Esko Kilpi photo

The New Commons of Work

All work systems differ in the degree to which their components are loosely or tightly coupled. Coupling is a measure of the degree to which communication and power relations between the components are predetermined and fixed or not.

Hierarchies and repetitive processes were based on tight couplings. The post-industrial platforms are based on loose couplings following the original logic of the Internet. This makes more variations possible and allows more context specificity. Some people will work on one platform every now and then, while others may work simultaneously and continuously on many different platforms. In the ideal case, the worker makes the decision about where, with whom and how much to work.

The old industrial dichotomy of employers and employees is a thing of the past.

The explanation for this is that the patterns and the roles of work are becoming very different from what we are used to: the industrial production of physical goods was financial capital-intensive, leading to centralized management and manufacturing facilities where you needed to be during predetermined hours. The industrial era created the employers, the employees, the system of management and the shareholder capitalism we now experience.

In the network economy, individuals, interacting voluntarily with each other by utilizing the new platforms/commons and relatively cheap, but very smart, mobile devices they own themselves, can create value together, and, even more importantly, utilize available resources in a much more sustainable way than was possible during the mass-industrial era.

But we need to rethink our fundamental beliefs about employment and jobs. In creative, knowledge-based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and work-to-be-done in advance. Recruiting is therefore becoming a matter of expensive guesswork. Matching the patterns of work with the capabilities of individuals beforehand is getting close to impossible.

What, then, is the use of the corporate theater as we know it now, when it is literally impossible to define the organization before we actually do something? What if the organization really should be a process of emergent self-organizing, and always changing when the context changes?

Instead of thinking about the organization let’s think about organizing as an ongoing thing. Then the managerial task, but not necessarily a managers task, is to make possible very easy and very fast responsive interaction and formation of interdependent individuals into value creating groups.

It has to be technologically as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable context, the needs and the people.

It is a different logic of organizing, based on neither the traditional (job) market nor a process. Whereas processes involve relations based on dependence and markets involve transactions based on relative independence, here it is about dynamic interdependence.

Instead of the topology or organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the picture of work is a live social graph.

It used to be argued that goods for which the marginal costs, the cost of producing one more unit of customer value were close to zero, were inherently public goods and should be made publicly available. Before the software era, roads and bridges were commonly used as examples of these platforms. The maximum societal benefit from the initial investment is gained only if the use is as unrestricted as possible. Once the capital costs have been incurred, the more people there are sharing the benefits, the better it is for the whole value system and society at large.

This was the economic explanation for why roads were, and mostly still are, under public ownership. The same logic applied to public libraries: a book can be read repeatedly at almost no extra cost.

What if a post-industrial “company” could be, first and foremost, a set of interaction protocols, a shared and open resource, making interactive value creation possible through organizing and simplifying participation? Sociologists have called such shared resources public goods. 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 still often are, over-exploited but the new digital commons of work follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

The most important model for work is a learning protocol where the value of all interactions is raised by all interactions; where every interaction and every worker benefits from the total number of interactions. Every valuable piece of learning can be put to use by someone else, or somewhere else.

At best, then, work is remixing and recombining successful elements to create new versions.

In the new commons, people with more potential ties become better informed and have more signalling power, while those outside and with fewer ties may be left behind. This is the new digital divide.

Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

In the age of abundance economics, public is much more valuable than private. Governments have always been platform creators. This is why the old demarcation line between public and private may not make any sense in the future.

The ongoing vogue of business design transforms asset-based firms to network-based platforms. Perhaps the next evolutionary step in the life of the firm is a transformation from platforms to open commons with shared protocols.

More on the subject from the Oxford Internet Institute:

The Global Platform Economy: A New Offshoring Institution Enabling Emerging-Economy Microproviders”