All Edge: Understanding the New Workplace Networks

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I presented this talk to the Austin Chamber of Commerce in November 2013. How are new information and communication technologies enabling us to work together in new ways? I discuss some of the lessons …

I presented this talk to the Austin Chamber of Commerce in November 2013. How are new information and communication technologies enabling us to work together in new ways? I discuss some of the lessons from case studies I've conducted in Austin.

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  • Thanks for coming.
    I’m Clay Spinuzzi, professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin. And for over 15 years, I’ve been studying how people conduct knowledge work—that is, work that involves communicating, analyzing, solving problems, designing, and generally thinking about things. Those people have included software developers, traffic safety workers, telecommunications workers, Internet marketers, grant proposal writers, graphic designers, consultants, and entrepreneurs.
    Now, anyone who has spent much time with knowledge workers knows that they don’t work the way they used to. They are increasingly “always on,” reachable via smartphone. They often can work anywhere. They sometimes work at any time. And they increasingly collaborate with other people over telecommunications networks rather than face to face.
    That’s obvious. But, less obviously, we’re seeing some more fundamental transformations in how they work. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today—grounding my points in three case studies, here in Austin, that collectively tell us a lot about the future of work.
  • But first, a little about how I got here. When people hear that I’m a professor of rhetoric and writing, they usually ask: why are you looking at how people work? Shouldn’t you be analyzing speeches or something?
    But I’ve written three books (so far) and dozens of articles about what I’ve seen these knowledge workers doing in workplaces. My research involves going into a workplace, observing people as they work and interact, interviewing them, gathering copies of the texts and tools they use, and building a comprehensive picture of how they circulate information. And when you do that long enough, you start to see broad changes. Changes in how people communicate, collaborate, and cooperate. Changes that lead to bigger changes, changes in how they work and how they think about work.
  • We see those changes over and over in the news—we’re no longer surprised by them. Here’s one from yesterday. Dell wants to have half its employees working remotely by 2020. That would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. And it’s symptomatic of changes we’re seeing—it’s the tip of the iceberg, an indicator of big changes in how we work.
  • So work is changing. And I don’t mean in just the obvious ways: the fact that everyone now has a mobile phone in their pocket and a tablet in their bag, or that they can instantly pull information off the Internet, or that they’re more likely to Google for answers than open a software manual, or that they spend considerable and increasing amounts of time on social networking sites. I don’t mean simply that we can videoconference or that we can do our work on laptops in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and airports. Sure, these changes have all occurred, but they’re not the headline news. They’re not the fundamental change we’re facing.
    That fundamental change is in how we work together: how we communicate, coordinate, and collaborate; how we define our work, our projects, and our products; how we set our goals and objectives; how we manage our time; how we learn on and off the job; how we trust—and doubt—each other.
  • Think of these changes as related to communication, coordination, and collaboration.
    Communication = I mean the act of transferring information from one person or group to another—broadly speaking. (me talking to you)
    Coordination = the act of meshing our efforts with those of other people in the same or connected activities: ordering and integrating them so that they build on each other rather than conflicting. (we all got here for the event that was on the calendar)
    Cooperation = working with others toward a shared objective (attacking a problem together, as a team)
    Our capabilities to do all three have changed radically, especially over the last 40-odd years, as communication costs have dropped. For example, let’s imagine an ad agency that we visit in 1970, 1990, and 2010.
  • In 1970, this fictional ad agency would have been organized as a bureaucracy. People would be organized in departments and mostly interact with others in that department face-to-face. They have to communicate with other departments via their supervisor. And for good reason: it costs time and money to circulate information and commands. When that’s the case, people tend to organize their work in a bureaucratic hierarchy, which lets them limit the information they have to move around. Coordination and collaboration mostly happens within a department.
    Bureaucracies focus on efficiency (although we tend to focus on their inefficiencies): they’re relatively efficient at circulating information and commands. They’re set up to control, order, and predict work. And they have these features:
    Strong division of labor
    Narrow specializations
    Hierarchy and levels
    Command and control
    They LIMIT communication and make sure things happen predictably.
  • But bureaucracies limit innovations; they are unequal to “wicked problems”; and they create bottlenecks.
    That’s why cross-functional teams of specialists are sometimes needed for complex projects. In 1990, our fictional ad agency might pull together such a task force from across the organization, cutting across hierarchical levels and departments, in order to solve complex problems affecting the entire organization. By linking together different specialties and viewpoints, this task force could be more innovative in its work.
