Wednesday, December 29, 2010

21st Century Workplace Challenges

The paragraph below taken from Harold Jarche’s post Success depends on who we work with reminded me of a post I had written some time back, the Molotov cocktail = Weak ties x complicated knowledge. I have pasted the quote below:

1. Uzzi found that teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties.  
2. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together. 

In between, however, Uzzi once again found a sweet spot that combines the diversity of new team members with the stability of previously formed relationship. The networks that best exhibited the small-world property were those that had the greatest success.

I have split the quotation above into two parts (the numbers are my inserts and not a part of the original quote), which I have discussed below.

Part 1: My take

The first part talks about the difficulty of sharing with those with whom one has weak ties. This has been extensively discussed by Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. My Kindle highlights from the book are here. I have quoted some of these related to the topic at hand below:
  • People find it hard to transfer knowledge when they don't know each other well (a weak tie). They need strong ties-relationships where people talk often and have a close working association.
  • Weak ties create havoc when people need to transfer tacit knowledge.
This combination of weak ties with complicated, tacit knowledge is what Morten Hansen describes as the Molotov Cocktail, and this forms one of the 4 barriers to collaboration among decentralized units. Given that today’s workplaces have more and more decentralized units combined with a rapidly growing business need to share tacit, complex knowledge, knowledge management and social tools need to be built into the fabric and DNA of today’s organization such that weak ties can be converted into strong ones.

Part 2: My take

However, a team of closely knit individuals—dispersed or co-located—are likely to lack diversity of thought. This happens partly because of our tendency towards homophily, which leads to the “birds of a feather” syndrome. Therefore, in this case, although the ties are likely to be strong creating the necessary condition for tacit knowledge transfer, this sharing does not very often lead to innovative problem-solving. What is required is diversity! Scott E. Page in his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies talks about the importance of diversity extensively. You can see my Kindle highlights from the book here. I have quoted some of the more relevant passages below:
  • Two fundamental changes have led to this directional shift: the business world has become more global (and therefore more aware of ethnic diversity) and the practice of work has become more team focused.
  • Diversity is a property of a collection of people-a basket with many kinds of fruit.
  • We should look at difference as something that can improve performance, not as something that we have to be concerned about so that we don't get sued.
  • For diverse groups to function in practice, the people in them must get along. If not, the cognitive differences between then may be little more than disconnected silos of ideas and thoughts.
  • By diversity, I mean cognitive differences.
How do the quotes from the two books tie in with what is required in the 21st Century workplace?
Before that, we need to examine what are some of the characteristics of today’s workplace, especially those that depend on knowledge workers for success.

My understanding of today’s workplace:

  1. Predictable, routine tasks are being either automated or outsourced, or soon will be.
  2. Knowledge workers are increasingly taking more responsibility for their work as well as personal growth.
  3. Hierarchy is being replaced by wirearchy.
  4. Managers are being replaced by leaders, coaches, and facilitators, or will be.
  5. The kinds of work being done are those that defy being codified into step-lists or guidelines.
  6. The problems are complex—often chaotic—and resist solving using best practices of yore.
  7. Ambiguity, complexity and chaos are replacing the predictable, known, and simple.
  8. The competitive edge is the ability to problem solve quickly and innovatively.
  9. The day of individual stars are past; it is time for collaborative team work.
  10. Routine expertise, based on set skills and crystallized intelligence, is being superseded by a need for more adaptive expertise and fluid intelligence. 
Given this situation, it is clear that some of the following are needed to build a workplace that innovates—in other words—a learning organization:
  1. An environment that fosters and facilitates collaboration
  2. Safe setting that encourages exploration and learning from mistakes
  3. An environment that supports questing dispositions and applauds risk taking
  4. Opportunities for workers to connect with others from different departments and teams (which will bring in the much-needed cognitive diversity and build strong ties across diverse disciplines)
  5. Implementation of social media and tools that will allow people to find relevant experts, connect with whoever they need to, and freely share knowledge, insights and information.

Gary Hamel summarizes it thus:
  • Industrial Economy was based on physical capital
  • Information Economy was based on information
  • Creative Economy is based on ideas 
Employees with these traits are best positioned to help their companies – and themselves – in the Creative Economy:
·         Initiative: Seeing opportunities to try something new, and actually following up on them. This is a marked contrast to the obedience trait.
·         Creativity: Designing something different than what exists currently, be it business, product or process. Contrast creativity with intellect. Creativity is less bound to the rigors of logic and proof, more responsive to our individual yearning for things that are new.
·         Passion: Our internal engines provide the fuel that spurs us to action. We pursue something because it answers an internal calling. Contrast this with diligence, which is the application of one’s mind and efforts to a task or project. Diligence is a more mechanical effort, passion is an emotional one.


  1. My current research supports your list with the exception of the managers being replaced by leaders, coaches, and facilitators. The designation of manager is political within an organization's power structure. This power structure is something that will not go away (although those in power or the basis of power may change; ie those who are network hubs or who hold creative problem solving abilities may become more important rather than those with "expertise" or political organizational knowledge. Also the switch from manufacturing units having power to those whose function are knowledge based such as customer service or logistics).

  2. Thank you for the comment.
    The point you have made about the switch from manufacturing units to more knowledge-based services is very interesting. This shows the shift that has happened and is happening from a manufacturing/industrial era to a more concept age very clearly.
    I do agree that the designation of manager is a very political/org specific one and power structure will perhaps not go away. The basis will change.
    This is what Daniel Pink says in A Whole New Mind...
    I can see some of this happening in the organization where I work. Creative problem solving abilities are not only being rewarded but also becoming a necessity. Thus, people with such abilities are gradually taking the front seat.
    I look forward to your inputs. I always find them stimulating and insightful.


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