Work is Interaction
In an economy, people essentially produce goods and services for people. Companies are theoretically intermediary organizational forms that arrange the development, production and delivery processes. The digital world we live in today allows us to imagine and experiment with totally new value creation architectures.
The concepts that govern our thinking and language in relation to work are not just semantic entities, but influence what we perceive and what we think is possible or not possible. Usually we are not aware of how these concepts prime our thinking. We simply think and act along certain lines. A seminal concept related to how we perceive work is the division of labor, the notion of work as activities separated from other activities, as jobs.
The industrial management paradigm is based on the presupposition that activities are the independent governing factors of creating value. The organizational structure of (independent) jobs comes first. Then an appropriate system of coordination and communication is put into effect.
The scheme of interaction conforms to the planned division of labor as a secondary feature. What if the Internet, network sciences and the huge advances in social technologies made it possible, or even necessary, to think differently?
What if networks and interaction should be seen as the governing factors? As jobs and communication are mutually dependent, it means that if there are changes in interaction, so the activities will change. The smartphone has now become information technology’s key product. Surely, then, it has an impact on the way we work.
In the mainstream conceptual model of communication (Shannon & Weaver 1948) a thought arising within one individual is translated into words, which are then transmitted to another individual. At the receiving end, the words translate back into the same thought, if the formulation of the words and the transmission of those words are good enough. The meaning is in the words.
Amazingly, our conceptualization of value creation has followed the very same model. Companies transform ideas into offerings that are delivered to customers. At the receiving end, the products translate back into the same value that the company has created. The meaning is in the product.
Management scholars have lately made interesting claims saying that although the product is the same, different customers experience the value potential of the product differently. They say that it is in fact wrong to say that companies create value. It is the way the offering is (contextually) experienced that creates value, more value or less value. The bad news is that our present conceptualizations of work make it very hard to do anything about it. The good news is that for the first time in history we can do something about it. Companies can connect with users and be digitally present when and where their products are used.
But we need a new conceptualization of communication if we want to have a new conceptualization of work.
Luckily, there is one.
A completely different approach to communication exists. The alternative view is based on the work of George Herbert Mead. This model does not see communication as messages that are transmitted between senders and receivers, but as complex social action.
In the social act model, communication takes the form of a gesture made by an individual that evokes a response from someone else. The meaning of the gesture can only be known from the response, not from the words. There is no deterministic causality, no transmission from the gesture to the response. If I smile at you and you respond with a smile, the meaning of the gesture is friendly, but if you respond with a cold stare, the meaning of the gesture is contempt. Gestures and responses cannot be separated but constitute one social act from which meaning emerges.
Gestures call forth responses and products call forth and evoke responses. Value lies not in the product but in the (customer) response. Accordingly, work should then be conceptualized as an interactive process, a social act.
The value of work cannot be known in the separate, independent “job” activity or be understood through the capabilities of the worker.
If we subscribe to this relational view, it means that people and actions are simultaneously forming and being formed by each other at the same time, all the time, in interaction. Perhaps in the future it will not be meaningful to conceptualize work as jobs or even as organizational (activity) structures like the firms of today. Work will be described as complex patterns of communicative interaction between interdependent individuals.
All interacting imposes constraints on those relating, while at the same time enabling those people to do what they could not otherwise do. Enabling, complementary and energizing patterns of interaction may be the most important raison d’être of work.
The relational view is a new conceptualization of work, potentially opening up new opportunities to disrupt unemployment. Perhaps it is time to change the focus from creating jobs to creating customers — in new, innovative and interactive ways. To quote Max Planck: “If you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change.”
Credits: Doug Griffin, Ralph Stacey, George Herbert Mead, Max Planck