When printing press technology was diffused through Europe, adult literature preceded academic journals by a full century. Observers could easily dismiss the invention, point to the trivial, and begin the centuries-long tradition of lamenting the decline of letter-writing.
Clay Shirky uses that example to highlight the temporary chaos that ensues after innovation, and the impossibility of predicting the true long-term impact. That was the 17th century. It was also true in the 13th: “Sit down and be quiet. You are drunk, and this is the edge of the roof.” (Rumi)
And it is true now, for innovation in the world of management: “We are aware that business has become terribly complex… We know that the intelligence of a few technocrats – even very bright ones – has become totally inadequate to face these challenges. Only the intellects of all employees can permit a company to live with.. the new environment.” (Konosuke Matsushita)
But wait. That’s not now. That’s a twenty year-old quote.
Dan Pink made the bestseller list with Drive in 2009, channeling Matsushita about the importance of decentralization and empowering employees with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 2009? It was based largely on Edward Deci’s Self-Determination Theory research from almost thirty years ago. How is that insight still bestselling?
We gave up making widgets a long time ago – Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’ in 1959 – and we’ve learned amazing things about people and organizations. But our management systems cling to their widget-making roots. Management, writ large; I am not impugning public administrators in particular. A study of New York Stock Exchange corporations found that even though they rated certain employment relation practices (flexible workstyles, formal training, job rotation, etc.) as very or somewhat successful, they didn’t do them. It’s time to stop pretending that we’re still in the uncertain post-industrial chaos phase for how organizations run.
Why? Because if we can take action that creates value, and we don’t, it’s the same as burning money. Piles of it.
One example: the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors found that offering flexible workstyles reduced absenteeism by 2.5 days per year – for every 90 employees, a year of work. If you run that through the Canadian Public Service’s population and average costs, the figure comes out around $330M – either gained in productivity, or saved in staffing costs. And that ignores benefits from engagement, recruitment, and retention.
So what holds us back? We built organizations around offices, for the sake of access to equipment, typing pools, and paper documents in transit. That has all changed; it’s our management paradigms. 30 years after Deci’s research, a decade after Jetblue demonstrated 25% productivity gains with reservation agents working from home, I still catch “But how would I know if my employees are working?” comments in the wild.
The post-widget world is messier, more complex, and won’t always be comfortable. Monopolies on information and access will disappear. It requires massive amounts of trust – but trust that, research increasingly proves, will be respected and returned. This isn’t idealistic or fringe thinking. And it is well understood why we don’t adjust rapidly. But we must, and the sooner the better.
Some days I feel as though the pivot point must be imminent, but it is not. It’s easy to imagine chugging along, making widgets in a widgetless world with incalculably excessive costs, for another half century. Leaving the chaos of management innovation unaddressed, hamstrung for dealing with every other wake of chaos as the world continuously reinvents itself.