The Future of Work

The Future Of Work

[Tl;Dr: Most people, and in particular managers, have yet to realise the nature of work has fundamentally changed, and that the old ways are catastrophic for collaborative knowledge work.]

I love living in the future. Folks think differently there. I find I’ve spent my entire career some 5-20 years ahead of the mainstream. That can be frustrating, of course. But honestly, I’d have it no other way.

Aside from a bunch of technology and business ideas – some implemented, some not – I’ve seen hundreds of organisations close up and personal. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the question “why is software development so broken, just about everywhere?”. In my journeys through these organisations, I’ve looked for clues which might furnish some kind of answer.

My sleuthing to date has led me to the hypothesis that most folks are unaware of a couple of things:

  • Software development work is not like classical “work” – it’s something new, something different.
  • It’s not irredeemably broken. Some very few organisations are quite effective at it.
  • Our most widespread mental models of work are catastrophically incompatible with this “new work”.

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the MANUAL WORKER in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of KNOWLEDGE WORK and the KNOWLEDGE WORKER.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

It’s clear to me that the future of work is what Drucker called “knowledge work”. More specifically, collaborative knowledge work.

“What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of ‘non-routine’ problem-solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent and creative thinking.”

~ Reinhardt et al., 2011.

And what differentiates collaborative knowledge work is the involvement of some number – greater than one – of agents (read: people) involved together in tackling any given task. We may cling to the image of the lone mad scientist, but today the nature of the challenges we face as a species demand groups or teams of people working together.

The Robots Are Coming

Why is collaborative knowledge work the future of work? Because other forms of work – manual labour; repetitive, routine tasks, etc. – will become more and more the domain of the robots. Sure, that may yet take some time to happen. But the writing’s on the wall. And writ larger every day. Maybe one day Artificial Intelligence will be able to out-perform people even in non-routine, highly variable and intuitive tasks, too. Maybe AI-driven robots will become at least as – if not more – “human” (read: humane) companions and social collaborators than people. But that day, if and when it comes, is much further off. And distant not least because most of the work in making it happen is collaborative knowledge work and we’re just not doing very well at that, as a species (yet).

Still Living in the Past

Most organisations, and the people working in them, have a mental model of work dating back to the late nineteenth century. A model predicated on the coordination and oversight of a largely illiterate and uneducated workforce. A workforce mostly engaged in repetitive, routine manual, manufacturing, clerical or administrative tasks. The modern workforce has changed out of all recognition. Organisations and their methods patently have not.


And not only has the nature of the workforce undergone a sea change. So have folks’ expectations. A basic “living” is becoming ever less attractive to people. Especially in the relatively privileged West. People are looking for more from a job. More meaning. More self-determination. More opportunities to “discover themselves” and become all they can be. And the role of organisations in our societies is ever more closely scrutinised and challenged. “Productivity” for its own sake – or simply for the sake of making the rich richer – is no longer something that folks regard as unequivocally desirable. These are all trends that are not going away.

Maybe, in time, the whole concept of a “job” or working for a living will find itself consigned to the trashcan of history. Switzerland is already exploring some of the implications of this possibility, such as a guaranteed basic income for all citizens.

But for the immediate future, we work. So it seems to me that finding ways to make that a more convivial experience for all, makes some kind of sense. Not that we humans are very rational animals.

The Future Is Bright

People can change. Organisations can change. Not yet perhaps in large numbers, and not each, overnight. But slowly, by degrees. Most organisations today are still woefully ineffective in their approach to collaborative knowledge work. Hamstrung by wholly unsuitable mental models of work from the past, they hobble along doing the best they can under their burden of their outmoded assumptions.

But there are some few organisations that have transcended this toxic inheritance, and found ways to be much more effective – and to be much nicer places to work, too:

The Rightshifting Chart (click to enlarge)

Few, indeed. But a few more, every day. There’s no reason why organisations have to be as lame as they are today, excepting our human fallibilities and lack of imagination.

It’s All Hidden

One key reason this state of affairs has come to pass is the very opacity of collaborative knowledge work. Observers (e.g. managers) not directly involved in the work have little visibility into what’s actually going on. And the ubiquity of collaborative knowledge work, like the situation of the metaphorical frog in slowly heated water, has come about barely imperceptibly, over many decades. Long enough that most folks have not (yet) noticed that the very nature of work has fundamentally changed.

