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It’s been a while since I blogged. In the few months since I left the Chief Scientist role at art.com, I have been busy building a company (or two).

However, I mostly can’t “justify” time spent blogging. I am increasingly concerned about the moral imperative of not wasting time, mostly yours, such is the time-sucking risk of externalities when publishing “content” to the “social web”.

Let me try to make your time well spent by sharing some critical thoughts (the only real tool any innovator has) about work, or its future.

What prompted this post is my attendance of a panel session titled the “Future of Work” hosted by Toptal, a so-called “on demand” platform for talent.

However, the session seemed to be about anything other than the future of work. Rather, it was more a loosely connected sequence of “meme” metaphors and dogmas. This was mostly because the moderator tried too hard to hit on “big MBA themes,” like culture, emotional intelligence, mindfulness and – predictably – AI.

(Side note: I am increasingly convinced that MBA ought to stand for Moronically Brilliant Automaton. The contradiction is intended and the worldly wise will know what I mean. And Tom Peters more so.)

The more obvious topic, and what I imagined would take centre stage given the host’s business, is the shift to a so-called “gig economy” that is well on its way to dominating certain industries, especially software. It’s probably the future of work, although not in its current form and not without some key breakthroughs in collaboration technology (and other work-life adjustments, some of them radical).

By “gig economy”, I do not mean temporary work, but more the shift of talent and intellectual centers of gravity to those working remotely on their own terms – the so-called Agile Talent economy.

Let’s begin with the pithy opening pronouncement by the moderator that “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Well, there is something that eats both culture and strategy for breakfast, but remains oddly elusive: flexible critical thinking (including skepticism).

Its absence is what enables a VC at a recent Crowd Flower conference to get away with advising the audience: “Don’t just bring us an algorithm – bring us a solution to a problem.” What mind-blowing advice that was!

As if somehow primed by the lunch metaphor, the Toptal event panelists went on to talk about free food (for lunch) as an example of company culture meme du jour. The panelist from GE confessed that they tried it, but “saw no real changes”.

What changes were they expecting?

The panelist did not say, but she did profess that it made the workers feel “more relaxed.” Although, it was said in such a sterile way that I doubt it.

But who’s to say that “feeling relaxed” is “good for business?”

I don’t doubt a plausible relationship, but the future of work, for those who have such a future, cannot lie in free luncheons. Personally I am against making food free, but that’s another discussion.

Slight detour here. The discussion of free lunch reminded me of coach trips for UC Berkeley Comp. Sci. undergrads to visit the “Disneyland” offices of Dropbox. So I am told, Dropbox is one of the places to work now. They have top people, good comp and perhaps other goodies. Stickers?

But honestly, who cares? They have the world’s most dull product that would surely be a waste of a UC Berkeley brain. Are these students that easily fooled by cultural shill games?

No doubt, like LinkedIn or Netflix, Dropbox would set those minds to good use in legion-sized engineering teams that build yet another best-engineered tool that does what the last one quite didn’t – all because they can – whilst their product remains as boring as ever and still has an iffy UI (accepting an invitation on my iPhone gives me an endless flashing gray throbber 9 out of 10 times).

Given that the central theme of the panel session was the rising importance of agile talent working from home, how odd that free food (and other office perks) might have any relevance. Perhaps home-workers should insist on a free account with Caviar? (Note-to-self: ask for this at my next gig, along with food-selfie app to share with my virtual colleagues.)

The more interesting discussion might have been about the meaning and modes of cultural expression in a distributed workforce. For example, per a recent conversation I had with a huge corp, how should they hire “gigsters” in terms of “culture fit?”

Good question.

Automattic and Github might have an answer, but most corps do not. Mind you, I just read this on Automattic’s website: “WordPress-branded laptop at your four-year anniversary.” (But no stickers?)

I hear reports of one major corp telling long-time remote workers to return to the office or risk getting fired. What a choice! They obviously don’t have one of those pseudo-buddhist mindfulness CEOs.

The problem, rather paradoxically (although I suspect not real and dreamt up by some “change management” guru) is that these workers don’t “understand” the millennials who apparently prefer turning up to the office. (And who can blame them: free food!)

