Technology and Organizations

Scanning the Future: 21st Century Management

Is your organization ready for the 21st Century? Do you understand the increasing pressures on organizational structure and management? Is your organization’s design and leadership approach ready to face these demands? These are the questions twenty-eight senior executives from the U.S., Colombia, India, Oman, and Thailand addressed as we worked together to leverage old and new strategies for their organizations and careers. The occasion was Northwestern University’s 21st Century Management executive program. The phrase, “scanning the future” is drawn from the last segment of my sessions.

I promised the participants additional readings (building on my earlier, Summer Reading List), and hope others will add to what I have here via the comments. I’ll also include the pre-readings we used to prepare for each segment.

The Demands on 21st Century Organization

In this segment we worked through the pressures on organizations today and in the future. These included (vast simplification): globalization, artificial intelligence, disintermediation, freelancing, and education. Earlier in the week the group had discussed the pace of marketing and strategy change, the value of mindfulness, our networked society, and multi-generational workforces.

We started with Leadership Is More Than Interpersonal Skills, a short Harvard Business Review blog post focused on what I mean by demands on the 21st century organization and how this puts pressure on you to lead with all your resources -- not just your interpersonal skills -- all of your human, technical, and organizational resources.

Additional Reading:

Designing the Agile, Connected Organization

We used the case, WL Gore: Culture of Innovation (makers of Gore-Tex), to take on the questions of organizational design and control in the 21st Century. Slide-deck version. Note that WL Gore (and Nucor Steel) are famous examples of light-weight management -- in companies designed in the 50s & 60s. Zappos’ work with holacracy is just a current visible version.

Additional Reading:

From the hyperspecialization article:

This ability to distribute computer-based jobs to a vast army of workers doesn’t only make old tasks go faster; it enables the completion of a whole new class of time-critical tasks. Consider the search for Jim Gray, a well-known computer scientist who disappeared at sea in his small sailboat in 2007 and was never found. When the news of his disappearance reached his colleagues, they realized it would not be impossible to search the 30,000-square-mile patch of ocean in which Gray’s boat just might still be afloat. Over the next few days near-real-time satellite images were relayed to thousands of Mechanical Turk workers and volunteers for close examination. Such an effort could not previously have been imagined—and suggests many other possibilities, from scanning for suspicious activity in an office building’s overnight video feeds, to translating headquarters communications simultaneously into many languages, to responding quickly to a potential client’s complicated request for proposal.

We see this approach now in the vast application of volunteers to natural disasters, solving complex business analytics problems, and more. The freelance marketplace continues to diversify even as heavy weights Elance and oDesk join to form UpWork. The “gig economy” is in the news this week in the US presidential campaigns.

Leading the Agile, Connected Organization -- Execution on 21st Century Practices

In this segment I had the opportunity to share some of my current work on Lead by Letting Go. We started with a case on LinkedIn, looking to gain value from whatever LinkedIn does -- for example, with their recent purchase of online education company,, rather than solving the typical case. We looked to let go of 20th century boundaries and processes, while holding tight to our performance standards, relationships, the value of education, and the laws of our particular organization’s “physics.”

Staying with the ideas of leveraging modern technologies and organizational relationships, we looked at the article The Third Wave of Virtual Work, before reading the case -- LiveOps: The Contact Centre Reinvented. The case follows the American Red Cross as they dealt with over one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Whether or not your industry works with call or contact centers, it’s interesting to consider how to work with “instant on” capabilities. LiveOps is just one example of 21st century organizational forms built on a freelance economy. Uber, Lyft, Mozilla (Firefox), Freelance Physicians, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and many many others, offer options to traditional “balancesheet” employees.

We used light-weight experiments as a key tool in this segment. Tom Chi’s “doing is the best kind of thinking” video was a great opener and we followed it with examples from Intuit.

Additional Reading

Scanning the Future

Our last segment was short, but critical. We discussed execution and especially the role of data-driven processes. We focused on iterative change throughout the session (the world moves too fast for long periods of planning in many settings, note the Tom Chi quote above) - but here we applied it toward scanning the future. Marissa Mayer’s “Data is apolitical,” video as well as Scott Cook on Intuit’s global expansion, emphasized the role that evidence-based management plays.

The task for the participants was to design a scanning process for themselves or their organization. Whether personal, team, or organizational, we all need a process for staying aware of our challenges and opportunities. One of them was wise enough apply the technique, “leverage your network,” to turn the first step of their process on me, asking for additional readings -- and thus this post. I’ll now do the same with you: What have we missed? What readings, videos, and links should I be using to prepare for future sessions? What other materials would be excellent follow-ons to the material here?

