Recent work we have done in partnership with Forum for the Future has highlighted three areas in particular that stand out – and really interesting things are happening where they converge. We call these areas the ‘un’-organisation, the hybrid organisation and the intergenerational organisation.
The ‘un’-organisation is about the new forms of organisation emerging in an increasingly networked world where you can work from anywhere with an internet connection. Businesses can increasingly connect to talent rather than ‘owning’ it, and flatter organisational structures are emerging that enable quicker decision-making, more self-direction and faster innovation.
Many companies are experimenting with reducing hierarchy or discarding it altogether, and the ‘gig economy’ is spreading into knowledge work. For example, the start-up Smarties offers access to a ‘virtual, scalable, on-demand workforce of hundreds of the smartest young people on the planet’.
The hybrid organisation is about the integration of autonomous systems and machine intelligence in the workplace, alongside humans. This sounds like something far-off, but algorithms are already being used to aid legal work, journalism, and recruitment and to expand human capability. Management processes in particular can now be codified and then run efficiently by machines, raising the prospect of the unexpected reversal of the human-machine relationship and the rise of the ‘robo-boss’ or even ‘self-driving companies’ run by autonomous systems which employ humans. Gartner has made the disconcerting prediction that more than 3 million people will be supervised by a ‘robo-boss’ by 2018.
The intergenerational organisation is about the simple fact that by 2020 it will be common to have as many as four or even five generations working alongside each other, each with different needs and expectations. Millennials’ values will come to dominate the business mainstream and the proportion of the workforce over 50 will soar to around a third in developed economies such as the UK, necessitating age-inclusive strategies at massive scale. Millennials are already reshaping the world of work in their image by driving growth in social enterprises, B-corps and Benefit corporations – and experimenting with new forms of corporate organisations such as The DAO, a leaderless, blockchain-based, decentralised organisation.
Each of these themes is fascinating in itself, but where they overlap, it is clear that there are significant opportunities and challenges, particularly from a sustainability angle. The convergence of distributed organisation models with a globalised knowledge sector, autonomous systems and radically different expectations of the world of work points to a rapidity of change that society and traditional institutions may find it hard to keep up with. A number of pressing questions emerged from our project workshops, namely:
- How can we organise to adapt for change?
- What does it mean to move to more fluid work patterns, for people, skills, and the technology to support them?
- How can we keep humans at the centre – so that technology serves humans rather than vice versa – and helps us to be more human at work rather than more machine-like?
Over the next few weeks we will explore these themes and questions in more detail, and use prototype concepts to illuminate some of the possibilities for the organisations and workers of the near future.