“In the knowledge society the most probable assumption – and certainly the assumption on which all organisations have to conduct their affairs – is that they need the knowledge worker far more than the knowledge worker needs them.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

What We Might Learn

To paraphrase Betrand Russell:

“Most organisations would die sooner than understand knowledge work – in fact they do so.”

Is this wilful ignorance? I don’t see it that way. Rather, I see it as folks trying to get their needs met, through strategies familiar to them, without an awareness of – and confidence in – other strategies which could get those same needs met much more effectively. Their current strategies, predicated as they so often are on outmoded and inherited assumptions, are what leads to ineffective behaviours and disappointing outcomes.

The competition between Theory X and Theory Y (McGregor) is just one example of two strategies that different folks choose to get their needs met.

For those who are willing to consider alternative strategies for getting their needs met, and e.g. learn about collaborative knowledge work – what it is, the climate in which it thrives, etc. – what might they find? Here’s my list:

  • Cognitive function is a fragile thing, yet central to effective knowledge work (cf. Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
  • Skilful social interactions – and especially dialogue – are central to collaborative knowledge work (cf. Idea Flow – Pentland)
  • Power structures by their very nature are toxic to collaborative knowledge work
  • People like to work, are creative, seek responsibility and can self-direct and self-coordinate (cf. Theory Y – McGregor)
  • Mutual joy is the strongest – and naturally occurring – form of human motivation (cf. Nonviolence – Rosenberg)
  • Free play brings profound benefits (cf. Psychology – Scott G. Eberle, Stuart Brown, et al.)
  • Environment matters. Both the physical working environment and the “collaborative climate”. (Cf. Peopleware – DeMarco & Lister)
  • Intrinsic motivation is all – extrinsic, a non-starter (cf. Drive – Dan Pink)
  • 95% of folks’ relative contribution is a function of the way the work works (cf. Deming)
  • Even the best, most engaged and talented workers can be defeated by “the way the work works”.

“Extrinsic reward systems have seven deadly flaws. They can undermine performance, creativity, good behaviour and intrinsic motivation, as well as encouraging short termism, unethical behaviour and become addictive.”

~ Dan Pink

Lots of people ask me “I’m not a senior manager or exec – what can I possibly do to contribute in some way to changing things for the better?”. Maybe one way forward is to empathise with how senior managers are, like everyone else, trying to get their needs met, but with outdated and unsuited strategies – and offer to introduce them to some new ideas.

– Bob

Further Reading

Management Challenges for the 21st Century ~ Peter F. Drucker
The Robots Are Coming ~ Gavin Kelly
The Importance of Play For Adults ~ Margarita Tartakovsky
Closing the Individual Productivity Gap: Putting First Things First ~ Franklin Covey (pdf)
Collaborative Climate and Effectiveness of Knowledge Work – an Empirical Study (pdf)
Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards ~ Jo Ann Sweeney

(See also comments, below.)



  1. Question: what do we do with all of those people who are neither interested nor suited for knowledge work? What happens when we have a horde of unemployable people because their skills, experiences and interests have been rendered obsolete by automation?

    I think the future’s a little more grim than you realize, taking into account the mass of humanity that’s going to be left out of the economy simply because they’re not white collar.

    • I do not accept your premises:

      Folks who want routine, hum-drum work will still be able to find it, albeit at low wages (not much change there).

      To propose that some folks are unsuited to “knowledge work” does them a disservice, and fails to grasp the huge variety of work that falls under the rubric of “knowledge work”. That some folks have had the will to learn sucked out of them by the present education system is no reflection on them.

      Many of my friends have what some might call “blue collar” jobs – and most of them spend at least 80% of their time doing knowledge-work work, nevertheless.

      And many so-called “white-collar” jobs will nevertheless disappear – because they mainly involve repetitive, routine tasks.

      I believe the future is brighter than your pessimism would allow. I’m acting to make it happen – how about you?

      – Bob

  2. Hi Bob. I enjoyed this post very much thanks, particularly your closing comment. I think too often we seek to divide unhelpfully – ‘It would all be fine if only they *gestures upstairs* would do something’. How do we know that? When did we last ask? It starts with me and you, not them. As I read the post I kept thinking of the very excellent Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I think it would make a great addition to the further reading list. Here’s a link to more info.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: