I am endlessly frustrated by how we cling to 19th and 20th century paradigms for conducting business in the 21st century. When it comes to business, much of what we take for granted, which we assume to be just how things are, were actually purpose-built, beginning in the Industrial Age. Before then, you had a combination agrarian and mercantile economy, and business simply didn’t operate at a scale that required systemic management.
Then, in order to take advantage of the big machines made possible by the industrial revolution, to get the most out of their ability to produce in mass and distribute far and wide, business developed tools and practices that enabled such growth. The prevailing management approach was that of the bureaucracy, wherein the organization became a system to produce a predetermined outcome (over and over again). This proved ideal for business (and much of society) in the Industrial Age, because bureaucracy supports the values of efficiency, calculability, consistency, and predictability.
However, it also dehumanizes the people who work within them. They are reduced to job titles and a set of responsibilities. They become figurative cogs in the machine. And when computers and the Information Age arrived, there was talk about how this was going to free people from the drudgery of their work lives, and allow them to think. However, it turns out that the Information Age simply retrenched those bureaucratic values, because computers are great at supporting them.
It wasn’t until the prevalence of networked computers that we found ourselves entering a new age. And you could call this the Networked Age, but I find that to be a little too reductive. Networks are important, but they’re simply an enabling technology. I prefer Connected Age because it speaks to the truly human value of connectedness. Because what’s interesting about the network is how it brings people together.
This connected stimulates new relationships between people, other humanistic values arise. This was the subject of The Cluetrain Manifesto, over 10 years old and one of the seminal works of the Connected Age. People now crave authenticity in their interactions with business, which, as this post from Kottke points out, some companies do well, and others… not so much. These relationships also benefit from mutual trust, which some companies are learning can reap interesting new benefits.
The Connected Age also means that businesses must grapple with the messiness of humanity, because when people are freer to interact, unpredictability occurs. And, the decentralized networks that form the substrate of the Connected Age lead to emergent properties that, byt their very nature, are also unpredictable.
The bureaucratic model that served us in the Industrial and Information Age needs to be set aside for one that is responsive to how business (and society) actually operates today.