‘Work’ in the New Web Era

The web’s evolution has impacted the nature of work by significantly increasing the value of collaboration, connection, access to information, and teamwork. With the transition to an information-based, outsourced, and constantly connected economy, work is becoming less tied to space, time, and distance. The removal of these constraints has made cross-functional, global collaboration the norm and placed the team, which may include asynchronous or synchronous global collaborators, as the preferred work unit. The web has also inspired the easy movement of capital; according to Friedman (2007), capital looks for the most productive labor at the lowest price, and moves to places that have proper infrastructure, education, governance, and environment. The web facilitates this process, which results in companies employing outsourcing, home-sourcing, and other labor management strategies that decrease the necessity of large co-located business locations and traditional schedules. In doing so, the web has drastically changed the way businesses approach all facets of operations, from hiring to marketing to producing. Furthermore, by removing traditional time, space, and distance barriers, the web has increased competition, enlarged markets, and enabled small entities to compete with larger, more established companies. Friedman (2007) stated that the incredible degree to which individuals or small groups can now act and compete globally is one of the defining characteristics of the web era – along with the dissolution of traditional management hierarchies in favor of collaborative teams, the web has allowed small entities to compete on a massive scale with minimal infrastructure, technology, and marketing investments (Husband, N.D.).

For leaders, these changes have conceptual and structural implications. First, the dissolution of time, space, and distance constraints ensures leaders are always connected, always accessible, and always accountable. To succeed in this environment, leaders must recognize that traditional work hours and observation-based management techniques are not applicable and instead pursue a collaborative, productivity-based approach. Furthermore, leaders must adapt to the rise of teams and become comfortable leading and managing global, asynchronous teams. This approach requires trust and empowerment, and lessens the value of hierarchical organizational structures. In time, this trend may result in traditional hierarchies giving way to project-based teams led by subject matter experts; with this construct, ‘leaders’ will emerge based on specific skill, shepherd a defined group for a defined time period, and then join other teams as a member after their project finishes. To manage these role changes, companies must develop leadership skills in most or all employees, and Husband (N.D.) suggests companies employ e-learning strategies to enhance technical effectiveness and safe costs. In the future, companies will likely choose to deliver portions of leadership training via e-learning platforms, collaborative discussion boards, and other community learning strategies that leverage the power of the web and deliver content to the wide variety of teams and locations that make up their workforce.

Friedman, T. (2007). The World is Flat (3rd ed.) New York: Picador.

Husband, J. (N.D.) What is Wirearchy? Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/


20 thoughts on “‘Work’ in the New Web Era

  1. Hi Tim. Good post. Some comments on this line:

    “This trend may result in traditional hierarchies giving way to project-based teams led by subject matter experts; with this construct, ‘leaders’ will emerge based on specific skill, shepherd a defined group for a defined time period, and then join other teams as a member after their project finishes.”

    I agree with you, with the exception of teams being lead by ‘subject matter experts’. I suppose it depends on the definition, but given that almost all knowledge is now available online (and Google-able), I see a diminishing role for SMEs in favour of emerging leaders with the ability to influence (in my view, this is the specific skill you mention).

    Social media provides the communications infrastructure (tools and networks) to exercise influence. In that context, organizations must develop both leadership skills and provide staff with the policy cover to engage their networks to develop emergent practice.

    I think you are also correct to note that organizations will move from thematic organization, to organizing around processes in inter-departmental and inter-organizational teams. Dave Gray (no relation) is the leader in this podular thinking (see more here: http://communicationnation.blogspot.com/).

    • Good points. I think some disciplines will always require experts, but you are correct that many organizations can outsource the development of experts to the web – why spend a significant amount of time, resources, and organizational effort to develop an expert when you usually just need someone to retrieve a bit of data and present it? While this is much too simplistic, the reality is that training and development are more real-time than ever because of how easy it is to retrieve information. This certainly will have significant consequences for organizational development and training efforts, and may result in ‘the web’ replacing most subject matter experts.

  2. Tim,
    You mentioned leadership training via the web. One issue that we haven’t talked about in this class (yet!) is leadership issues in a cross-cultural world. Do you think that cross-cultural becomes less important if the mechanism for team interaction is a flat technology infrastructure? Do I need to be aware that culture X is less or more outgoing than culture y if the virtual team is on the web, in discussion boards, or on skype?

    Leadership training has traditional been based around people skills. I wonder if leadership skills in the future will be much more about how to leverage technology for leadership, not people, given that a flat technology infrastructure implies that participants in a shared activity have the same approximate level of technology access and experience.

    • Matt, I do not see any diminishing of leadership leveraging people…it is just through digital means rather than face-to-face. We are still in the people business!

