An End To Predictions, A Call For Revolution

Deep trends in society and work

I think it is very hard to make predictions about 2019 because there are so many wildcards. Or, as Buckminster Fuller said,

We have a hard time getting out of the way of something we can’t see coming.

Instead of specific predictions – like Trump being impeached and convicted, or Google buying Slack – I will discuss a few trends, more generally.

I have left aside the churning whirlwind of technological advance, such as the rise of AI, and the host of technologies that form what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution. Those are creating a foundational acceleration underlying the world’s economies, a disruptive and destabilizing force, acting like a current in deep seas. If you are sailing in the same direction as the current, it is a great help, but if you seek to head a different way the current will slow and deflect your efforts. Most importantly, the current is outside of our control: we have to fight it, sail with it, or stay on land.

Polarization and Populism

There is a deep cultural movement that is leading to tectonic shifts across society, manifesting itself in polarization and populism, on the historic right and left. So across the world, we are witnessing the rise of populists, like the far-right parties in Europe and Trump’s rise in the US, but at the same time we are experiencing a transition away from conventional left-of-center parties contending with conventional right-of-center parties, as demonstrated by the rise of Macron’s En Marche in France, and the surge of interest in social democratic ideas in the US Democratic party, as typified by Bernie Sanders and Alex Ocasio-Cortez.

One way to think of this is a growing disillusionment with the left-versus-right polarity of the post-WWII era, and a shift to an up-versus-down dynamic, where the poor, working class, and middle class – the precariat – realize that the game is rigged by the elite against the interests of everyone else.

Far-right politicians will attempt to leverage fear of immigrants and xenophobia to back away from liberal immigration laws and international treaties that regulate the international movement of people. Brexit is in part motivated by these desires, and if Brexit is concluded it will be an outgrowth more of anti-immigrant cultural bias than supposed desires for economic sovereignty and self-determination.

In the US, metropolitan elites continue to think that the ‘left-behinds’ in flyover county are misguided bumpkins voting against their own best interests, rather than seeing that the neoliberal flat-world free trade regime of the past 30 years played havoc with the heartland’s economic health and future, and neither the GOP nor the Democrats really paid much attention. Witness Hilary skipping the rust belt states in the final months of the 2016 election, and what that led to.

These are global trends, but they will manifest differently across the world, and in distinctly local fashion in different locales.

I believe Macron has lost his way, and since he has no deep party system to help him he will fail to make the changes that he believed he had a mandate to do. Instead, it turns out that only the metropolitan elite and business sector is with him. Will a reformulated socialist party regain control, or will the far-right inherit the ashes of his term? Will a socialist populism arise from the Yellow Vests, or is a far-right populism the likely outcome? Make your bets.

In the US, the GOP is facing the defection of suburban white women and large numbers of college-educated men: are there enough far-right and disenfranchised left-behind Republicans to continue as a meaningful party, once the dust cloud around Trump settles? I don’t think so. (Note: Trump will either resign, be impeached and convicted, or wither in madness: he can’t possibly be reelected.)

Also, note that the separatist movement in Catalonia is a manifestation of populism – in this case, the desire of people living in Catalonia (principally Catalans) to be able to secede from Spain. Their motives are many: desire for economic and legal controls, desire for independence from Spain (a historically fraught relationship), and relief from paying more taxes to Spain than they get in return. Does Spain have the right to deny them their right to self-government, simply because they were annexed a long, long time ago? We’ll see.

Capitalism and Gigantism

A second deep cultural movement is playing out in the West: a growing distrust of unfettered capitalism and the economic inequality it has engendered over the past 30 years, along with concern with the most obvious economic manifestation of today’s capitalism: the rise of gigantic monopolistic corporations, like the tech giants and major multinationals in finance, manufacturing, media, agriculture, pharma and health care, and other industries.

This slops into the growing concerns about climate and ecological change, but is principally grounded in the precarity built into modern economic life: the broken social contract in the relationship between worker and employer, and the disinterest in modern governments to close the gap through either regulation of employers or through taxation and redistribution of wealth.