    Alvin Toffler described these cross-functional teams with the term “adhocracy.” Adhocracies are flexible and informal teams of specialists with rotating leadership, drawn from across the org. Their relationships were not hierarchical, but rather associational. They are oriented to the project, not the job. Their guiding principles are: not control, order, predict, but acknowledge, create, empower. And their characteristics are:
    Weak division of labor
    Teams of specialists crossing boundaries
    Rotating leadership
    Command, not control
    As communication costs continued to drop—as people got fax machines, desk phones, email, mobile phones, IM, videoconferencing, shared online spaces—institutional adhocracies flourished. But they accelerated another trend: companies continued to shed noncore assets, contracting out services that they used to keep in-house.
  • In fact, as we fast forward to 2010, we may find that certain people who work with the ad agency are no longer employees. A graphic designer, for instance, might work out of her home office, bidding on the agency’s jobs in the free parts of her day. The company loses the overhead, and she gains freedom, flexibility, and some creative control over her work.
    Like this ad agency, most companies have followed a path of downsizing and shedding noncore assets. Companies got leaner, meaner, more specialized. One yield: adhocracies without the bureaucratic structure. Think in terms of subcontractor networks, coworking spaces, flattened hierarchies. These are interorganizational by nature; Interdisciplinary by necessity; composed of alliances. We can call these “all-edge adhocracies”: temporary, project-oriented, enabled by inexpensive communication, leading to rapid coordination and cooperation.
    These have thrived in an era of downsizing and outsourcing due to a shift to a knowledge economy—knowledge is more transportable, meaning that specialists can be more mobile and autonomous. Their characteristics are:
    Weak division of labor
    Teams of specialists crossing boundaries
    Rotating leadership
    Command, not control
    A network of specialists.
  • As the previous slide suggests, AEAs have certain characteristics…
    Good for…
  • I’ve been studying AEAs in Austin for the past several years. Three case studies, which I’ll mention briefly to illustrate different aspects of AEAs.
  • Nonemployer firms.
    Think of NEFs as operating in a “pickup” economy in which people reach out through their personal networks to assemble today’s team of specialists, to find contractors, to be contracted. In my study, they would pick up a job, then subcontract for skill (other specialists: web developers, photo retouching, copywriting) and capacity (other graphic designers who can do work that the proprietors don’t have time or bandwidth to do).
    These all-edge adhocracies are small, light, flexible, mobile, and customized for each job.
    BUT the NEF has to look like a larger, more permanent organization in order to be trusted by clients. A juggling trick: the front stage, the back stage, the collaboration.
    CC, Ed Yourdon (yourdon), http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/3823194254/
  • We might visualize that juggling trick like this. The hexagons are organizations.
    The 3 objectives
    The black box
    The dashed line: sometimes a subcontractor came in contact with the client, but in a way that was stage-managed.
    Not a hierarchy. The work becomes more complex, with more stakeholders making contact. Managing the experience.
  • All-edge adhocracies are voluntary—you can’t force subcontractors to work with you, and even “firing” them doesn’t carry much weight, since they have other streams of income. So instead, they require networking.
    (go through these)
  • So how do they network? Increasingly, it’s through a third space. People without offices find themselves meeting and working in places like coffee shops. But coffee shops are noisy, unpredictable; you can’t get a table;
  • you can’t maintain confidentiality. You don’t know who else is there. You haven’t been able to develop trust. And you need a place where you can develop trust if you’re going to work effectively in an all-edge adhocracy.
  • From 2008-2011, I studied such spaces - coworking spaces in Austin. In these spaces, people work in relatively unstructured locations with unstructured schedules, share resources, form friendships, barter services, serve as tech support and emotional support for each other, subcontract each other, mentor each other, form businesses, and above all, network.
    In my study, I found that coworking in Austin formed two basic configurations.
  • First, the “Good neighbors” configuration:
    Individuals, usually client-facing, worked together to make the coworking space a good place to work. They did this by
    Providing a good “front stage” when clients came in to meet with their coworkers.
    Working in parallel
    Socializing
    Not stealing laptops (really!)
  • Next, the “good partners” configuration:
    Individuals and small businesses with a business-to-business focus. They looked for opportunities to build up partner relationships—they often thought of the coworking space as a pool of potential subcontractors with whom they could develop trust. When a project came in, they could build an all-edge adhocracy on the fly, cooperating to attack the project, then dispersing when it was done.
    But these two configurations weren’t separate.
  • In fact, each coworking space represented a mix of the two. And there were tensions in how each space handled these.
    Ex: dogs and beer
    So that’s the second study, coworking spaces. But are we mostly talking about individuals outside organizations? No—we’re seeing the same trends affect how people work even in orgs with bureaucracies and paychecks. Particularly orgs that have to be innovative, such as internet marketing companies. This brings us to the third case study.