Our Future Together

Join us for a future session of 21st Century Management. Dates are available in December 2015 and May 2016. The focus on agile, connected, execution makes it especially powerful if more than one member of an organization attends. We had several groups with three or more members and it felt like they had unique opportunities for leveraging their experience.


Partnering, Integrating, To Make the Complex Simple

In the recent top rated book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World , Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt offer that, “When many parties must work together, simple trumps complex” (p. 44). This is a beautiful fit for the future of work, a future made up of complex work, performed in complex ways. Freelancers, contractors, and global project work, all intermingle with traditional organizational forms. Rather than try and understand all the complexities yourself, partner with those who do -- and do it in a simple way. By simple in this instance I mean push decision-making to where the information is, close to the work itself.

Complex Work and Partnerships Require Simple Rules and Direct Connections to Feedback

This is such a strong idea that Sull and Eisenhardt use it as the conclusion of their book:

..simple rules work because they provide a threshold level of structure while leaving ample scope to exercise discretion....

Close to the facts on the ground, individuals can draw on their judgment and creativity to manage risks and seize unexpected opportunities. The latitude to exercise discretion not only makes simple rules effective, it makes them attractive. People [and organizations, my addition here, but also covered in the book] thrive when given the opportunity to apply their judgment and creativity to the situations they face from day to day. And if they benefit from simple rules, they are more likely to use them and use them well" (p. 228).

The “threshold level of structure” is what keeps the ground-level decision making from just being tactical. Key is that the structure is understood and committed to across all actors. Nilofer Merchant talks about the value of co-creating strategy so that the vision and the tactics are tied across all levels of the work from inception. Co-creation can support commitment and innovation. Sull and Eisenhardt provide detailed notes on the value of working throughout the organization as rules are created -- and are clear that strategy and execution cannot be separated.

The Future of Work Is Complex, But the Underlying Technologies Can Help

Internet enabled collaboration, product development supported by real-time data, The Internet of Things. These all mean we spend more time and effort checking and connecting with data and others throughout our days, and nights. The process is not simple, but it could be simpler. Some organizations have found ways to leverage the complexity of data in ways that simplify the work.

Pulse Mining Systems

Pulse Mining Systems provides integrated business management tools to mining companies. (I’m looking forward to writing a more historical piece remarking on how much mining has taught us about management.) They offer resources for operations, human resources, marketing, and more. The key is that they don’t do it alone -- and their tools aren’t meant just for executives or data scientists.

I spoke with Rob Parvin, then their visualization and analytics manager. I was looking for an example of the value of offering access to operational data to people doing the work, but I found much more. Yes, he described examples where mines with five kilometer conveyors are progressing from manual reporting to real time, sensor-based, feedback to the shift managers. Yes, maintenance and staffing decisions are made with better data. (More on those soon.) But what surprised me was how they were creating these opportunities.

Pulse Partners to Co-Innovate

Pulse partners to simplify both their strategic decision making and how they then take action on that strategy. They co-innovate -- work with their strategic clients -- to identify the specific information needed by the client for decision making (going for simple rather than complex), key metrics, and prototyping. The product is eventually rolled out as a general offering -- but with the knowledge that it’s a tool that’s valuable in the industry and works. The implicit rule is that products are co-developed rather than created away from the work itself. They’ve been able to create early versions in as little as three weeks.

Pulse is able to move this quickly because they’ve partnered with two analytics companies rather than trying to build out their own capabilities (implicit rule: Don’t reinvent the wheel). They work with Birst (see an earlier mention here) and Tableau to provide analytics and visualization building blocks that are rapidly prototyped and tested in the field. The complexity is managed by focusing on pre-built, reusable capabilities. The partners are bound by a common interest in answering operational questions.

In prior posts I’ve written about how we can lead by letting go (of old school management techniques), but that creates an image of chaos for some. Instead, let’s think about a structured handoff of responsibility. We are unlikely expert in all the areas where we need expertise. Pulse has found like-minded partners. SAP has done the same with their co-innovation labs. Each seems to have developed simple rules of organization to handoff pieces of the innovation process to partners with appropriate skills.

My Own Simple Rules

Rereading Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, and considering the issues in the context of our quickly changing work environment, has inspired me to think about my own simple rules. I work with a variety of audiences interested in designing organizations for innovation and offer a process for creating designs unique to their settings (I’m in full agreement that the local creation of the rules is an important piece of the process). That said, I think there are a few rules many can work with and I share them here in hope that you will help me improve them.

  • Base decisions on data, with decision makers as close to the work as possible.

  • Build teams with diverse skills, but common interests - highlight the interest.

  • Bundle similar work, and where possible, pass off to automation.