      • Yes, but….am I still in the people business if I never say hi to someone in person, never buy them a beer after work, or never get a chance to sign (except perhaps digitally) a Happy Birthday card for them? I’m not disagreeing, because I’m in complete agreement that leadership is all about people, but I do think that there is an open question of will the same hands on leadership styles of a team in the conference room apply when the conference room is virtual? If anything some attributes are going to have to be enhanced. Communication, for example, is notoriously open to misinterpretation digitally. Leaders will have to work extra hard to be concrete, avoid cultural slights in their writing, and be fully aware of unique considerations that again, in a face to face environment, they wouldn’t have to worry about.

    • I don’t see culture diminishing in importance; instead, the widespread implementation of asynchronous web technologies increase the importance of cultural competence from a leadership perspective. Communicating in culturally-appropriate and technologically-appropriate ways will both be necessary leadership elements – leaders will have to use new technologies to connect, inform, and inspire people. In this environment, I still see the technology as the enabler, and the relationships as the leadership function. Without developed leadership, communication, and cultural awareness skills, all of the technology in the world will not help a leader develop a vision, build a team, and achieve goals. Technological competence will make this easier and remove traditional time, space, and distance barriers, but it will never replace basic, fundamental leadership.

  3. Hello Timothy. I completely agree with the fact that “The removal of these constraints has made cross-functional, global collaboration the norm,” From family owned businesses to multimillion dollar companies; these organization need leaders who can execute tough decisions, excel at tasks, and collaborate with their employees from anywhere in the country. I work in the field of education so I don’t really see this. However, my sister who works in marketing is always flying back and forth from San Francisco to Los Angeles and stills meets regularly with her boss who flies from San Francisco to the east coast on a weekly basis. Leaders are so mobile and must keep finding more efficient ways to conference with their employees regardless of their location. You are right, the removal of these constraints makes all this possible. As technology advances I cannot imagine how corporate leaders communicated so well when resources were so limited.

    • I remember well going to the one telecom facility in the Twin Cities, at 2:00 a.m., to participate in a teleconference with our European partners that was starting early in their day. This was in the mid-90s and I’m amazed that less than twenty years later I could do the same thing from my iPad.

      Regarding travel, I was in the corporate world at the time of 9/11 and it was amazing how quickly we modified our travel schedules to incorporate more video and audio conferences which were, once we embraced them, as effective as hopping on a plane to fly anywhere in the country or around the world.

  4. Excellent post and blog, I think I said that before I would like to add to the conversation by saying. Current web technology has already allowed us to work from wherever, whenever we choose. Many companies currently have employees working from home more than one day a week, but that number is expected to grow by 2015. Futurists are predicting that we will work with people we have never actually met and communicate with virtual colleagues by 2025.

      • I’m looking forward to that discussion; I am a huge proponent of empowering employees and encouraging flexibility, and dismantling the traditional schedule and space components of work is a great way to do this. As I form my business, I’m much less concerned about location than I am about talent and connectivity, and many companies take this same approach. I can’t predict where this trend is going, but, as agility and flexibility are coming to characterize today’s environment, I wouldn’t be surprised if more ‘traditional’ companies incorporate flexible hours and location policies into their HR guidelines in order to compete for knowledge workers and remain culturally relevant.

  5. Tim, you mention prominently that the technological advances have facilitated the movement of “capital.” As I read further, I began to think more about the idea of capital in the new world of work. Traditionally most of us think of capital in the financial definition. In recent years we have seen more references to other possible definitions, the first that comes to mind being the phrase “human capital.”
    To continue this train of thought I’ll concentrate on Husband’s term wirearchy and its definitions and connotations. If the concept of wirearachy (Husband)is becoming more accepted and more implemented (and I believe it is…sometimes unwittingly) is this acceptance forcing us to rethink and expand the definition of capital? Is it forcing us away from the financial definition, the images of “bricks and mortar” facilities and equipment into definition that truly appreciates knowledge, human capabilities, creativity, agility and the like as components of capital? I think it does and many leaders and decision makers just haven’t figured out how to handle it yet.
    As an old manufacturing finance guy, I know (or remember fuzzily) just enough accounting to be dangerous. But one accounting rule that always bothered me, even way back before our current wired world of work climate, was that training, education and intellectual development were treated as expenses and not capital investment. That has always struck me as counter-intuitive. The foundation of the accounting principles was that capital expenditures benefit future operating periods, expenses are for the current period. So, how about training and development of “human capital”? If anything benefits future periods of operation it’s a more skilled, educated, flexible etc. workforce. But the accounting rules led to many bad decisions, often in a downturn, training and development expenses were one of the first things to be cut.
    Hopefully, this wired environment will break us out of some of our intellectual boundaries as well as our operational limitations.