Note: I think of climate change as being critically important – another area of broken promises by governments – but it has to be an aspect of resolution of other issues, principally unfettered capitalism. Regulation, trade agreements, and taxation are all needed here, and immediately. We can’t confront 'climate change’ without embracing a litany of economic actions, all at once. Yes, I know: we only have a decade.

I expect that a discussion of new laws and regulations will be prominent in 2019, such as the national movements for higher minimum wages, medicare for all, portable benefits for freelancers and contract employees, prohibitions against anti-union tactics, and the banning of forced arbitration for employees in many instances, such as sexual harassment cases.

The surge of unionism in media is one example of counter-capitalist collective action, and I expect it will spread into many other 'white collar’ and 'no collar’ jobs, as the tide turns toward regulation of business instead of self-regulation.

As just one manifestation, consider the fall from grace of Facebook in 2018, as a consequence of its exploitation of data arising from its services. But this controversy is actually about the duopoly of ad revenues it shares with Google, which is a story of gigantism and the lack of regulatory oversight by the world’s governments.

We should anticipate a forceful swinging of the pendulum in the opposite direction, which could even lead to the breakup of large corporations – like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and counterparts in other non-tech sectors – into smaller, more focused companies with the intent of decreasing their power, their amassing of capital, and opening the playing field to smaller competitors. Note that in the very near term acquisitions by the giants leading to market consolidation in many industries may continue at the blinding pace we’re seen in recent years, but in a year or two – if regulatory opposition to bigness becomes entrenched as I believe it may – we may see a major decline in such acquisitions. So predicting the acquisition of Slack by one of the internet giants might make sense now, but may be blocked in 2020.

Moving from 'Normal’ Organizations to 'Revolutionary’ Organizations

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

| Steven Hawking

Hawking sets context for what I have been calling a 'movement’ since 2005 or so, the movement to drive a transition from 'normal’ industrial-era organizations that are role-centered, closed, slow-and-tight, hierarchical, and backward-focused to 'revolutionary’ post-industrial-era organizations that are human-centered, open, fast-and-loose, heterarchical, and forwards-focused. Like other movements, this work revolution is defined by the dynamics of opposing forces. On one side, we have those who explicitly or implicitly uphold the principles and cultural foundations of 'normalcy’, and who actively or passive-aggressively oppose those, on the other side, who advocate revolutionary change in work culture, practices, and values.

I’ve picked the terms 'normal’ and 'revolutionary’ with intention. Specifically, I have borrowed them from Thomas Kuhn’s central arguments in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a work that laid out the analogous dynamics in scientific revolutions.

Kuhn argued that there is a cyclic form to science, where the work of a generation of scientists in any given field establishes a paradigm around which research and discourse are centered, like Newtonian physics. It started with various incoherent notions of motion (the pre-paradigm phase), but the central premises of gravity and Newton’s laws of motion led to the development of a second phase, where 'normal’ science began, and the dominant paradigm structured the science for a considerable period of time, establishing consensus on terminology, methods, and the sorts of experiments that might lead to increased insights1.

Over time, normal science may lead to anomalies in findings – unexpected results from experiments, questions that can’t be answered – and these can lead to questioning the old paradigm as its weaknesses are apparent. This can lead to crisis, and that can spark a paradigm shift, like quantum physics as an alternative to Newton’s.

The crisis and the shift are not necessarily smooth, and there is often active disagreement and contention between the advocates of the previous, 'normal’ paradigm, and the revolutionaries pushing for the new paradigm. This can lead to breaks in the scientific discipline, with huge controversies and great antagonism, since the reputations and livelihoods of the scientists are at stake.

At some point, the crisis ends, usually as a result of the establishment of a new paradigm, which eventually becomes 'normal’ mainstream science, with new methods, terminology, and established approaches for experimentation.

We are at a time of such a crisis, although it’s not in the traditional realm of science, per se. The crisis is in the world of business, and it is really predicated on scientific revolutions in several areas that impinge on business, namely cognitive science, behavioral economics, social psychology, and related fields. (And in the background behind the soft incursion of these revelatory social science findings, we can feel the looming hard technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.)

