Venn’s Adventures in the Future of Work

Read this post in: French

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at BPM Conference Portugal by Alberto Manuel, its chairman and delightful host. My talk focused on the inability for business processes to adequately address real world problems, either from a knowledge worker’s point of view, or from a customer’s point of view. In that sense, organizations, workers and customers live in different worlds, each with its own language, its own behaviors and expectations.

During a chat on the next day while waiting for our planes, Chris Potts, who delivered a brilliant presentation on enterprise architecture, made me a great suggestion: why not summarizing these three conceptions of work through a Venn diagram? This moment of truth made a long way into my thinking: what would be the best representation of business-as-a-Venn-diagram?

Representing the pre-industrial world of work is quite straightforward.

pre-industrial business

With the industrial revolution, the world of work, under the influence of key technologies and of fast growing corporations, transformed itself rapidly. These technologies allowed for unheard performance boosts, and for heavy rationalization of products and services. With the need -and will- to standardize the means of production, came the for standardizing work itself. Here is what organizations in a transactional world look like.

industrial age business

Today, the game has changed. In a world riddled with complexity and drowned in hyper-connectivity, shaken by the emergence of collaborative cultural and economic consumption patterns, this diagram is definitely outdated. Yet how do we represent the present world of work, fragmented by technology, torn between a leadership ideal and productive necessity? Have a look on how many of enterprise 2.0 and social business protagonists and thinkers represent the forces at work in today’s businesses.

outdated business

Problem is… this representation is definitely flawed, for at least two reasons.

Where is the customer gone?

This Peter Drucker’s quote couldn’t be enough repeated: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.” Customers aren’t only the purpose, but also the engine and the gas of organizations. The force behind most of the changes that organizations are facing today comes from the consumer world; not only have they now to cope with new consumption behaviors, but they more and more run the risk of being disrupted by their own customers. Whether they want it or not, customers are now organizations’ main stakeholder. If businesses don’t transform themselves, their customers will do without them; they are already creating new ways to make, share and consume.

Technology is not a subject, or rather not the one we think

Facilitating the adoption of new technologies and the emergence of work behaviors enabled by these technologies seems to be the lingua franca of transforming organizations. But let us step back for a while. Can we seriously admit, without challenging our assumptions, that the people who struggle to use collaborative platforms in the course of their work are the same who casually play with more computing power than what was available at NASA twenty years ago? I am not talking here of some happy fews, but of more than 1.7 billion smartphone owners, who routinely jump over the trough of disillusionment as over an annoying gutter. If technology has become such an important hurdle in the evolution of the business world, it might well be not because people struggle to adopt the behaviors we expect in an enabled workplace, but because we don’t provide them with the tools they really need.

The real topic related to technology lies at the interface between the company and its customers. Automatization has streamlined a myriad of transactional operations and, as more and more objects get connected – according to Gartner, the Internet of Things will grow to 26 billions connected objects by 2020 – most of these operations are taking place without human interaction, raising a new challenge for organizations.

Maintaining homogeneity in all these machine-to-machine interactions and providing the components for a transparent, seamless customer experience in a self-service world will become increasingly complex, leveraging the need for tightening authentic and meaningful conversations with customers. The heart of organizations doesn’t beat in their center, but at their boundaries. The necessary transformation they will have to undergo to thrive, or simply to survive, will take place at the interface between their structure, their people and their customers. If the future of work is a Venn diagram, here is what it looks like.

the future of work

If you are interested, here is my presentation from the BPM Conference.

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