    Husband, J. (n.d.). What is Wirearchy? Retrieved March 28, 2013, from Wirearchy: http://www.wirearchy.com

    • Knowledge is certainly capital these days, and old accounting practices will eventually have to catch up to that reality. This is one of the larger chances forced on companies by the Triple Convergence and web trends – ‘infrastructure’ is now etherial, and includes knowledge, experience, ability, networks, and social influence. These items are difficult to quantify, but they are essential to a successful individual and organization. I do think corporations will evolve toward this perspective as social and connected experiences force old organizational concepts to evolve or disappear.

  6. Tim, excellent post as always. I was thinking about your opening, where you said that the web “…has impacted the nature of work by significantly increasing the value of collaboration, connection, access to information, and teamwork…” I would suspect that you could find almost as many who would suggest that the web has reduced the “value” aspect due to the outsourcing of jobs, loss of human interaction, and reduction of interpersonal aspects of work. You are pretty positive in your post … are there downsides?

    • In the short term, the disruption caused by the web’s rise and the other factors Friedman (2007) described has certainly reallocated labor, replaced workers, and even retired certain industries. These are certainly negatives, especially for those individuals and entities that were directly impacted. The web has, however, inspired many positives – it has democratized information, enabled economic competition, birthed thousands of new entities, and facilitated the creation of many, many ideas. In doing so, it has fundamentally changed how we approach each other, work, and interaction. If I had to identify a downside to the web’s rise, it would be its ability to replace a man’s knowledge with his ability to search – these days, we don’t have to know, we just have to understand how to access the information. I think this reality has societal implications, especially for current young children who have only known a connected world. I think there is so much value in real knowledge – learning, memorizing, studying, immersing – that the web replaces with a few keystrokes. This, along with the increasing cultural requirement for instant information and results, is creating an environment where old-fashioned learning, growth, and development is circumvented by a YouTube video or a quick Google search. We are still in the very early stages of this transition, but I see this shift as fundamentally changing cultures, changing the nature of inquiry and creativity, and resulting in a new concept of ‘learning.’ While it’s too soon to tell if these outcomes will be negative, I’m frightened by the prospect of knowledge becoming temporary and not internalized, and think this will have a negative effect on web-dependent cultures.

      • Timely that I just saw this article on how “facts” on the Internet become the truth when sufficiently Googled, whether they were ever the truth or not. A generation raised (and rewarded) find the obscure fact in minutes seemingly is incapable of doing the basic research to find out if something is, indeed, actually true.

        You’ve captured what I believe is a major downside to flat data. Since all data is equal, none is more accurate than another. The young woman in Indonesia who knows that 9/11 was planned and executed by the US Government in concert with Israel got her facts from web sites that create knowledge that she finds acceptable.

        As we know, democracy creates transparency, but in a wired world it is the transparent against the interesting, the factual against the sensational.


  7. Tim: Reading your interesting recap, it spurs me to say that this swirl of faster and faster collaboration slash sharing slash connecting may morph itself collectively into one big information bubble, where whole industries are quickly build to support…”nothing”! Organizations ultimately have to produce something, else it is ultimately either churn or a Ponzi scheme or worse, both. When you mention the trainingh of human capital, is it to collaborate, or is it to produce something.

    I think the next “big thing” is a tool, or an application, or middleware, or relay, or a sector of the “cloud – something – to filter out all of the churn I mention above and filter in only what you want. So, while Company A (without filter) is collaborating its heart out, Company B (with filter) is hyper-focusing on what produces profit, for without profit there is no business in general terms.

  8. Timothy,

    Not sure what field you are in but in large school districts, I don’t see a shift away from hierarchies. I think the nature of independent school districts lends to this type of structure and neither the school board or the superintendent will be compelled to change anytime soon. While there has been a serious and immediate shift in the dissemination of information, it still has a “top-down” feel to it. At what point do you think a permanent shift from hierarchies will occur, if at any time?

  9. In your post you write, “To succeed in this environment, leaders must recognize that traditional work hours and observation-based management techniques are not applicable and instead pursue a collaborative, productivity-based approach.” I totally agree, but I’m at a loss for where to start in our school district.

    We have supervision and evaluation tools that are part of our negotiated contract agreements. They are, you probably guessed, better suited for the industrial model of work where an “expert” gives a top-down assessment of someone under his/her supervision. I have tried to (gently) introduce more collaborative models of management/supervision, but guess what? The real resistance actually comes from the employee groups! Peer observations and support? Out of class!! And good luck finding veteran teachers to serve on “peer assistance and review” committees.

    I understand that some of the reluctance in change towards a more collaborative model is engrained in the policies and structures that have defined public education for the last few hundred years, but it does get a bit frustrating. I can walk around school sites using an Ipad to collect observation data, but the assessment template is still backwards. Ughh!!

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