The rise of human agency

Introduction

With this opening post on my blog, I am taking my very first step in what I hope to be a vibrant dialogue with friends, fellow consultants and clients on the profound organisational changes happening in the world around us. A summary of my world view can be found in the Manifesto on my website (see www.ericaxelzimmer.com). This first article addresses in fact the opening point of said Manifesto.

Manifesto #1

Digital communication is modifying the way people work together in all fields political, business even education. Skillful participation is the root of success.

 

The snowball effect

In most of the world, a transformation is under way in the way we learn, work, and function as a society due to the advent of digital technology. Education is moving towards a lifelong learning. Politics are highly volatile in many countries around the world. And companies are beginning a metamorphosis which is as big as the shift from traditional craft to the industrial revolution in the 19th century. And the most incredible thing of all is that this is probably just the BEGINNING. The world is changing faster then our capacity to adapt to it.

 

Education: revealing rather then filling the empty vase

In the field of education, schools around the world are slowly moving towards comprehensive assessment, project based learning, and of course the integration f technological tools. Comprehensive assessment means looking beyond high-stakes testing – a specialty in France -  and instead developing new ways of assessing the full range of student ability -- social, emotional, and academic achievement.  Project based learning, already part of Montessori programmes for years, aims to teach students different academic subjects through a specific theme. Finally, technological integration,, through distance learning and MOOCs but also through innovative tools for the classroom can empower students in new and exciting ways. All of these new tools aim to empower the student to act as opposed to simply absorb. Hence skilful participation begins in school.

 

Grassroots movements…or populism ?

In politics, the signs of skilful participation thanks to technology are everywhere : Obama was elected using the first real social media campaign with Moveon.org.  The Arab Spring also relied heavily on social tools. And The 5 Stars movement in Italy used digital technology to create an incredibly grassroots political party throughout Italy through their digital platform that in the space of a few years has conquered 1/5 of the seats in parliament and important cities like Palermo, Rome and Turin. Another worthy example is Taiwan where democracy has been completely digitalised. Debates, referendums and discussions are all held online in an almost seamless platform. And in my home city of Paris, the Mayor has embarked in an ambitious experiment of giving the citizens of Paris direct control over 500 million euros in investments. Are all these changes part of a cycle of renewal in democracy, or instead worrying signs fractured populism? It is too early to say, but we certainly have a responsibility in using these new tools wisely.

 

Relevance trumps Replicability

However, the biggest field where the digital revolution is having an effect right now is business. In the past, the challenge facing companies was to reliably produce the same thing over and over in a complicated but fairly stable environment. The focus of industrial management was on the division of labour and the design of vertical communication channels in the pyramid organisation and horizontal in the matrix. In this reductionist world, everyone’s job fits with mechanical precision into a pre-planned whole. And when it fails, cycles of reorganisation dovetail into one another as we try to put the clock back together again.

 

This vision of management imploded at the end of the 90s - when process was supposed to be king-  when a group of IT people courageously invented Agile methodology. 

 

Because in today’s fast, interconnected world, the most important thing is relevance. The fact is that now products and services are no longer reproducible at least not for very long. Solutions have become contextual and can be found only through creative, connected learning and working, often with all stakeholders, including customers.

 

The person who has expressed this transition the most clearly for me is a fellow Canadian Roger Martin. I will no doubt review some of his books shortly but you really ought to take a look at his understanding of innovation and management.

 

Human agency at the centre

The really big impact of the digital transformation is therefore to reconfigure  human  agency  in a way that brings relationships into the centre, instead of people being constrained in a fixed structure or processes. Success today is increasingly a result of “skilful participation”: it is about how we are present and how we communicate.

 

The strain is beginning to be felt in national subsidiaries of multinational organisations who are forced to deploy “the process” designed in the controlling home country. While on one level they are successfully executed the strategic plan to to keep costs down and maintain a coherent strategy, they often find themselves with middle managers who are not engaged and actors in the organisation.

 

In any case, the old “manager as a solution” mind-set is going out the window because employees no longer need to be “managed”. They need instead to be led with a higher purpose and empowered. In this configuration there are far fewer layers of management and leaders can emerge as circumstances dictate.

 

The informal organisation is now the living organisation

And so what we used to call « the informal organisation » that made the highly structured companies of the mechanical age work is in fact the core of the living, learning organisations that are emerging.  But contrary to the perception of some, these new open organisations are not a chaotic free for all but in fact are designed very deliberately so that they empower people towards skilful participation, to become leaders at the right place and at the right time. 

 

Nor is it an “all or nothing affair”. Matrix organisations can design these changes progressively by trying out efficient technics based on collective intelligence, such as hackathons, and collaborative events before beginning to make deeper shifts into their organisation, by moving for example from job desks to flexible roles for their employees.

 

These new organisations are not without their challenges which I will address in future articles, but they do at least deliver on two levels: they allow organisations to pivot rapidly according to circumstance, and they give space for people to express their full potential.

 

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