The 'Fifth Age' of work: How the technology is changing our careers
Mobility and flexibility thanks to technology will be the hallmarks of a new era of business with fewer corporate offices and more home offices.
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 01:42 PM
"Where do you work?" There was a time when that question might have received a simple answer: a company name, or a physical address. But in the age of cloud computing, smartphones and telecommuting, workers are moving away from the confines of cubicles and corporate addresses and toward something more difficult to plot on a map.
Andrew Jones — an organizational business consultant, educator and partner at Conjunctured, a co-working space in Austin, Texas — believes that the mobility of today's workforce is an integral part of any discussion on employment in the 21st century. His new book, "The Fifth Age of Work: How Companies Can Redesign Work to Become More Innovative in a Cloud Economy" (Night Owls Press, November 2013), redefines conventional ideas about where, when and how people go to work in the modern age.
In an email interview with BusinessNewsDaily, Jones explained the trends — like co-working, collaborative innovation and design thinking — affecting today's workforce, and offers important insight into how businesses can get ahead in the new age of work.
Business News Daily: How do you define the "Fifth Age of Work"?
Andrew Jones: I see the Fifth Age of Work as a world where people are mobile — both as freelancers and company employees — and work according to their own rhythms. This depends entirely on new forms of technology, but it also underscores a significant shift in cultural values. Millennials, particularly, do not want to work in the "social cages" of their predecessors.
The challenge for companies [in the Fifth Age] is to create work environments that enable a kind of choice, autonomy and authentic community. For independents, the challenge will be keeping a pipeline of projects that make independence possible.
What role does technology play in ushering in the Fifth Age?
Technology sits at the center of the equation. If we look back at the significance of technology in human evolution, it has always been a driver of cultural change — harnessing of fire, big game hunting, cooking food, domestication of plants and animals, etc. Computing and the Web — and now cloud computing — are ushering in shifts in modes of behavior and interaction that are redirecting the course of evolution. Things like cloud storage, always-on networks, smartphones, mobile commerce and global digital communities are currently redefining culture and cultural evolution. [4 Mobile Technologies That Will Change How You Do Business in 2014]
How is the co-working movement — a growing trend in the business community in recent years — representative of a shift in values regarding life and career?
Of course, this is a matter of personal opinion. I see it as a matter of choice, flexibility, authentic community and an opportunity for us to construct our work around our lives, as opposed to constructing our lives around our work. Each day, in co-working spaces around the world, the people working there choose to go there. They could have stayed at home, but they chose to be there because of all the reasons that make co-working so special — sociality, community, support, energy, vibe, help, collaboration, networking, etc.
As some of the many advocates of co-working have said before, you get all of the good stuff, without the bad stuff. This is the lesson that the corporate world will hopefully learn: how to create working environments where people choose to come in even when they don't have to.
What is "design thinking," broadly speaking? What are some ways that it can be applied as a business strategy or solution?
Design thinking is a process and methodology for bringing new things into the world. It is sometimes easiest to think of it in contrast to the "decision mode" of thinking people are taught in business school. Decision sciences say there is probably one best way to tackle a particular problem, and that the challenge is to gather all of the data and then figure out the probability of which course of action is best.
Design thinking, in contrast, starts with the assumption that you don't know which approach will be workable until you try them out. This is what Tim Brown, of design and consulting firm IDEO, calls "building to think," as opposed to thinking to build — that is, allow users to drive the process by understanding them in their natural habitat, empower them to co-create a product or strategy and then gather data on how it's going.
Design thinking is an iterative process, like software development, and the process never really ends. Decision science, on the other hand, assumes that you can work really hard to come up with a solution, and then the rest is execution. Design thinking is subversive, in that it takes much of the power out of the hands of senior managers and puts it into the hands of customers and line-level employees.
In addition to technology, you argue that the social contract surrounding work is also evolving. What does the new social contract for work look like? How is it different from the traditional employer-employee contract of decades past?
The traditional social contract was based on the idea that employees accept that they have little autonomy and input into the substance of work, and in exchange for that compliance, they get security. Long-term employment has kept workers docile for quite some time. However, as workers become more and more disposable and replaceable, the calculus has changed.
As I see it, the new challenge goes something like this. We now know that employment is tenuous and fleeting, so it is no longer (morally) acceptable to be quiet, compliant cube-dwellers with zero expectations of security. Rather, the relationship seems to be, "Look, I know that this is a short-term deal, and because of that, I demand that I do this work on my own terms. If you aren't loyal to me, I'm sure not going to be loyal to you."
The driving force behind many of today's most successful companies — Google, Nike, Amazon — is innovation. What are some of the strategies that such companies employ to promote innovation in the workplace?
With a few exceptions (Apple, for instance), most highly innovative firms — 3M, W.L. Gore, Southwest Airlines, Semco, for example — give their employees very long leashes. This usually means that there is relatively little hierarchy and that employees have considerable input into what's going on. These firms recognize that creative and profitable ideas, products, services and business models can come from anywhere, whether it's customers or low-level employees.
Firms that have mechanisms and processes for nurturing new businesses into the market can consistently rely on organic growth through innovation (see LinkedIn's new INcubator program and Virgin Group's internal VC group). Firms that still require extensive permission-granting and strict reporting rules talk about innovation but actively scupper it because they don't commit to establishing the requisite mechanisms.
In your opinion, is there a place in the future for companies that want to maintain the Fourth Age status quo? What do you believe will become of businesses that don't fall in line with Fifth Age values?
I think that some industrial and manufacturing businesses that don't rely very much on knowledge work will be quite able to remain within a Fourth Age framework. However, firms that are knowledge-intensive will require knowledge workers, and increasingly, that means millennials who have a whole new set of assumptions around when, where, with whom, and sometimes even why, they work.
What changes can both established companies and startups implement today so they don't get left behind in the Fourth Age?
Larger firms need to learn, via design thinking, that there is no single, simple answer for how to be innovative or open up the workplace to become a desirable place to work and build a career. As Intuit's Scott Cook says, the key is to build a culture of cheap, "quick experimentation that allows ideas to prove themselves." In other words, start trying things, and see what works.
Startups already understand this part of it. Sometimes — as I've experienced here at Conjunctured — what some startups need is a more comprehensive understanding of the economy and the broader canvas of management as a practice. There is often a "canine attention span" regarding the latest app, for example, and the viability of that app as a business is sometimes an afterthought. Maybe the two — established firms and startups — have much to teach each other.
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