In the past century we have mastered the art of corporate organization — the art of organizing people and resources for the ultimate goal of maximizing shareholder profits. Along the way, we developed a host of management theories and practices that have become bibles to generations of working men and women.
The corporate culture we created spread well beyond the business realm. In his forthcoming book “Life Inc.,— media expert Douglas Rushkoff points out that corporatism has permeated our culture, language, philanthropic organizations, schools and media. It is how we’ve come to think about getting things done. We almost cannot conceive of a world without hierarchical organiza-
tional charts, mission statements, bounded departments, and clear sets of corporate rules and incentives.
All of this is about to change. You can think of the next decade as a decade of experimentation with new ways of organizing our society, including our economic and business activities. Beginnings of new organizational shapes already abound — from Wikipedia to volunteers taking over customer-support services for organizations. Turns out that being helpful to others can be its own reward.
It is perilous to predict what all the varieties of forms will be or whether we will converge into one dominant one. However, we can already see signs pointing to big shifts in how we will organize and think about work:
Emergence of Ecological/Epidemiological View of Markets and Behaviors. Recently, scientists have begun to apply an epidemiological lens to many social phenomena, such as happiness, obesity, criminality, health behaviors and others. Turns out that what we have traditionally seen as individual behaviors are shaped by others.
Not that we didn’t know this before. But now with diffusion of sensing and mobile computing tools we can support this view with much more data and use it to help us unearth complex patterns that were previously invisible. In fact, we are making the invisible visible through use of data.
Recently the governor of the Bank of England has brought in Lord Robert May, prominent zoologist and former chief scientific adviser to the government, to brainstorm about what lessons from the animal kingdom can apply to the banking system. Specifically, the bank is extending the lessons of fishery ecosystems, with its rich ecology of plant and aquatic species, to banks. Similar to fisheries, the banking system is best understood as an ecosystem with unique environmental contexts and a rich variety of actors.
Understanding the larger ecosystem is required for informed decision-making in the business sector. Prepare for the next generation of organizational and industry consultants to come equipped not with MBAs but with graduate degrees in sciences as diverse as zoology, biology, ecology and others focusing on complex interdependences of actors and resources.
Rise of Amplified Individuals. Two years ago, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was ... “You.— You, the individual, Time proclaimed, were in the driver’s seat as a creator and consumer of products, services and ideas. The story was right but only partially so. We are not talking about the powerful individual operating on his/her own. Amplified individual power derives from his connections to the collective resources and collective intelligence of multitudes of others. It is this ability to connect to their knowledge, tap into their resources and rally them when needed that amplifies individuals’ power and gives them unprecedented ability to bypass traditional organizational structures and boundaries.
Journalist Roxana Saberi’s fast in protest of her sentence in Iran would never have achieved the same level of impact if not for hundreds of people organizing on Twitter and other social networking sites to fast along with her. Her connection to these strangers is what ultimately amplified her plight.
Instead of fearing the power of amplified individuals, organizations have the opportunity to amplify themselves by tapping into amplified individuals’ skills and resources. It may be time to think of assessing your employees on the metric we at the Institute for the Future have come to call the “Network Intelligence Index— — the ability to access and use resources of the larger network to amplify one’s individual and, ultimately, larger network abilities.
Focus on Engagement. How do you get thousands of people to do things for free simply because the task is so absorbing, so satisfying, that they can’t stop? We see examples of this every day — people sharing links and ideas on Twitter, contributing Wikipedia entries and edits, offering reviews on Yelp, and spending hours playing online video games. My colleague Jane McGonigal, renowned game researcher and designer, calls this retreat from reality. But rather than blaming people for spending time on useless pursuits, ask yourself what is it that these platforms and worlds offer people that you don’t? And how can you harness this kind of engagement for the benefit of your project?
It is not surprising that so many organizations are now looking at gaming as a means of engaging their employees and collaborators. We are at the early stages of understanding the neurological basis of happiness and engagement — states often attained while playing either physical or video games. So much of our organizational practices and processes, however, have been based on simplistic carrot-and-stick approaches. In the next decade, much greater understanding of the human brain and principles of engagement will make us rewrite many of our management books and manuals. Do not be surprised to find many more neuroscientists and game designers among the human resource professionals.
So don’t wait for the new management books to come to the bookstore. We are writing these as we speak. Instead engage in experimentation today. Look at new organizations, new kinds of projects harnessing mass collaboration and collective intelligence of amplified individuals (many of these outside traditional organizational structures), understand deeper transformations they embody, and apply the lessons to your own organization.
Marina Gorbis is president of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.