A Recent Interview: Welcome to the Postnormal
I’ve been interviewed a bunch recently. Here are this year’s words.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
| TS Eliot, Little Gidding
Who are you, what do you do, and how did you get to where you are now?
I’m Stowe Boyd, a well-known authority on the future of work, or as I put it, the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future. I began following the tectonic changes that new communications, coordination, and cooperation technologies were having on society, media and business in the ’80s, and I have been at the vanguard ever since. I am the founder of Work Futures, a research organization, and the publisher and editor of Work Futures Daily, the organization newsletter. I also serve as editor-in-chief of On The Horizon, a publication focused on the economics, structure, and behavior of platform ecosystems and organizations. Lastly, I am a contributing editor and research fellow for Gigaom’s Open Research initiative.
What are the top 3 innovations or changes you have seen making the most impact on the future of work over the last 12 months?
Here’s three, not in order of importance:
- The tightening labor market has led to a strong shift toward new attention by business management toward the set of practices now being called employee experience, which is shorthand for acting like workers matter, instead of being treated as interchangeable economic units. Companies are working harder to retain and attract workers, and that has led to greater autonomy, increased effort toward higher corporate purpose and not just increased returns for shareholders, and a willingness to adopt more worker-friendly policies, such as shortened work weeks, remote work, paid maternity and paternity leave, and relaxed dress codes. Paradoxically, this is taking place in the shadow of growing automation in the workplace.
- #MeToo continues to reverberate in the halls of business, and this is associated with a growing sense that systemic and systematic change regarding women (and others who are not white cisgendered males) in the workplace must happen, and quickly. This involves more women in management, especially in senior roles, and increasing representation on corporate boards. The calls for change still are out ahead of reality, however, despite all the evidence that companies with more women in these roles do better than those without.
- The traditional notions of top-down. hierarchical management have been eroding for decades, but in just the past year or so the industrial-era economic principles that seemed to be propping up the vertical organization have themselves become questionable. This is partly due to a growing unease about the destructive powers of unfettered markets, as well as the discrediting of the equilibrium-based economic models of the 20th century. The complexity in our actual global economy, and the failures of the neoliberal grand scheme — like rampant inequality, global climate change, and the dismantling of the social safety net — make a combined argument that business cannot continue as it has, and so a future of work has to take into account the need to adapt to this brave new world, and not to look away. Meanwhile, we have see the emergence of a new economy, driven by the rise of platform ecosystems, like Amazon, Airbnb, and Rent The Runway, which invalidates the notion of corporations as self-contained entities, and opens the door to horizontal assemblages of ecosystem participants with very different forms of management.
Which impact do these initiatives have on jobs, skill sets and the way we work?
I’ve written a great deal about work skills for the future, as in 10 Work Skills for the Postnormal Era, which I can summarize:
- Boundless Curiosity — The most creative people are insatiably curious. They want to know what works and why.
- Freestyling — We have to learn to dance with the robots, not to run away. However, we still need to make sure that AI is limited enough that it will still be dance-with-able, and not not-runnable-away-from.
- Emergent Leadership — Emergent leadership: the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence.
- Constructive Uncertainty — The idea of constructive uncertainty is not predicated on eliminating our biases: they are as built into our minds as deeply as language and lust.
- Complex Ethics — All thinking touches on our sense of morality and justice. Knowledge is justified belief, so our perspective of the world and our place in it is rooted in our ethical system, whether examined or not.
- Deep Generalists — Deep generalists can ferret out the connections that build the complexity into complex systems, and grasp their interplay.
- Design Logic — It’s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things-cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society.
- Postnormal Creativity — We should expect that creativity will have a few surprises in store for us, here, in the econolypse.
- Posterity, not History, nor the Future — While we need to learn from history, we must not be constrained by it, especially in a time where much of what is going on is unprecedented.
- Sensemaking — Skills that help us create unique insights critical to decision making.
What are you personally most excited about technology, innovation and change (for your personal and/or professional) life?
I am starting to see the adoption of a way of organizing work that I have started to call the Emergent Organization. This based on the core notion of Emergent Leadership — the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence — as well as a set of practices that are appearing in various forward-focused companies, like Haier, Gore, and Amazon. I’ve written on this extensively, as in most recently On Emergent Leadership, where I observed:
To become a company driven by continuous innovation, emergent leadership is a necessity, not an option.
This is the audio of an interview on Catalyzing Business Agility.