New Work

Mutopo Re:Working Conference will explore how social technologies are changing work on February 24 2012 in New York City. Following are some thoughts on the main themes, highlighting the work of many organizations who will discuss their experiences at the conference.

New Work

At the table next to me, three people huddle excitedly around an unseen iPad screen. A little further away, a gentleman nods vigorously to the invisible person on the other end of his call. And here I sit, trying to organize my thoughts as I gaze at those working around me.

The scene describes many of our workspaces, but I am sitting outside on a beautiful day, at Cafe Octavio, a coffee shop in Sao Paulo. Now this could be a Brazilian thing, but I’ve had this experience in other cities like Berlin, New York and Cape Town.

New Work Spaces

Coffee shops may be the easiest way to notice shifting work spaces. Since Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation, free agents have moved between their garages, home offices and coffee shops and now into a growing list of co-working spaces. Many of the spaces provide much more than a desk and antidote to working alone, filling our rolls that used to be the domain of employers, from training resources to new business – just look at Grind Spaces or General Assembly. And its no longer just free agents who are working in new spaces, when offices are designed to keep employees working at home.

Some of the other important workspaces are harder to see – one has to sit alongside the people at home, in coffee shops and co-working spaces to peer into the world displayed on their laptop and ipad screens. You’ll see the familiar places we go online like Facebook and Twitter alongside our e-mail as conversations alongside a variety of tools from inside the enterprise. You’ll also see new general collaboration spaces like Google Docs, Microsoft Sharepoint and 37Signals Basecamp. And you will also find more specialized spaces for specific activities like R&D (Innocentive or Brightidea) or Marketing (Victors and Spoils or Shout).  Like the co-working spaces, many of these places are about much more than connecting with people you know, but finding new people to collaborate with. Or in some cases to hire new people for projects that might last hours or months (oDesk or workmarket).

Employee, Partner, Customer or All of the Above?

But aren’t most of these changes happening for self employed or part time workers? Perhaps. But a look at global workforce numbers from the Economist suggest that only 40% of us workers are full time employees, with 31% now self employed and 22% employed part time (whether or not they want full time jobs, is a different question).

But these employment numbers are only part of the picture. Over the last 10 years strategies that have looked beyond full time employees have yielded big results, even for core value-creating activities like research and development. Organizations like P&G have looked beyond the edge of their organizations to people and organizations outside. Today their open innovation process yields at least 50% of their innovation and at least one new billion dollar brand. Similarly LEGO Group’s turnaround in the last decade has led the company management to another group beyond employees. LEGO now considers the LEGO community of fans as a core asset alongside the plastic bricks.

And this is not just happening across the boundaries of traditional organizations. Inside larger organizations, people are finding that job descriptions are great for what you do most of the time, but miss opportunities for you to contribute in other ways. Cemex, for example is able to tap into more than 50 thousand employees to tackle some of the organizations most important problems. It is no wonder that LinkedIn wants to get beyond traditional resume representation of what we can do to add tags to represent our other skills.

The successes at these large global organizations have tracked a rise of a range of models to enable organizations to access talent on demand. In the most traditional cases, where outsourcing used to happen via large firms, now organizations can hire individuals or small teams directly via oDesk, Sortfolio or workmarket. Less conventional models enable tasks to be efficiently assigned and completed by “crowds” where those assigning the tasks might never know who performed them – from general tasks on Amazon Mechanical Turk to specialized science challenges on Innocentive.

Beyond the concept of crowds, is a more connected intimate idea of collective or community, sometimes supporting one another and sometimes competing in functional areas like marketing or innovation or in industry verticals from consumer products (Quirky) to automotive (LocalMotors). Beyond the focus on specific types of work, is a focus on providing support once only available to full time employees like insurance or assuring payment – just take a look at Freelancers Union. These new organizational forms are relatively young, but finding new ways to achieve what used to be the sole domain and part of the reason to join (often very large) organizations with full time employees.