  • Be transparent and pay attention to what others are sharing with you.

Sull and Eisenhardt use the second half of their book to discuss how to refine and improve your rules. The above are just a start for me, are they also an interesting start for you?

Summer Reading List on the Future of Work

This mind map shows my reading list for the futures of work - loads better in non-Chrome browsers. (Here is a link to an Amazon page including all the entries -- and I will update it as new books are added). This has been my homework as I develop the ideas for my next project. I see these contributions as providing a great foundation for how we think about what the future may bring, but I think we’re just at the beginning in terms of making these ideas reality for most of us.


We don't have a guide for work in the modern age -- something that acknowledges the forces for change but also acknowledges that our experience and education haven't prepared most of us to work in a world of increasing transparency, mobility, and jobs shared with automation of increasing intelligence.

I'm writing the book I hope will fill this gap and I need your help to be sure I'm on the right track.

For organizational leaders there are books on the forces for change (e.g., Brynjolffsson & McAfee’s Second Machine Age), predictions around the future (e.g., Malone’s The Future of Work), strategies that companies can and are taking (e.g., Wang’s Disrupting Digital Business), and examples of what some of the most forward looking companies are doing (e.g., Bock’s Work Rules! -- Google).

There are also books to help with specific techniques like creating a results only work environment (e.g., Ressler & Thompson’s Why Work Sucks and What To Do About It ) and possible actions for individuals inside and outside of organizations (e.g., Simon’s Message Not Received, and my own, The Plugged-In Manager).

What I have yet to find is a book that acknowledges the full reality of the futures of our work. All of us will be playing all of these roles simultaneously: Leading, strategizing, shifting work methods, and planning our own professional development -- while moving between traditional employment and freelancing.

Design and Redesign Throughout Our Careers

We will design and redesign our jobs and organizations. The organizational rate of change, reorganization, new initiatives, product development life cycle is all increasing. Additionally, many of us will be freelancing, at least part time, so we become the designers of our personal organization.

This last is a reality acknowledged in Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book, The Start-Up of You (p. 8 ): where they talk about the "...challenges of today's fractured career landscape." You and your career, they argue, needs to function as an entrepreneurial startup.

Even if you aren't part of the growing ranks of freelancers (see the forthcoming book, Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment, by Boudreau, Jesuthasan, and Creelman for more), whatever your span of control, take on the responsibility as if you were the CEO. That's part of the advice Maynard Webb (past COO of eBay and CEO of LiveOps) offers in his book with Carlye Adler, Rebooting Work: You have to be CEO of your own destiny.

Valuable advice, but most of us have never been a CEO nor do we have the broad organizational skills set necessary to be a good one.

What’s Missing?

What seems to be missing in this reading list is an overview -- and a project that acknowledges that a book is not enough. Like this mind map, we need an overview with options for deeper dives. More than a book; a book as an introduction and then connections to a living outline and community for future learning. Do you think there a place for a book, and more, on how to lead, strategize, shift work methods, and plan for our own futures of work?

Am I on the right track? What else should I be considering?

I've been hinting at this project for a while. Some of these older posts were trial balloons, others are sneak peeks. Please let me know here, on Twitter, or Facebook, which seem the most valuable and where you'd like to know more. I'll be working on a full outline to share as I hear back.

If you are not reading this on, please click here to provide your comments. I would love to hear about your own futures of work.

Gild Does for Hiring What Boeing Did for Airplanes

Airplane systems are incredibly complex, expensive, and directly affect performance. The same is true for the hiring process. Gild today announced their end-to-end “smart hiring success platform,” leveraging machine intelligence, automation, and collaboration. Just like aircraft “health” systems now save millions of dollars by collecting vast amounts of data and signaling to pilots and maintenance crews when to take action before there is a problem, Gild’s system offers a proactive on-line system using data and analytics to help the recruiting team find, recruit, and hire better candidates faster.

Recruiters Need Help

An entire field of psychology (and the 2002 Nobel prize in economics ) is devoted to helping us make good decisions --- because, left to our own devices, we often don’t. Research shows a variety of biases in hiring decisions and even in how people approach their own job search. Given that bad hiring decisions are incredibly costly, this is an area ripe for support by more data-centric approaches.

This isn’t to say that hiring decisions aren’t based on data now. They are, sometimes, it’s just that humans can only look at relatively small amounts of data. Machine systems, however, are tireless at sifting through applications, past results, and testing new approaches to learn the best way to do the task. I just received my copy of Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education . It’s nothing for IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence to read and learn from 9,000 recipes in Bon Appétit magazine (or 23 million MedLine papers when supporting cancer research). We can’t say the same for our own abilities to process information.

