End of the middle – a new opportunity

by Simon Terry

At the DISRUPT.SYDNEY event, in our anti-panel a confronting idea surfaced:

Does disruption mean the end of the middle?

Rapid increases in the connection, usage and mobility of information & people has consequences for intermediaries and others caught in the middle as things change. We have already seen dramatic changes and forecasts of even more dire consequences for the middle as a result of disruption. We have seen changes for:

Middle men: intermediary businesses that relied on their ability to leverage information asymmetry and their ability to scale either customers or suppliers have found that global digital connection undercuts their business model or margins.

Middle class: income inequality continues to expand. Many middle class careers were built on knowledge economy roles that are threatened by disruption. We have already seen global communication impact many middle class manufacturing roles. The rise of the project career creates new sources of volatility in middle class incomes

Middle managers: the traditional role of middle managers as shapers of information in Organisations is undermined as information moves faster and more directly and new models of decision making are born. Organisations are attacking this role with data analytics, social connection, more agile decision making and flatter hierarchies

Mid market anything: we seem to have entered an age where we can aggregate markets and people at massive scale. At the same time communication, technology has supported connection and support for vibrant niches. Businesses increasingly target the top or bottom of the market. There are fewer businesses prospering in the mid market.

Middle age: we are living longer with more career changes, facing more diversity in life stages and a much less static marketplace. What was once the beginning of a slowing into middle age is now a time of peak productivity and change.

The future of the middle

At a recent talk as part of the New Economy Summit, Mark Pesce spoke that connected markets favour direct connections. He highlighted that the connectors who prosper are those who enhance the network to the benefit of all. He is not alone in holding this view.

So how can those in the middle play a sustainable role:

Lead the networked community: the new intermediaries, the new middle managers and the new middle class knowledge workers are those who foster, lead and sustain networked communities. This is not just a role of ensuring the community meets standards & has adequate engagement. Leading purpose building and sense making is critical. Real leadership is required to ensure the network is vibrant, innovative and evoking to sustain itself. That also means balancing the role of the network in the broader ecosystem.

Build Trust and Context: development of trust to facilitate the value creation in networked communities is a high value role for intermediaries or other nodes. This may be through design of features or data sets that enhance the context of transactions and information in the network. It will also be about holding & sharing a broader systems view than transactional participants in the network. Data analytics can play a critical role in supporting trust and context but it usually can only be gained through the nodes or a network systems view.

Disrupt the System: the middle is often the weight of economic and social power in any system. The middle has enough to lose in any change and traditionally this is a force for conservatism – think of the mortgage belt electorates of politics. However, having enough to lose is also a stake in the game & resources to drive change. A stake in the game means benefit from the innovations that come with new and better models. Organisations and individuals in the middle can be the most agile and an engine of economic opportunities in disruption, if they take on that challenge.

In a networked economy, the middle is no longer a place of safety where individuals and organisations escape the pressures of either end. The middle may well be where the greatest risks lie. Individuals and organisations in the middle must think differently about their role in the disrupted system and help lead the system forward.

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Re-thinking Connectivity

by Kristine Dery

It is tempting not to read the news at the moment as the pre-election character assassinations turn to post election character assassinations. However, two articles caught my eye last week and it is with some optimism that an important conversation appears to be shifting. The endless hand wringing over being connected 24/7 and the gloomy outlook that we will all become vegetative smartphone addicts, seems to be shifting to recognize that the problem is not connectivity in and of itself. We like to be connected. The problem is that we cannot keep working the same way. We need to refocus how we see and understand work in a more connected world.

Both articles coincidentally appeared on September 12. The first from the Sydney Morning Herald headed “More people are choosing to opt out of working full-time”, and the second from the Harvard Business Review blog titled “Welcome to the 72 Hour Work Week”. Aha, you say….more of the same. We are burning out from work overload due to excessive connectivity through smartphones and other mobile devices. However, while both articles refer to work burnout, interestingly ( and refreshingly) they are not positioning the smartphone as the culprit. Rather they both suggest that we need to use the connectivity afforded by mobile connectivity and disrupt the way we are working.

In the US a survey of executives, managers and professionals (apparently now known as EMP’s) are connected to work on their smartphones an average of 72 hours per week (i.e. 13.5 hours or more on weekdays and about 5 hours on weekends). While this does seem a lot, it is not the connectedness that bothers those EMPs, in fact they really like being connected. Rather it is that companies use the connectivity capability to compensate for inefficiencies and problematic processes.

“The message is clear. EMPs don’t necessarily mind being connected to work for more than 8 hours a day. But they are upset when it happens because leaders don’t respect their time or their official work day is wasted, so they have to make up that time working from their laptops or smartphones at home”

Put that message together with evidence in the Australian workplace that increasing numbers of people are opting out of full-time work and choosing to work casually or part-time in order to avoid the long hours that have become the organizational norm, and we start to see a new conversation emerging. We need to re-think the way we understand work. Work space, work time and how work is done.

