Friday 18 February 2011

TRU London: Why I told Kevin Wheeler he was talking rubbish


  I was obviously still a bit irritated moving on from these previous sessions to Kevin Wheeler’s on the future of work.

Let me be very clear – I agree completely with most of what Kevin has to say.  I agree that work is becoming more flexible – being done by contingent workers, crowd sourcing, and new entrepreneurial organisations etc.  I agree that workers are changing – with more of them being based at home or working from their local Starbucks, using ‘scatter cushion’ technologies, and sometimes having more than one job.  And I agree that we’re seeing some interesting changes in organisations too.

But I also think we can overdo the case for new, fluid, network organisations.  Most companies in the UK are SMEs that’s true.  But the predominant paradigm of business is still the big, formal bureaucracy and I can’t see that organisation form going away.

So when Kevin referred to the end of hierarchy I’d had enough.  “I think that’s rubbish”, I said.

As I wrote above, it’s not that I disagree with the trends Kevin was describing.  And I do think big business needs to and will change.  But I think it will do that through adaptation rather than complete reinvention, and I think that’s probably right.

I talked about GSK and a blog post I’d read recently (it was actually this one from Anne Marie McEwan) discussing the company’s move towards smaller Dunbar number sized groups (I’d also posted on this previously).  This is the sort of change I see happening.  But it doesn’t spell the end of hierarchy.

It’s why in my previous sessions on Social HR, I’d emphasised the need to focus on clear outcomes (the strategic ones I discussed in my last post as well) rather than lists of attributes.  I don’t believe all organisations need to operate the same way, and I suspect not many of them will look like Zappos, Semcos and similar maverick organisations.

And I don’t think that matters much.  What I advise organisations to do is be clear about what outcomes they’re trying to create, and then identify the processes and ways of working that will be right for them – based upon their individual situation and context, and what they see happening in the world.  This is why we DO need to understand Kevin’s trends, but simply extrapolating what’s happening now is poor futurology and isn’t a good guide to how organisations should change now.


Also see these two posts on hierarchy:



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  1. Hi John I was in the same session and unfortunately the thing that was very clear to me was that Kevin was telling the room about his vision of utiopia and not grounding it in reality.
    The statement that "big business will be shrinking over the next 5 years and some of the largest companies around right now will decrease by about half their size" was frankly complete rubbish.
    The assertion that small businesses owned and managed by collectives would be more powerful than big companies was ridiculous and to suggest the Heroin trade in Afghanistan showed the future of the work model was so far beyond the pale I wondered if he had actually been trying their product. There is a reason why there is a networked economy in that region and it has nothing to do with the future of work and everything to do with politics and religion, I did wonder if he’d based that entire part of his session on that month’s National Geographic which ran an article about the same subject.

    The core argument that people will work more flexibly, have more opportunity to build and manage their own projects and a lot of the other ideas discussed were absolutely true. The slightly crazy ideas being thrown around and being backed by several people who should know better were a little bit of a symptom of the "cooler" tracks at Tru. Unfortunately there were several tracks marked more by people generating the cult of personality around them than actually offering something of value.

  2. Well said! And very much what I was trying to say as well - that we need to be aware of the trends, but not to get too carried away with where they may end - but I think you express it much better.

    As for the cult of personality, I can't think who you might mean! (well, maybe I can).


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