Networks are the future

Are networks the future of our work? Will traditional corporate companies disappear? Are information technology and connectedness the drivers of nowaday’s changes? And what is the role of young millennials and digital-natives?

Paul Manson wrote almost a year ago: “Without us noticing, we are entering the post-capitalist era. At the heart of further change to come is information technology, new ways of working and the sharing economy. The old ways will take a long while to disappear, but it’s time to be utopian. Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated.” It is like Lynda Gratton wrote in 2011 in “The Sift: The future of work is already here”. We live in a time of transition. We are shifting from the industrial era with focus on productivity, efficiency and knowledge-scarcity towards a knowledge-based era focused on creativity, connectivity and transparency. It is what Peter Drucker mentioned already in 1992 in “The New Society of Organizations“: “In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranges itself – its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions. Our age is such a period of transformation.”

Small and agile
In 2011 I started writing about the new way of working, and new forms of cooperations and network organisations. I quote from an article of 2011: “More and more fluid organisations will arise with ways of cooperation and networks grouped around (temporary) themes and issues. Necessary skills for the ‘future’ employee are: adaptability, showing courage, daring to make errors, and coping with uncertainty. And also qualities such as communication, listening to colleagues and customers, and showing interest in the market and society.”

To be honest, I expected that the number of network organisations would grow, and that within 5 years, so in 2016, this type of working would be acknowledged and have proven its value within the traditional boardroom. Many others were expecting this transition as well. Like Esko Kilpi who counterparts Coase’s theory in “The Future of Firms” with the words: “If the (transaction) costs of exchanging value in the society at large go down drastically as is happening today, the form and logic of economic and organizational entities necessarily need to change! The core firm should now be small and agile, with a large network.”

Yes, we do find networks inside companies, like at ING where there are ladies-only, gay and lesbian networks, and one for young professionals. But these networks are based on similarity – consisting of employees of the same bank – and not on diversity.


Work 1.0: flexible working
What has entered the boardroom is the understanding of people’s needs regarding work-life balance and workplace flexibility. A pioneer in the Netherlands was Interpolis, who worked closely with Veldhoen+Company in 1996. The new office in Tilburg had a sharing ratio of 10 people to 8 workspaces (1.25). This was the first stage of the transformation towards a network organisation: Work 1.0: flexible working. It is mainly a tech-driven change, which makes it possible to work from a distance, but the organisational structure and the way of cooperating almost remain the same. As this change also has impact on the office space, I visited the new Microsoft office in the Netherlands, a few years ago. Just like in the Interpolis office, I found not only a tech-driven office design, but also areas in which people could work alone (concentration areas), have creative sessions (brainstorm areas), and other areas to serve the modern knowledge worker.

Work 2.0: optimal working
The real change inside companies starts with a cultural change. I call that Work 2.0: optimal working. This is a people-driven change, and for this change, inspirational leadership is needed. It is a switch from compliance (control) to engagement (trust). Connecting employees’ jobs with a cause, the purpose of the company, to serve the customer and better society. The empowerment of knowledge workers – who can be anyone outside or inside a company – is the answer to solve complex problems in nowadays society. Sharing complex knowledge and ideating for solutions requires strong interpersonal relationships. Companies need to enable interpersonal relations and innovative connections by opening up their “company borders”. Those connected organisations are less hierarchical and maintain strong networks with clients, suppliers, freelancers and others

To understand the importance of connected individuals and successful (innovative) groups, it is interesting to look at the results of Google’s internal research and two important internal projects: Oxygen and Aristotle.

In the Netherlands almost 10% of the working class is a freelancer (the so called “ZZP”). Although I do see networks arise between freelance knowledge owners, the majority of them works for themselves. They do meet at great co-working places, such as Seats2Meet, Betahaus or WeWork, but these do not have the status yet of ‘the new organisations’. Here in Spain I see the difficulty for people to become a freelancer. But despite obstacles such as in Spain, the number of freelancers is growing. And in order to be successful they need to connect and organize, to form networks. I do believe that these networks are the new organisations. Take a look at digital natives, and you realize: it is all about connections. The digital social media they use to interact with others are at the same time meant to connect and network with others. Generations Y and Z not only are the most connected and critical consumers, they also strongly influence the future way of working. The shift from ownership into access is also visible in the way they are looking at work: as projects on which they consciously but temporarily want to work.

Work 3.0: innovative networking
The key to solving problems and finding innovative solutions is successful networking. The more diverse the network is, the better. Fresh or foreign blood also helps to find new ideas. That is why an organically changing network (with a small and agile core group) will be more effective than a large, non-changing corporate organisation. The network can adapt more easily to the changing needs of clients and society. End-users and clients play a crucial role in the innovation process for solving the problem. An example: if Andrélon would have been an innovative agile small group of users and non-users, there wouldn’t be over 40 types of shampoo, but just one or two good ones.

Maybe it is time to stop using the word ’job’. We are all solving problems for the benefit of a small or larger group of users, by listening, finding out, testing, making mistakes, improving, and designing. Focussing on the same cause.

We are in this together. Creating added value, being valuable. How do we do that? By teaming up and switching roles, depending on the problem to be solved. Sometimes by being the leader, sometimes by being the researcher. In traditional companies it is not very common that employees have flexible roles and assignments. But if we change from flexible working to innovative networking we will all become problem-solvers, prosumers, or whatever word you want to use.

I would like to end up with Paul Manson: “Today the whole of society is a factory. We all participate in the creation and recreation of the brands, norms and institutions that surround us. At the same time the communication grids vital for everyday work and profit are buzzing with shared knowledge and discontent. Today it is the network that they “cannot silence or disperse”.”

Blog by: Inge Keizer – Spargle associate