The role of values (as foundational to culture) is surely more pertinent than perks, especially the obvious necessity for values like greater transparency in a world where moral progress is slowly extending from equal legal rights to equal intellectual rights.

What do I mean by this?

Well, the young (and informed) are increasingly aware of how great swathes of business and political culture have zero intellectual justification and rely upon unquestioned historical and ideological frameworks that are rapidly becoming unsustainable. (In many ways, this is the true nature of the current political battlefield.)

The right to question is as fundamental human right as any other, but let’s be honest that it is much maligned by business autocrats, even those fake pseudo-buddhist (or mindfulness) ones that pretend to be listening or treating workers as “family” (who happen to be on a one-day notice period).

I would argue that the right to present facts and arguments using data and evidence is an inalienable right, and one that is increasingly facilitated by the connected culture that is bubbling up from below (and will eventually alter the course of macro political currents).

Business (or political) leaders who merely proclaim “a vision” will not (and should not) survive, but I will stray too far if I pursue that point too deeply here.

Data, not just ideas, is increasingly central to intellectual capital. And data is becoming increasingly “democratized” in the sense that many of us, especially the hyper-connected, no longer have to rely upon “filtered” spoon-fed data from autocrats. We can simply go “query” it for ourselves (and, in a matter of minutes spin up our own EMR cluster to see what it really says and all without an IT request).

Armed with such hyper-connectivity, the connected agile-talent worker is capable of constructing narratives far quicker than any “leader” can dictate them from upon high (after some “story-telling” workshop learned during the MBA). This is the very real future of work that has yet to be fully appreciated.

What choice then, except transparency and authenticity in the modern work environment? Indeed, what choice except for greater shared ownership given that it will no longer be possible to legitimately claim authority and contribution based merely on arbitrary constructs like organizational hierarchies.

Hmmm.

Even though I’m probably sounding a bit like some Occupy anti-capitalist hippy, I’m just acknowledging the fact that much of our work is based on an ideological model that is unsustainable and, in true innovator’s fashion, soon be disrupted (if such a concept really exists).

Not only will orgs become flat, they will increasingly become inverted, or more likely distributed networks with emergent and transient islands of productivity and power.

And this is the key opportunity (or threat) of the gig economy.

If a small group of folks (aka “Instagram”) can build a billion dollar idea from their bedrooms without any dictates from leaders, then why can’t the same happen inside of existing orgs?

Answer: there are no logical reasons, nor that many structural ones. There are only ideological ones.

Why wait for strategy (if not already eaten by culture) when direct action and experimentation is increasingly more likely to yield results all at the fingertips of the hyper-connected worker?

The point here is that gigsters, free of any deference to cultural b*llshit, are more likely to become the real shakers and movers in the future of work. Indeed, the model is more like how culture really works – i.e. it bubbles up from wherever emergence can get a foothold. In a way, perhaps the much maligned “multi-culturalism” is more apt here.

Indeed, if intellectual capital becomes more valuable than actual capital, as will become the case for the next-generation of hyper-connected AI architects, then companies will be forced to listen to their “brain-capital” holders rather than share-capital holders.

And who will these brain-share holders be?

Most likely they will be gigsters who are so hyper-connected that not only can they run circles around established management myths and “narratives”, but they can build things at an alarming fast rate on their own terms. This future-of-work scenario is threatening to most, but also of massively transformative potential (which sounds like MBA-speak, but is true nonetheless).

In short, the work will go to where the talent is and the talent will no longer go to where the work is. And that shift of power is the golden opportunity for the gig economy if thought through properly. Sadly, none of this was discussed at the “free lunch” panel session.

Nor was data.

It seems plainly obvious that much of this shift in power will be facilitated by data.

However, the concept of data-driven thinking (and even the concept of data) is still poorly misunderstood, despite the frantic rush for all and sundry to proclaim the importance of data. Witness, for example, the legions now calling themselves Data Scientists (and the myriad job openings for same).

Sadly, many so-called data scientists malign the word science, unfamiliar with the true nature of empiricism and the naturalistic method. Tellingly, I have yet to see a single definition of Data Scientist that describes methodology or modes of thought.

