The future of employment?

22 February, 2010

I’m currently reading two books, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber and The Miracle Of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, and being still quite a novice to the real world having left a religious cult just under two years ago any philosophical text is an eye-opener and helps me see the world in a new way.

The main thing I want to talk about which I’ve taken away from both these books is the notion of connectedness and interdependence; the idea that there is no such thing as an individual, that everything is networked and part of a structure.

I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about my career. I understand that I am part of a new breed of worker, that I work differently from many other people. The future of the workplace and employment is changing and I am one of those who is part of that change. The difference is subtle now, but in a decade or two the difference will be significant.

There’s only one attribute of the future workforce that I want to discuss now and this is the theme of connectedness and interdependence.

My employer has a contract with me that I will provide 37.5 hours of service per week for 3 months. That’s the legal side of it. But in reality my employer has not just engaged me but my peer network of colleagues and my 10 years of experience and everyone who has contributed to me being the person I now am. Where past, current or future my employer has indirect access to that wealth of knowledge and experience beyond me.

When I need help with a challenge at work or need to run some ideas past people I don’t turn to my co-workers, I look to my network of colleagues beyond the walls of my workplace. Whilst my co-workers might be competent at their job they can’t hope to compete with the hundreds of people I have access to through my social networks.

That access is only very limited now because of the immaturity of technology, our culture and narrow-minded views on social networking which mean I have to invest some effort in order to reach my network and the results can take some hours or days to come back … but the gap is closing.

Eventually social networking tools will be made available (again) on our desktop computers, the technology for networking and collaboration will improve, organisational structures (power hierarchies) will become skeletons that are ignored by employees and we will be free to access at will a shared cloud of knowledge and thought that is collectively millions of times smarter than each individual added up together.

But in the meantime if I want to access my peer networks I have to take my personal laptop outside of the building to get a signal, use my own 3G modem to access my social networks like Twitter which are really quite inefficient for collaboration – but it is the most pervasive – in order to consult my peers. Yes it’s a pain in the arse but this is what I do at least every couple of days. Of course I should add a disclaimer that I never disclose confidential, classified or otherwise sensitive information – they’re just general non-specific queries. But as we enter a new era of transparency why shouldn’t I be allowed to ask my colleagues for assistance with specifics? As long as I give back to them (or my employer compensates them with micropayments, for example).

The silly thing is that the reason I get the work I do and why my employer pays me a salary is in part due to my peer network who have contributed to my knowledge, experience and skills and will continue to do so even on-demand … yet my employer actively blocks me and discourages me from accessing it. Instead I’m expected to work in relative isolation.

It might not be a major problem now but think of where this is going and how such future connected workers fit in a traditional employer-employee model. As I said, this networking is just one attribute of the worker of the future and there are many other reasons why recruitment practices and employee engagement models need to change and they need to change now because already they’re failing us.

I’ve also written an article on my UX design and social media blog purecaffeine.com on staff collaboration that you might find interesting.


  1. Interesting post. I was recently in a client meeting where we were getting them started on customer service on Twitter, managing their company’s Facebook page and so on. And yet all of these services were blocked to all employees and they were going to decide which select few would get access to these sites.

    Related: a good book to read is Generation Blend by Rob Salkowitz (a “Microsoft Executive Leadership Series” book)

    • Thanks Paul, I did blog some time ago about the lunacy of IT departments blocking access to websites because they perceive it to impede productivity. Not IT’s place to be making such calls – that’s something for line managers and HR.

      One day IT departments will lose their god-like status and sense will prevail.

  2. In response to a comment to this blog post on Hacker News:

    If you have to turn to social networking to figure out how to do your job, you’re probably not very good at your job.

    I replied:


    I’m the author of the article mentioned.

    It’s a reasonable assumption to make that I’m just a shell with no knowledge that relies solely on my peers to prop me up and get the job done – however I think the level of network utilisation required if that were the case would be categorised as “abuse” and I would fairly quickly lose all my friends and colleagues.

    The other thing to consider is that the network of peers I have available to me has been built up through sometimes years of social activity and sharing – do you really think my network would support me if we didn’t have that mutual trust? I respect their knowledge and skills and they respect mine. That’s why we’re colleagues.

    My peer network includes some of the smartest minds in my professional globally – you don’t build up a network like that without having some skills and knowledge of your own to contribute back into the network.

    What you describe is NOT a network but a ball-and-chain arrangement.

    Finally – and I don’t mean to boast but it needs to be said so we’re clear – I’m well respected on my own merits as an experienced and knowledgeable professional independent of the wealth of external knowledge I have access to. Obviously I’m just talking for myself here so I can’t substantiate any counter-claim that people who regularly access their peer networks probably ARE good at their job but I would like you to consider a more optimistic stance.

  3. […] staff collaboration and allow people to interact as real people.This morning I blogged about the future of employment and talked about the networked employee whose actual team extends beyond their […]

  4. Interestingly phrased.

    It has always been the managers or policy makers that are unaware of how our profession works that makes these judgments.

    Much in the same way that decentralized office space and home offices have not been utilized. Without good ways to measure utility and “working hard” efforts, old school managers don’t know what to do, so they eyeball us and try to bully technical ninjas.

    Why do they do this? It seems at odds with their best interests. I have no idea.

    One thing I am working to do, however, is make better tools available for non-technical managers to grade and valuate the technical and collaborative people under their umbrellas. If I can do that, I think we’ll all be a lot better off.

  5. I think one critical point to understand in all of this is the idea of how insecurity and greed play into personal and corporate strategies.

    The corporate world is rife with incompetent managers – tons of em – and they know they’re incompetent. They know they don’t know 1/10th of what the people they are managing know. So how do they keep their jobs and stay ahead of the people below them? Limit the people below them. Make them look bad. Tie their hands. Take credit yourself for everything that goes well, place blame on those below you when things go poorly. We’ve all seen this a million times.

    What about greed? What about corporations protecting their intellectual property? Not only do they want to protect what was created within the corporation, but they want to isolate those who have done the actual work from competitors.

    In American business (and likely worldwide) the main course is not set by those with revolutionary ideas. The main course is set by those who have the most money and control. They leverage their position to block competitors. Block everyone! Amass patents, buy small competitors, lobby for the passage of laws that protect your position, leverage your size and strength to force customers to use your product or pay a hefty price.

    The amount of time people and businesses spend blocking each other rather than developing their own skills, products, and services is astonishing. It’s crushing our potential.

    Working from home and running your own tech-based business, self-education on the Web, and developing technologies are all massive game changers. Highly-skilled people need to find a way to work around all the blockades that litter the pathways to success in corporate America and forge their own path to the top.

    • The funny thing here is that it doesn’t matter how watertight the IP clauses in your employee contract are and even how compliant your employees are to that contract, they are still going to take something away from you that they can use in future – experience, lessons learned, contacts, skills.

      The workforce needs to adapt to the fact that employees don’t stick with an employer for life now and many people will switch between employers several times a year!

      But yes, less managers please and more leaders.

  6. Social media = Business. Although not everyone has adapted to social media, sooner or later, jobs are going to revolve around that one way or the other. You have to adapt.
    We do believe networking is key to a better life, professionally and personally.
    Our company hopes to train people in the future regarding these changes.

  7. Hi Nathanael,

    I am completely with you that work needs to change – and indeed already is changing. It just so happens that a lot of companies are choosing either to ignore this fact, or to try to block it by not allowing social realities to impinge on them.

    I’ve read some Ken Wilbur too – he’s an interesting writer, huh?

  8. […] This blog post was originally published on Lounge Sessions. […]

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