The Other C-Level Leadership

These new relationships, shifting roles and changes in scale of connections are demanding new leadership skills. Many of the early changes began with software companies who used new technologies to work closely with stakeholders to define, build and test products from open source servers to iPhones. At the core is a constant struggle to set directions, gather feedback and align interests across groups of people with different incentives and different levels of participation.

Organizations are learning to work with people whose relationships may blur the lines between traditional customers and employees as they contribute in areas from R&D to customer support and marketing. And then there is also the question of scale – it is one thing to manage an organization of 10,000 people but then how do you manage another 10,000 stakeholders who are increasingly involved across a range of organizational activities (never mind the millions of fans). Here is a good example – a new type of mobile operator with fewer than 30 employees that relies heavily on working with customers to deliver their service – aptly named Giffgaff which means “mutual giving” in Scottish.

At the messy intersection of traditional organizations and communities is the emerging role of community management. For some, this is similar to account management – understanding and reconciling the needs of those inside and outside the organization. For others its more akin to customer service, managing lots of lightweight interactions from basic support to more elaborate client needs. These different interpretations, fit a range of responsibilities from helping groups achieve specialized tasks (like responding to a creative brief or engineering challenge) to seeking insights and feedback on Facebook. Whatever it is – it is hard and valuable, but you’d be hard pressed to find classes about it in management schools – no wonder there is now a Community Manager Appreciation Day.

From Connecting to Collaborating and Evaluating

“I think the last 5 years have been about connecting all these people. The next 5 years are going to be about all the crazy things you can do now that all those people are connected,” Zuckerberg commented earlier this year. More than any single organization, Facebook has helped to usher in a new era in connectedness, yet they are already looking at what these connections might enable.

Fortunately, we can go back two decades to get a glimpse of what might be ahead.

Linus Torvold’s transformation of the software development process was enabled in large part by low cost, loose ties to his users. He began using one of the Internet’s first collaboration platforms, email. Only a decade back you could see how organizations like LEGO and P&G have worked with partners and customers. Or you could see how Skype, Craigslist and Zipcar have enlisted customers to help with everything from sharing bandwidth resources, editing posts and bringing down the cost of getting access to a car.

The “crazy things” we can do are multiplying. It’s not just how we are working together, but going further to understand how different people are contributing. Today, Klout Scores are enabling us to study interactions to understand how effectively people (and brands) influence one another. Mozilla is studying contributions in the collaboration process to understand when members of their community might be losing interesting in building their open source wares. Jovoto observes online interactions to uncover leading creative talent for marketing and product development, while Trada evaluates search marketing prowess to match their marketing clients with the best performing marketers. CrowdTwist analyzes individual actions online to understand, far beyond purchases, who are the most valuable customers by understanding what these people do for brands. Our contributions as workers, freelancers, customers and friends can be constantly evaluated as we go about our usual business enabling ranking (and ultimately pricing).

The focus used to be on what was given up by moving people out of the same room or workspace. But as we see the benefits from online collaboration and evaluation, the same might soon be asked about what is given up when work takes place offline.

Results So Far?

The impact of New Work is felt across functional areas and industries. Some measure their ability to get new ideas (and eventually new businesses) from non-employees. Others look to communities as a core asset for research, support, promotion or infrastructure for a telecommunications company. Contributions might be measured in earned media or savings resulting from human-resources-on-demand. Or success might be seen by the self employed who can earn similar income and benefits without the organizations that offer full time employment (through organizations like Freelancers Union).

Overall there is a sense that through new connections, we are getting more, even if the metrics are not always clear. As Andrew McAfee puts it (of MIT Center for Digital Business), “I have never spoken to an executive or a manager who says, ‘I just long for the days when we collaborated in the old style, and e-mail was all we had, and nobody had a voice. Man, that was so fantastic. Let’s please go back there.’”

On February 24 2012 in NYC we will explore these New Work themes with many of the organizations reference here. Learn more at


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