In the past few decades, enormous advances have been made in our understanding of how people perceive the world and their relationships to others, how we reason (or don’t), how people 'make decisions’, how productive teams 'work’, and how cultural norms impact our behavior. However, very little of this science has reached the C-suite. Consider, as only one example, the persistent problems related to diversity and the foundational issues of cognitive bias. However, few in leadership are educated in these issues, and no coherent new paradigm of organizational theory and practice has yet fully emerged.

At present, we are left with the strange dichotomy of entrepreneurial capitalism – with capital growth and shareholder value as the highest aims – and the independent considerations of making the world a better place, making the workplace more equitable, just, and less precarious, and attempting to construct the world of work so that people can achieve greater autonomy, meaning, and purpose in their lives, and not just a paycheck. These cross forces define a growing area of tension in the discourse about the future of work, the transformation of the 21st-century business, and how to balance the desires of the many sorts of people holding stakes in these companies.

At the same time, we see growing interest in the principle that a revolution is business operations is needed to confront and overcome a long list of 'anomalies’ in business and the economic sphere. The combination of increased economic pressures in a sped-up, global marketplace and the desire for greater stability and purpose for everyone at work leads to some broad trends that could stand as a proxy for the 'revolution’ in organizational theory and practice:

  • Human-centered, not role-centered. We lose a great deal when we limit people to only thinking about or acting on a limited set of activities in business. A machine press operator can have a brilliant insight that saves the copy millions, and a field sales lead can come back from a meeting with a customer suggestion for a breakthrough new product. But not if they are punished for stepping outside the painted lines on the floor. People can be larger than their job descriptions if we let them.

  • Open, not closed models of thinking and operations. This means a 'yes, and’ mindset, where we consider alternatives rather than rejecting them because they are novel. This means activity rooting out systemic anti-creative and anti-curiosity patterns in business dogma. It means embracing Von Foester’s Empirical Imperative: Always act to increase the set of possibilities.

  • Fast-and-loose, not slow-and-tight operations. Agile, flexible, and adaptive methods of organizing, cooperating, and leading are needed. A less bureaucratic management style would increase innovation, and lead to building business operations around experiments rather than only well-established processes.

  • Heterarchical, not hierarchical operations. The bronze age rule of kings, supposedly selected by the gods and legitimized by their personal charisma has led to terrible results, with narcissistic sociopaths all too often calling the shots. The occasional Steve Jobs or Yves Chouinard does not disprove the problems inherent to top-down-only organizations, especially in a time of great change and uncertainty. Organizational structure is another means to the ends that companies are created to effect, and serves as a powerful barrier to change when treated as sacred and inviolable.

  • Forward-focused, not tradition-bound. We need to adopt a new paradigm for business, one that explicitly breaks with a great deal of what passes for conventional wisdom, organized around new science, new forms of social connection, and leveraging the possibilities in the points made above. And science is not standing still, so we must incorporate new understanding into our work and the operations of business.

This is predicated upon stating – explicitly – that a revolution is necessary, and that a long list of practices and principles will need to be identified as problematic and rooted out. This is exactly what I founded Work Futures to do, as a research and educational institute, and in 2019 I intend to push hard to advance that agenda.

This revolution has started, but we are in the early days of what will eventually – decades from now, perhaps – be a wholesale recasting of business. But the world of work cannot be changed independently of the larger world. It is one part of a larger set of changes that envelope and animate it.

The larger societal and economic trends touched on in the previous sections – Polarization and Populism, Capitalism and Gigantism, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution – are imparting enormous stress on the human sphere. And, as a result, it is very hard to predict what will happen in 2019. However, I believe that by 2023 a great deal of the revolution – this transition from the 'normal’ to a 'revolutionary’ form of business – will have become more clear, as the new paradigm becomes more well-defined, and as the larger world shifts to internalize new approaches to the tectonic forces at work, at all scales.

I reposted the fourth section of this essay as a piece all by itself: Moving from 'Normal’ Organizations to 'Revolutionary’ Organizations.

  1. Paraphrased from Wikipedia.