A tech revolution that changes the way we organize work & the danger of digital serfdom

The old style company, that is the company circa 1880-2000, had firm boundaries and fixed hierarchies in order to function efficiently. But with the advent of digital technology and the consumer social computing revolution there is a seismic shift in how technology is used within companies. There are also significant changes in worker expectations and, as a corollary, companies are changing their demands upon workers. Huge power shifts are underway and it is important that we start analyzing them now.

The Past

The technology that enabled communication and control of large and dispersed groups of workers was inefficient and required supplementation by human resources in the form a supervisory and managerial hierarchy. Computer resources were initially tightly held by a few individuals within an organisation due to their high capital cost to acquire. And companies had access to much better technology resources than the average individual could ever hope to acquire.

For example, in 1956 a 5MB hard drive from IBM cost US$50,000, and in 1981 a 5MB Apple hard drive cost US$3,500. At prices like these the average person had little opportunity to acquire such technology.

It was this technology asymmetry that also contributed to the non-porous boundaries of the firm. Information stayed inside the firm and was not easy to share. Instead companies were in charge of their information and shared it only on their own terms. And usually that sharing of information occurred through bought or earned media and through ‘official’ news media channels.

The Present and Near Future

Today companies are grappling with the huge shifts in communications. Newspapers and other news media no longer hold the preeminent position they once held. Corporate communications are no longer about faxing out a press release.  Companies are developing their owned media resources and learning to use the diverse earned media opportunities available now via the internet.

Increasingly companies are requiring workers to develop their own social media and social networking personas on behalf of the company.   Also workers are being required to manage corporate social media channels as part of their jobs.  One challenge with this shift in work to social media channels is that they often need tending 24×7. Thus other workers are beginning to feel the operational demands of 24x7x365 operations that those of us in the IT department have felt for many years now.

Another shift is the control over technology within an organisation. In the past centralized control of technology resources was easy due to high cost and complexity to implement. But now with cloud computing as a commoditized service we see the real risk that other departments can go around centralized procurement and IT to implement whatever takes their fancy.

Gartner has just released their vision for 2012 and note that in 2012 we can expect more cloud and consumerization, less IT control.

Increasingly we are seeing workers bringing their own technology into the workplace – smart phones, tablets, and social computing. And articles directed at CIOs are saying: IT’s future: Bring your own PC-tablet-phone to work.

Thus we are at the beginning of a technology revolution in the office that will see the centralized control that was necessary to achieve economies of scale in the last century wane.

Instead we will see the growth of decentralization driven by cost and user demand pressures.  We will also see increased attempts to control behaviour through data and  monitoring due to the growth in the panopticon as I’ve discussed previously.

The Dangers of Digital Serfdom

My buddy Ray Wang posted recently on the right to be offline. We are facing a world of hyperconnectedness in which we can evolve into digital serfs tethered by our digital devices and an un-free as a slave in ancient times.

The risk is that the boundaries between work and personal time become so blurred that they cease to exist. The risk is that employers consider that, with a wage, they have bought our time as and when they choose to consume it any time of the day or night.

The moves to remove penalty rates for IT workers and others also support this trend. Once the unit cost of a worker is standardized an employer does not care what time of day or night they work.

I cannot articulate the concern we should have for retaining this right to be offline any better than Ray:

“There is one thing that I am very worried about actually, is I think it is of the uttermost importance that we preserve the right to be offline. If we don’t preserve that we’ll loose all our freedoms. It starts with ability to be able to escape … of being offline. And so we can be punished for not being offline. For not being online we cannot be punished. It’s happening right now. We are recreating Skynet, we are recreating Matrix, we are recreating all the things that we would fear on our own. And if we can’t protect that basic right of being able to be offline, and being able to conduct a life offline, we’re in trouble. We are in big trouble.”

I commend Ray’s thoughts to you, check out his video:

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