  • What’s SEO? The definition is above. When people want information, they increasingly turn to Google and other search engines to get it. “White hat” SEO is a way to identify people’s queries and use legitimate techniques to make your site rank high in the search results.
    The thing is, SEO changes constantly: search engine algorithms and rules change constantly, other pages pop up to draw traffic, other SEO companies compete for eyeballs, news items distort the results, and new opportunities materialize with each new format. It’s a complex problem, requiring constant innovation.
  • Bear in mind that SEO is a customized service within a fast-changing space. Writing about Internet businesses, sociologist Manuel Castells emphasizes these characteristics of innovation, customization, and fast-paced production. And so does Stacy, the account manager quoted here. So Semoptco had to organize adhocratic teams to execute flexibly, to customize, and to innovate. It did that with internal networks- lots of them.
  • Project teams, consisting of an account manager and 1-2 specialists.
  • Apprenticeship teams, in which more experienced people mentored less experienced ones within their departments. These were not about commanding or assigning, these were about showing people the ropes. Halfway through my study, SEO apprenticeship teams were replaced by ...
  • Support teams, which focused on formally coordinating the work of SEO specialists. A senior specialist would coordinate with and mentor junior specialists - but coordination didn’t mean control, because the senior specialist did not function as a manager.
  • Then we have Functional teams: all people within each department. Departments maintained contact and shared general knowledge, such as new techniques, challenges, and tools they discovered. They told each other how the landscape of SEO changed.
  • Values teams were teams drawn across all departments to enact three general values of the company. They pulled people out of their specialties and put their general qualities to work on different company-wide challenges.
  • Finally, the Taco club: Otherwise unassociated people from different departments met on Wednesdays to eat breakfast tacos together - and to get to know each other.
  • These many teams or networks formed an aggregate network in which everyone knew everyone else and a little about their specialties or capabilities. They functioned in a nonsupervisory context, overlaying the existing department-based supervisory hierarchy. By enabling workers to form new associations on the fly, the aggregate networks allowed for flexible structures and loose organizations within the company. It’s like an incubator for adhocracies.
  • These networks sometimes have to reach beyond the org itself. Since specialists had to constantly customize their customers’ websites for different searches, they sometimes had to draw on resources outside the company to generate the best solution. For instance, Daria was working with a team that was trying to optimize a medical site aimed at doctors. What keywords would this kind of client search for? Daria didn’t know, but she knew how to find out: By probing her personal networks OUTSIDE the organization.
    This is where the institutional adhocracies sometimes extended into all-edge adhocracies—where they cross organizations to temporarily swarm a project.
    Really, this happens all the time: when you tweet a question to your followers, when you text a friend with specific expertise, when you get your spouse to edit your grant proposal. But when you lower the costs of communication, it becomes easier and easier to pull them together.
  • In each of these cases, all-edge adhocracies are organizational networks: (list)
    They’re different from bureaucratic hierarchies, with different strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.
  • Lessons we can learn. What makes these work? And what do we use them for?
    NOT for things that have to be done over and over, efficiently, with low tolerance for error (manufacturing, utilities). I don’t want a team-for-today in charge of my water supply!
    For innovation and complex, wicked problems.
  • To make sure they flourish, we have to support their strengths:
    Workplace structure: can network
    Physical infra: including mobile telecommunications networks, broadband Internet access, and mobile computing devices
    Service infra: slates of different services, including SMS, instant messaging, videoconferencing, social networking sites, publicly available online services, and email. These services often overlap and are used opportunistically to connect with different collaborators
    Collab infra: for loosely organized all-edge adhocracies, which extend beyond a particular enterprise, people need lightly managed or unmanaged collaborative infrastructure.
    Benefits infra: all-edge adhocracies have developed from the erosion of stable and predictable careers (Castells 2006, p.9) and from workers’ desire to “enjoy greater freedom, flex-time, or more opportunity to create” (p.10). But these benefits come with tradeoffs in terms of stability and earnings. Ex: group health insurance
    Self-structure: individuals who can structure their own tasks, activities, and interactions so that they can plan, create, and innovate on an agreed timeframe.
  • But they have weaknesses, which need to be shored up:
    Collab PM: AEAs are tactical; have trouble working strategically. Rotating leadership and allies can flake off. So: collaborative project management.
    Stage management: The constant mutual adjustment, rotating leadership, and handoffs among specialties can appear chaotic to clients. So all-edge adhocracies also need to deploy stage management skills, establishing and managing a front stage to their work so it can look more stable and reliable.
    Team management. Finally, all-edge adhocracies run on trust and need to manage threats to that trust. So members of these adhocracies actively manage their team members, frequently (if not continually) coordinating and negotiating the object that the team will pulse.