Gild’s Capabilities

In the case of the Gild platform, recruiting teams are supported in a hybrid approach to writing job postings, sourcing and communication with prospects, and even scheduling and interview support.

My first contact with Gild was when I read about their tools for identifying job prospects based on publicly available work and social media activity. Gild tools can reach into online sites like GitHub (a collaboration platform focused on building computer code) and StackOverflow (a popular question and answer site for programmers) to algorithmically identify the best coders. They’ve extended this ability (from their press release):

Smart sourcing: Gild’s hiring recommendation engine scours the web to compile a list of relevant prospects. Gild indicators tell recruiters which prospects are most likely to change jobs and the right time to reach out to them. Gild also applies patented technology to score tech prospects’ expertise (based on publicly available work) and demand (based on the current job market).

Adding Machine Learning to the Team

I got a glimpse of how current users are doing with Gild when I talked to co-founder and CEO, Sheeroy Desai last week. He said, “the more you use it, the smarter it gets.” The critical question for me was about how the recruiting teams adapt their work practice given Gild. Desai noted, “you need software that has the workflow [built in], but then you need the collaboration.” This isn’t about a machine taking over, it’s about evolving to better practice and outcomes. Recruiting teams learn the new tool, and the more they use it the more valuable it becomes, but I suspect they also need to reevaluate how they coordinate their work in the same way you would with any new team member.

We have a fairly mature understanding of how to support human project teams: Involve only people needed for the work (rather than for political reasons), allow the groups to stay together over multiple projects, provide feedback from the task itself, keep meetings focused on work rather than reporting, etc. However, we do not have a standard set of best practices for integrating hybrid systems into standing teams. We don’t have a clear process for helping people hand off tasks where the system will do a better job -- and perhaps more importantly -- helping people see the opportunities in their uniquely human capabilities. My book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get In Tune With Your People, Technology, and Organization To Thrive , is a start, but Watson didn’t win Jeopardy until 2011, so machine teammates didn’t make it into the discussion.

Perhaps it’s an easier transition in aviation where these systems are focused on other machines rather than people. For talent management, we may have to work harder to make the transition. We may, as I’ve had the chance to write about elsewhere, lead by letting go: We may accelerate our improvement by letting go of systems and rules built to run 20th century organizations (while still holding tight to our values, relationships, and performance standards).

How have you incorporated machine capabilities into your own workflow? What is your biggest challenge as you try? Let me know in the comments section here (or at

Will LinkedIn & Help Us Race With The Machines?

Last year, 1,896 experts responded to questions from the Pew Research Center around how artificial intelligence and robotics will affect our work and lives by 2025. The group was about evenly split on whether more jobs would be created or destroyed, but they also gave more nuanced comments on the different themes underlying their thinking. One theme tightly related to my own research is summarized as, “Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.” Technology will change the nature of work. Technology can also help us cope with these changes.

LinkedIn and

Think about LinkedIn. With 107 Million users in the United States and 347 Million worldwide, many of us have already gone to the effort of providing LinkedIn’s machines with our work history. Combine this with LinkedIn's recent announcement that they will pay $1.5 Billion for professional education company

Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO is quoted in a press release:

The mission of LinkedIn and the mission of are highly aligned. Both companies seek to help professionals be better at what they do…’s extensive library of premium video content helps empower people to develop the skills needed to accelerate their careers. When integrated with the hundreds of millions of members and millions of jobs on LinkedIn, can change the way in which people connect to opportunity.

Lifelong Learning Demanded by the Shrinking “Half-Life” of our Job Knowledge -- But Machines Can Help

Jobs evolve more quickly than they have in the past. For example, half the knowledge in some fields of psychology is expected to be obsolete in less than six years. For information technology professionals, the pace is even faster.

My version of the best outcome of the LinkedIn/ acquisition is that the deep integration of our LinkedIn work histories and LinkedIn’s broad perspective on available jobs, and the skills needed to do them, will help us prepare for a world where work is constantly changing and we have to race to stay current. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call this racing with the machines instead of against them.

LinkedIn may be able to combine what it knows about the kinds of jobs that are available (via its recruiting services), the kinds of skills we have (via our LinkedIn profiles), and predictive analytics (data crunching focused on testing what might happen next) to direct us towards the most valuable educational opportunities offered by the content. Ideally, we’d have enough time to prepare for the jobs of the future and stay ahead of the curve. The machine becomes our partner in career planning at exactly the time that we need it.

Do you feel like the pace of change in your work is increasing? For career success, what’s the right mix of staying up to date on factual knowledge (book learning), the technologies (tools) of your work, and your professional (human) networks?

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