network > Implications for workers

Posted by: on Mar 1, 2013 | No Comments
I ran into a discussion on Twitter yesterday about lean education. At one point, Fredrik Matheson tells his interlocutors that my book Network provides a way to talk about its dilemmas.

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.

So what?

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. 
What does this mean for education? 

I hesitate to recommend full-bore changes such as scrapping college completely, moving hastily to MOOCs, or throwing up new programs quickly. These approaches all have problems, foremost of which is the fact that none of them get at the cross-disciplinary, cross-organizational skills I describe above. MOOCs in particular seem optimized for conveying codified knowledge, but not for building the skills above—which is to say that they currently lack the give-and-take interaction that tends to characterize innovative organizations. Certainly they haven't (yet) been generally articulated in a way that encourages cross-disciplinary work, project-oriented virtual teams, or the rhetorical engagement and strategies that can make knowledge work effective. 

At the same time, university education does tend to be balkanized, with some disciplines barely interacting with others. Classes are often treated as silos. And even classes in rhetoric often focus their projects on civic engagement (read: op-ed columns) to the exclusion of essential cross-organizational skills. 

That's partly why I am so excited about our Human Dimensions of Organizations program at UT, in which working professionals learn and apply the liberal arts to wicked problems in their own organizations. As a cross-disciplinary program, HDO promises to connect the insights of different disciplines, with a heavy emphasis on understanding how people think and operate—and how decision-makers can be convinced of solid, ethical arguments for change. As a program for working professionals, HDO is ultimately application-focused; by drawing on their own deep experience with organizations, these students keep us honest and, I expect, will challenge our preconceptions as much as we will challenge theirs. And as a program ending with a capstone course, HDO will provide a concrete takeaway—a demonstration project that allows students to synthesize their work throughout the curriculum to solve an actual problem and yield actual gains.

HDO isn't a template for the future of education writ large. But it's one measured response to the deep changes we've seen in work over the last forty-odd years, changes to which education must be responsive.