Alas, most of the definitions talk of skills and tools, or are just silly pissing matches between “real engineers” and “real statisticians” (or ego-bruised data engineers).

Few recognize the ridiculous contradiction of the title in the first place. It would be like a physicist adopting the title of “Measurement Scientist”.

Predictably, there was little or no discussion of data and its role in the future of work, never mind the shifting nature of IT. The best and only mention of IT was the value of Slack and video conferencing.

Here the conversation drifted towards the key question, at least for the panelists, of how to “cope” or conduct oneself in a hyper-connected world where the water cooler is now a Slack channel and a “face to face” meeting means a video conf.

The answer, almost by bizarre consensus amongst the panelists, was summarized by one of them as “gigsters do not need high IQ, but high EQ.”

Hmmm.

More faddish nonsense.

The argument was something along the lines of  the “emotionally aware” manner in which a connected worker must conduct his or herself so as to avoid snafus like SHOUTING in Slack channels or, who knows, sitting in a dressing gown in front of the webcam?

These is some truth in this. Many folks, often technical ones who might not say boo to a goose in a meeting, suddenly become troll-like in online chatrooms, expressing opinions merely because they have them. This is a massive time sink.

But I’m not sure EQ helps, or even means anything to begin with.

What about POI, or just plain old intelligence, as in the ability to solve problems and, yes, think critically on one’s feet (or standing at a standing desk, no doubt).

Increasingly, the nature of work is likely to be a very poorly defined bag of stuff because there is so little time to figure out what’s going on. With the current “data deluge”, we seem to be rapidly approaching the mental limit of paying attention, mostly dictated by working memory. The use of Adderal is rocketing and there is a whole fake industry in “concentration” aids.

The radical uncertainty of innovation and work is greater in established orgs where many executives are running around like dazed animals who didn’t see the AI train coming and whose understanding of data-enabled economies is limited to what they skim-read on a long haul flight.

Markets and technology are moving too fast for any one person to hold the fort with a “vision” or with clear set of directions. Indeed, such an expectations is probably folly.

The nature of work itself must, like the gig economy, become distributed and give way to some kind of “emergent” process rather than a “managed” process per se. (Note: this does not mean zero management, aka the “fight it out among yourselves whilst I think of a plan” management anti-pattern.)

Frankly, none of this is new.

Tom Peters called it out decades ago with his “organized chaos” meme.

(You can tell that I like Tom Peters, esp. versus the latest crowd of fake business theorists who write those “surprising fact, but this-is-how-the-world-really-works” pamphlets that actually have zero actionable content. Apparently they missed the point that business is about action and not just sharing “surprising” ideas over a free lunch. Tom Peters was a supreme no-bull critical thinker.)

Critical thinking is key to the future of work.

It’s obvious – of course – but then where are the courses, nano-degrees and management theory – let alone culture – that puts critical thinking front and center. The great recent discoveries of evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics have yet to extend beyond magazine articles.

Agile workers must have, and ought to be hired for, the ability to think for themselves and handle unclear goals if they are expected to work on anything vaguely innovative.

By definition, an innovation project is ill-defined, fast-moving and messy. We find this hard to admit because it requires a systemic recognition of – and method for  – saying: “I don’t know.”

Indeed, someone in the audience from one of the “Big Five” consulting groups stood up to admit that her org still did not like to use the word failure.

That particular taboo is widespread. And yet the nature of innovation is such that failure dominates. This is inescapable when viewed from a system perspective.

The difference in approach between a team who truly understands that they don’t know ought to be very different from one that thinks that they do know. It is the difference between optimizing for reducing failure versus optimizing for success. Whilst these sound the same, they are radically different, especially in terms of cognitive processes.

The kinds of remote worker needed for such projects are “thinker-doers”. However, platforms like Toptal are really screening for doers only, albeit highly competent ones.

When a desperate innovation team within a large corp decides they need a “Node.js person” or “React guru” or – yes – a “Data Scientist”, they haven’t realized that what they really need is an imaginative self-starting critical thinker who happens to be good at Node/React/Apache Spark/{Insert tech-du-hour here}.