The research that I have done, together with colleagues, on connectivity in the Australian financial services industry suggests that being able to be connected is both desirable and relieves work stress. The problem occurs when we cannot control the connectivity. We liken it to the ‘connective tap’. We want to turn the flow of connectivity up when we need to be fully focused and down (but not off) when we just need to keep an eye on things. To do that we need to rethink how we use mobile technology to reshape our work spaces and work time. Rather than simply automating old inefficiencies and doing more of it, we need to disrupt work itself. As Jennifer Deal says in her HBR blog:

“We’ll never be truly disconnected from work again. But smart organizations will make sure their employees appreciate that connectedness.”

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Digital Disruption – Blocked or Accelerated by People

by Cai Kjaer

Advancement in technology has really disrupted things, but you only realise how much when you look back at where we were just a few years ago. Last week I found on YouTube a 1990 interview with a very young Steve Jobs (no turtleneck or round glasses, and before he was fired from Apple). He describes three stages of computing as he saw them at the time. The first had been the introduction of spreadsheets, which really transformed the ability for people to do quite complex calculations with no need for programmers. The second stage was desktop publishing that allowed everyone to write and publish documents from their own computers. The third stage Jobs talks about – with his usual intensity and visionary insight – was the ability to start connecting computers via networks, and enable people to communicate electronically.

Hearing it now in 2013 it is hard to imagine life before PCs, and I just can’t stop thinking how far we have come, and just how much our lives have been disrupted by technological advancements. But was it really technology that changed us? I don’t think so. We changed. We chose to adopt those technologies. Inventions need people to promote them, and without people embracing the advancements we’ll get as little value from them as you get from an unused gym membership. We are also the ones who can most effectively prevent disruption. As it is so beautifully put in the July 2013 HBR article ‘The Secret Networks of Great Change Agents’:

“…employees tend instinctively to oppose change initiatives because they disrupt established power structures and ways of getting things done.”

Disruption is not something we yearn for, and as the HBR article says we will do what we can to avoid it. It is very much people rather than the technology that bring about, or prevent, change. Fortunately, many organisations do manage to get things done – but how? For me the most precise and insightful answer comes from Professor Ron Burt in his highly acclaimed book on Social Capital:

“Accountability flows through the formal organisation of authority relations. All else flows through the informal relations – advice, coordination, cooperation, friendship, gossip, knowledge and trust. Formal relations are about who is to blame. Informal relations are about who gets it done.”

Just reflect over that for a few moments, and consider how much we are relying on the formal structure to get things done, when in reality the power lies in the informal networks. Understanding how these informal networks work can provide the key to predict how quickly a ‘digital disruption’ really becomes disruptive. Social Network Analysis (SNA) has helped us by making these otherwise invisible networks visible. Over the last 10 years SNA has started to move from research into main stream business, as demonstrated again by the recent HBR article. It is an exceptionally powerful method to uncover those influencers you need to get on board to fast track any type of change initiative.

With the rise of social media, inside and outside of the enterprise, people are now connecting and collaborating in even greater numbers. The informal, cross-organistional networks are increasing as the formal organisational boundaries are blurring. The the need to understand how organisations are wired through people connections is therefore equally increasing.

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Rapid Innovation – The time is right!

by Scott Ward

Most of us realize that as people we are hardwired to connect.

Be it between friends, family or tribes our natural instincts compel us to build communication networks across which we share our individual and collective experiences. These communication networks act as a collective safety net alerting us to danger or exchanging valuable knowledge or knowhow.

What fewer people realize is just how important these communication pathways are to the innovation process.

Innovation is built on the active exchange of information between people. Often innovation comes down to the active use of knowledge learnt in one domain, applied to the needs of another. Let me give you an example:

There was a shipping company in the Arctic whose job it was to rescue stranded tankers. As part of their rescue they would pump oil from the stranded tanker into a working ship to avoid damaging the environment. However the cold Arctic temperatures meant the oil would often freeze in the pipe and hamper the rescue.

After trying heaters and a variety of solutions the company struggled to solve the problem so they posted their issue online and offered a reward. They received a number of responses but the suggestion that won came from a former concreter.

The concreter said that when he used to set large slabs they would put an agitator in the concrete. The agitator would vibrate and keep the concrete moving which gave them more time to pour, as the slab was slower to set. The concreter suggested they do something similar but with a pole shaped agitator that sat in the pipe; they did and it worked!

So while the required innovation seemed obvious to the concreter it is a great example of how we use communication networks to draw knowledge from one domain and apply it to the needs of another.

When we realize that successful innovation is heavily dependant on our ability to build and tap into the knowledge that sits across a multitude of networks, suddenly the magnitude of the opportunity that sits within social media becomes apparent.

Today, thanks to technology, we sit on the cusp of something truly brilliant.

With nearly two billion people on-line we now have the platform to connect our collective brilliance. The opportunity to share, learn and progress has never been greater and the spoils of this connectivity will build momentum over the coming generations.

Yes, the world is changing faster than ever before, and yes, this implies a massive need for organisations to get involved; but for the creative inventor that sits in all of us, brimming with childlike curiosity, this is our time.

