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The design patterns of work

Esko Kilpi
May 31, 2016 · 5 min read

Design patterns are a method of describing the most important principles of work. They are reusable sentences of the (new) narrative.

At the core of our era is the idea that instead of being passive bystanders people should actively take part in designing the important aspects of their life. This principle also applies to the social constructs of work. People, then, should learn to be better designers. When designing something we typically rely on patterns. We reuse something that is already there. This is important to notice because we are in the midst of a major shift from industrial to post-industrial value creation. Repeating or even remixing the industrial patterns do not necessarily help us any more.

The customer is now seen as being directly and actively involved in the key moments of value creation as opposed to consuming value. There are profound implications that result from this change in thinking. Products and services are not reproducible as such any more. Solutions are by default contextual, but they can be starting points for someone else to create value. Creative, connected learning is at the core of the new logic.

As we live in an increasingly interconnected world where technologically augmented ordinary people have access to the newest solution tools even before corporations, the task is to design value creation on three patterns: (1) a relational focus. (2) creating network effects, and (3) solving meaningful problems.

Relations

Human behavior is learned in relations. Our brains are wired to notice and imitate others. Computational social science has proved that behavior can be caught like a disease merely by being exposed to other people. Learning and also non-learning can be found in communication. It is not that people are first intelligent and then socially aware. Social intelligence is not a separate type of intelligence. All intelligence emerges from the efforts of the community.

To succeed you need relationships and interaction. When customers are identified as individuals in different use contexts, the sales process is really a joint process of solving problems. You and your customer necessarily then become cooperators. You are trying together to solve the customer’s problem in a way that both satisfies the customer and ensures a profit for you.

The industrial make-and-sell model required expert skills. The decisive thing was your individual knowledge. Today you work more from your network than your skills. The decisive thing is your relations. The new structures and new designs are about communities continuously organizing themselves around shared contexts, meaning shared interests and shared practices. The focus of industrial management was on the division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

The really big objective of the digital transformation is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the centre. Success today is increasingly a result of skillful participation: it is about how we are present and how we communicate. Through new technologies, applications and ubiquitous connectivity, we have totally new opportunities for participation and communication — potentially changing the way we work together.

Network effects

The new platforms can be a valuable, shared resource making higher value possible through organizing and simplifying participation. Sociologists have called shared resources public goods or commons. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private was valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the intellectual confusion we are in the midst of today. The physical commons were, and often still are, over-exploited but the new digital commons follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

The ongoing vogue of business design transforms asset-based firms into network-based platforms. The effects of Moore’s law on the growth of the ICT industry and computing are well known. A lesser-known but potentially more weighty law is starting to replace Moore’s law in terms of its strategic influence. Metcalfe’s law is named after Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet. The law states that the cost of a network expands linearly with increases in the size of the network, but the value of the network increases exponentially. When this is combined with Moore’s law, we are in a world where at the same time as the value of the network goes up with its size the average costs of technology are falling. This is one of the most important business drivers today.

The implication is that there is an ever-widening gap between network economy companies and those driven by traditional asset leverage models. The industrial economy was based on supply-side economies of scale inside the corporation. The new focus is outside, in demand-side network economies.

The most important model is a network structure where the value of all interactions is raised by all interactions; where every interaction benefits from the total number of interactions. These are the new network businesses.

In practice this means that digital services can attain the level of customer reach and network size required to capture almost any market, even as the size of the company stays small. This is why network economy based start-ups have such a huge advantage over asset leverage based incumbents.

Solving problems

Success in life has been seen as being governed by two concepts: skills and effort; how bright you are and how hard you work. Recently, researchers have claimed that there is a third and decisive concept. It is the practice of lifelong curiosity and “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do” as Piaget put it.

The collective intelligence of our societies depends heavily on the tools that augment human intelligence. We should welcome the fact that people today are smarter in large measure because they have invented and use smarter tools. Making tools is what human beings have always done. The interactions between tools and human minds are so complex that it is very hard to try to draw a line between humans and technology. Neither is it a zero-sum game where the human brain is losing out to technological intelligence, but as technology changes, people and what people do, are necessarily changed.

Work starts from problems and learning starts from questions. Work is creating value and learning is creating knowledge. Both work and learning require the same things: interaction and engagement. With the help of modern tools, we can create ways for very large numbers of people to become learners. But learning itself has changed: it is not a matter of first acquiring skills and then utilizing those skills at work. Post-industrial work is learning. It is figuring out how to solve a particular problem and then scaling up the solution in a reflective and iterative way, both with technology and with other people.

The new design patterns create new opportunities. It is not about having a fixed job role as an employee or having tasks given to you as a contractor. The most inspiring and energizing future of work may be in solving problems and spotting opportunities in creative interaction with your customers.

Esko Kilpi

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Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again. -André Gide

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