  • Think of all-edge adhocracies as a special tool in your organizational toolbox. It’s not enough for the tool to be good—it also has to be the right tool for the job. The best hammer in the world will still make a poor spatula. So how do we identify the right job for all-edge adhocracies?
    The right projects. All-edge adhocracies are custom-built for special projects: unique problems that require a custom, creative solution involving different specialties. This unique project is the common focus, the point of the swarm, and so it gives shape to the all-edge adhocracy. Like the solution, the all-edge adhocracy is custom-built. NOT operations, NOT strategic level. Projects that require innovative, agile, cross-functional teams.
    The right people. Similarly, all-edge adhocracies need the right people: independent-minded, self-directed, specialized, creative, entrepreneurial, and open to reaching out through informal networks that they’ve built. These people must also be willing and able to develop rapid trust through a shared, collaborative object in which they all have a stake (Adler 2001; Heckscher 2007, p.95). If the project doesn’t involve these sorts of people—especially if it’s not crossdisciplinary, if it doesn’t require a creative aspect, or if self-directed people aren’t available—the all-edge adhocracy simply won’t gel.
    The right combinations. Even if you have the right project and the right people, they need the right combinations in order for the all-edge adhocracy to excel. The all-edge adhocracy itself needs to be a unique combination of specialists that can establish interdependence for the duration of the project. This interdependence takes the place of more traditional forms of leverage, such as tribal affiliation, institutional authority, and market incentives, all of which are sharply limited in all-edge adhocracies. To create that interdependence, the project has to provide value to everyone involved—to meet the needs of everyone in the alliance.

Transcript

  • 1. All Edge: Understanding the New Workplace Networks Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin clay.spinuzzi@utexas.edu Twitter: @spinuzzi
  • 2. About me…
  • 3. The way we work is changing
  • 4. A shift in the “3 Cs” Communication, coordination, and collaboration Example: An ad agency •1970s: Bureaucracies •1990s: Adhocracies •2010s: All-edge adhocracies
  • 5. 1970’s bureaucracies
  • 6. 1990’s institutional adhocracies
  • 7. 2010’s all-edge adhocracies
  • 8. All-edge adhocracies Characteristics Good for •Project-oriented •Agile •Innovative •Allied •Decentralized •Autonomous •Swarming complex projects (not the long grind) •Tactical maneuvers (not strategic direction) •Innovation (not repeated, reliable outcomes with tight tolerances)
  • 9. Three case studies of all-edge adhocracies
  • 10. All-edge adhocracies • Nonemployer firms, who pull together subcontractor networks to swarm projects. • Coworking spaces, where all-edge adhocracies can form and recombine. • Workplace adhocracies in high-tech industries such as SEO, which often extend beyond the bounds of the workplace.
  • 11. All-edge adhocracies require networking • Associative links, not hierarchical links • Cross-specialization (for capacity) • Trust • Coordination • Flexibility These aims are not currently well supported in offices—at work or at home.
  • 12. Coworking • “Coworking is the social gathering of a group of people, who are still working independently, but who share values and who are interested in the synergy that can happen from working with talented people in the same space.” (Wikipedia)
  • 13. The “Good Neighbors” Configuration
  • 14. The “Good Partners” Configuration
  • 15. Spaces represented a mix
  • 16. Search Engine Optimization “Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume or quality of traffic to a web site or a web page (such as a blog) from search engines via ‘natural’ or un-paid (‘organic’ or ‘algorithmic’) search results ...” (Wikipedia)
  • 17. Flexibility through Constant Customization “Innovation is the primordial function” (Castells 2003, p.100) “The Internet is the essential tool to ensure customization in a context of high-volume production and distribution” (Castells 2003, p.77) “[Projects are] all very different” (Stacy, Account Manager)
  • 18. Project teams
  • 19. Apprenticeship teams
  • 20. Support teams Project teams
  • 21. Functional teams Project teams
  • 22. Values teams Project teams
  • 23. Taco clubteams Project
  • 24. Aggregate networks Project teams
  • 25. Extending the network “I’ve got friends in med school.” (Daria, Senior Search Specialist)
  • 26. All-edge adhocracies are organizational networks • Flat structure • Changing composition • Flexibility • Adaptability
  • 27. How do we support all-edge adhocracies?
  • 28. Supporting strengths • Workplace structure • Physical infrastructure • Service infrastructure • Collaborative infrastructure • Benefits infrastructure • Self-structure
  • 29. Shoring up weaknesses • Collaborative project management • Stage management • Team management
  • 30. Realizing the potential • The right projects • The right people • The right combinations
  • 31. Questions?