Let me now turn to the subject of collaboration and collaboration tools because, sadly, the tools we have now are boringly cumbersome.

Slack, for all its utility, is almost too easy to use – tens of channels overloaded with messages piped in from integrations and bots just because they can. I was recently invited to one slack channel and I’ve yet to see many human voices amongst the myriad meaningless notifications that no one really reads. It reminds me of how Ricardo Semler started to stuff random nonsense messages into memos to see who really read them. As he predicted: no one.

The cognitive burden of these tools is reaching breaking point, not that it matters to the culture slaves who routinely end meetings with the unimaginative “I’ll set up a Slack channel” refrain, which is today’s version of “I’ll shoot you an email.”

We have replaced the tyranny of the inbox with the tyranny of multiple channels that exhibit force us to adopt a cognitively difficult quasi-asynchronous schizophrenia. And some of these tools are just a soapbox for many a corporate loner to voice opinions, just because he or she can (ignorant of the time-sucking amplification effect of posting messages to echo chambers).

Slack reminds me of the Skype debacle. All Skype really did was to give us a free version of a desk phone. Okay – they added video and it’s useful for free stuff, but to this day I still find myself saying: “Can you hear me?” and wondering where the IM button is (again) to type “I can’t hear you.”

The conceptual model of Skype is just POTS with a fancier interface. It’s been like that for a decade, mostly while their overpaid VP leaders talk endlessly in jargon like DAU, MAU and other meaningless acronyms all the while totally oblivious to any concept of conversation as a means to convey information, knowledge and intent. There is zero knowledge management anywhere to be seen.

When I wrote a book (please do **not** read it) called Connected Services, it was intended as a “critical thinkers” guide to how the connected economy (and infrastructure) really works, put in simple terms for the non-technical (mostly management) audience. (It was mostly aimed at carriers when I wrote it.)

If I were to write a similar book today, I would call it Cognitive Services and try to explain the obvious solutions to problems like the “what the hell should I pay attention to in Slack/any-other-timeline-tool?”

It would begin with a critical thinker’s guide to what work really is because I think that whilst we continue to follow ideological vectors versus logical ones, we’ll end up with Skype as a fancier phone and Slack as a fancier IRC etc.

For example, why are there so many start-ups trying to solve the “meeting problem?”

No one really wants to attend meetings surely. Did this ever occur to them?

This sounds flippant, but I think it’s the start of finding a real solution.

It reminds me of when I joined art.com and asked the simple question: “Well, why do people hang art in the first place?” Trying to unearth the answer led me to at least one startling conclusion, although rather obvious with a moment’s introspection: few of us ever look at the art we hang on our walls.

The psychological reality (and in many ways neurological one) is that we don’t even see the art, which sounds paradoxical. What we mostly see (if at all we look) is an idea of what we think the art is.

This might sound weird, but then a lot of the recent breakthroughs in our understanding of perception are beginning to reveal a similar model, namely that we don’t actually perceive the world, but rather we perceive a prediction (or model) of it.

My point here is that the future of work, if it’s distributed, will require a radically different toolset. Maybe AR/VR will play a role, although I think something along the lines of a more potent “tele-presence” technology (in its original sense, not the Cisco large-screen sense) will become commonplace.

But it won’t work without equally potent knowledge management tools.

I am a believer that there is, ultimately, only one real problem in business: knowledge management.

Actually, I have a more radical view of knowledge and the function of so-called knowledge workers, and an even more radical view of how to solve the knowledge management problem, but that can wait for another blog post.

Any honest assessment of today’s collaboration tool-stack reveals how far we have yet to go.

Consider Google Docs. It’s barely one step removed from Word which is barely one step removed from a typewriter (in any tangible sense of knowledge management). When I open a new doc, it’s a blank sheet of paper and the tool reacts to my interactions as if it’s the first time I ever met it or used it (and presumably just like it was in 1983).

What I’m trying to say is that future of work, whatever it is, is not just another version of the history of work. Those who think in such terms – who are large in number – will not survive. And I wouldn’t be surprised if hyper-connected agile talent is what brings us the radical solutions, so long as they use critical thinking.

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