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Official Video Invitation

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Putting people at the centre of the digital disruption conversation

by James Dellow

The phrase ‘digital disruption’ is quite a misnomer. Growing up in the information age we intuitively think we know what digital disruption means, but when we actually talk about it our conversations instead drift towards the symptoms of disruption – for example, the emergence of global digital brands like Apple, massively popular social platforms like Facebook and electronic tools such as the ubiquitous Android smartphones.

I call these symptoms of disruption because no technology truly disrupts unless it disrupts what we do and how we do it, not just what we do it with. For example, is Bitorrent (a protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing) anymore disruptive than the VCR or the tape recorder? If your business model is based on controlling access to the intellectual property, then its likely you would claim the outcome is much the same. But only Bitorrent could enable Wikileaks to distribute a digital “insurance policy”. This then begs the question: Is technology disrupting us or are we disrupting with technology?

Kai Riemer and Robert B. Johnston offer this definition for digital disruption:

“changes enabled by digital technologies that occur at a pace and magnitude that disrupt established ways of value creation, social interactions, doing business and more generally our thinking.”

Here I can see hints at the human dimension of digital disruption: it creates significant changes to how we relate to each other and how we think. Focusing on these profoundly human dimensions of what it means to live in a digital society reveal deeper insights into what is actually being disrupted.

From this perspective, digital disruption is less about digital technologies themselves and more about how we perceive the world and decide to integrate those technologies into our lives. The trend towards second screens, where people use a tablet or smartphone when watching television, is one example of an emergent technology behaviour. Research from the US shows that as early as 2010, 86% of mobile Internet users were using their mobile devices simultaneously with TV. The majority of them were connecting to people and content in a way that the one-to-many mode of television can not.

In fact the over-riding theme of digital disruption is the ‘network’. If the industrial revolution and the age of steam gave us the machine metaphor to describe how the world worked, then what does it mean when we interpret the world through a perspective that sees networks everywhere?

Similarly, James McQuivey writes in his book, Digital Disruption, that:

“Once digital disrupters adopt this mindset and begin to act accordingly, they just get better – better at seeing way around, under, over and through structural and market problems.”

In effect, digital disrupters see the network and work with it. Imagine the difference between a workplace where the people within the organisation think of themselves as a network versus those that are locked into a mechanistic world view; this mindset creates opportunities for disruption in terms of how people within the organisational structure relate to each other, their customers or clients and also the organisation itself. The ultimate disruption to the organisation of course is to reject it entirely and recreate the model, like joining a co-working space like Hub.

For digital disrupters and other people creating solutions that leverage digital disruption this creates a problem. How do you design for asymmetrically empowered users, emergent technology behaviours or organisations where traditional roles no longer exist?

This disruption of the design process calls for a more human-centred, less digital-symptom centric, design mindset:

  • Co-design – design digital technologies with people, not for them.
  • Situated design – understand the different time, place and purpose for using digital technologies.
  • Empathy – above all else, design with a deep understanding of the feelings and attitudes of people and their relationship to technology.

In other words, designing for digital disruption means placing people at the centre of the conversation.

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Is your knowledge alive?

by Simon Terry

“What we learn from experience is stored, not in the form of answers, but in bits and pieces of the experience we have accumulated, sometimes over years. What we think of as tacit knowledge is really the human ability to draw on our past experiences to respond to new problems or questions.”      (Nancy Dixon)

Much of our working life is obsessed with preventing the death of knowledge. Many of the practices of our working life accelerate the loss of knowledge.

Is your knowledge alive?

Organisations are haunted by the idea “if only we knew what we know”. We invest huge amounts in capturing, cataloguing and storing knowledge but still knowledge dies at an alarming rate. This occurs because too often knowledge is divorced from very human experiences, treated as something independent of its authors and stored in a static form. In this way knowledge is often allowed to die by never seeing use again, despite the effort invested in its creation & storage. Knowledge that stops moving among people is dead.

Too often this dead “knowledge” is well and truly buried on a private hard drive or in hard to search paper files, quietly lost to everyone. Some of this dead knowledge is in the heads of employees whose tacit knowledge may never be known or called into action.

We can bring our knowledge to life by treating it as a flow. We can bring it to life by creating ways for people to engage with it again, use it in some new way and create a new memorable experience. Our efforts to put knowledge into flight again create the experiences that enable us to remember better, develop the knowledge, keep it current and continue to use it. The best of these experiences enable many people to openly engage with knowledge, creating a collaborative learning environment where knowledge is shared and grows for a group. In these experiences, knowledge in flight can interact to create new hybrids.

Creating new conversations around knowledge will generate narratives and stories to fly that knowledge into the future. Relevant knowledge in your stores will get swept up into these conversations bringing them back to life and meaning again. An enterprise social network is an ideal place to generate a new conversation, to share it with many others, putting knowledge back into flight.

In my talk at DISRUPT.SYDNEY, I will explore these concepts in the context of organisational silos and how we can create a more vibrant knowledge culture in our organisations.

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