Last week I spent an enlightening evening amongst the vibrant business minds at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.  The event was a discussion centred around ‘The Future Of Work’, a concept arguably as broad as it is intriguing; the number of contemporary workplace issues are seemingly endless, and questions surrounding the changing nature of work have no easy answers.

Following an introduction from the School’s Dean, the event began with a presentation on ‘The Future Of The Company’ by Dr Jonathan Trevor (an Associate Professor of Management Practice at Oxford).  Trevor described our current working models as facing a ‘tipping point in work and organisation’ the likes of which have not been seen since the industrial revolution, breaking out distinctions between our current model of ‘ideal bureaucracy’ and the encroaching systems of a (somewhat unimaginatively named) ‘post-bureaucracy’ more befitting of the digital landscape.  The differences within these working structures are significant and multifaceted, and are in many ways aligned with my previous post here on changing working spaces.

Put simply, the existing bureaucracy is based around the idea of work as a duty, with clearly delineated organisational hierarchy and employment based on qualifications and experience.  This is a model (not unlike the principles of engineering) which values maximum efficiency, volume of output and standardisation of products.  Organisations are machines of specifically calibrated individual parts, and what makes the organisation successful is that all parts will work together to the defined company blueprint which tells them what to do, when and how to do it.

The advent of digital technology and the corresponding rise of the millennial generation is disrupting this established working structure.  Organisations are needing to transform in order to survive in the digital age, which encourages openness and values the sharing of knowledge through networks above the previous prioritisation of formal procedure and hierarchy.  Team-based problem solving in collaborative, unconstrained environments is being widely championed, with knowledge no longer marshalled at the top of organisations but disseminated throughout a company structure that is increasingly flat and meritocratic.

It is important to note at this point that while it is academically valuable to polarise the ‘now’ and ‘post-now’ working situations, Trevor emphasised that there is and will continue to be a significant middle ground of companies between each end of the spectrum.  Collaboration towards innovation without a clear end is expensive, as well as being inappropriate for every business model, and as such a negotiation between the two realms will be necessary in order to successfully retain customers.  Ultimately the ability to do different things in order to remain competitive, while remaining cost effective, will be key.

Iain McDougall, Head of Sales for Google Work in the UK, agreed with this prognosis.  Perhaps surprisingly for a company so renowned for its innovation, he even willingly admitted that Google would itself fall ‘somewhere in between’ the bureaucratic and post-bureaucratic.  McDougall talked at length on his department’s particular focus – Google Work’s tagline is: ‘Bring the best of Google to businesses to empower billions of people to work the way they choose and build what’s next’ – with a particular emphasis on the ways in which Google creates this ‘empowerment’ internally.

Perhaps most relevantly to us in Learning and Development, McDougall drew a definition between ‘work as a place’ – somewhere you go to perform repeatable tasks within set hours – and ‘work as what you do’ – a passion economy model often linked to millennials.  The latter he sees as symbiotic with the digital age, where individuals may curate portfolio careers, work remotely within the hours they choose and share their knowledge or skills across wide and multiple networks.  Google particularly encourages the move towards team-based work, leveraging the benefits of collaboration in the quest for innovation – something they reinforce with free meals across the company (where better to share ideas than around the dinner table?) and their famous 20% time.

Despite the word now feeling synonymous with a particular type of company (i.e. the tech start up) or the constant PR jargon around digital developments, McDougall repeatedly stressed the fact that ‘innovation’ really is the ultimate goal for most businesses as the march of digital moves forwards unceasingly.  No business can predict the future (not even Google…), but they can all strive to create the work processes and working environments which will allow them to respond well to these unavoidable changes.