For those who need to understand how the Web is transforming the way businesses work, yada yada yada
December 9 , 1998
Business and Time
Good news! An especially short JOHO! You lucky people!
What's put the stopper in my filter-free, large bore (in every sense) bung hole? Three significant factors have impacted this new challenge which is also an opportunity (sorry, I've been going to too many conferences):
1. I have a topic that I'd rather not drown in the sulfurous lava stream issuing from Mt. JOHO. (Hmm, an apt metaphor since this would be a mountain that builds itself up with its own effluvium.)
2. I'm buying myself a little more time on the next issue. I sort of have like real, paying work to do, heaven forfend!
3. I'm trying out a new mass mailer and if it craps out, at least it'll crap out on a JOHO-ette. (Notice that this contradicts reason #1.) Why be suspicious of the robustness of this mass mailer? I wrote it myself. Ack. Those who have seen my "programs" know that by this time tomorrow, I probably will have been discovered to have caused a Spam Spill in which anyone who has ever sent me mail has received 256 copies of the contents of my secret "no_dirty_pictures_in_here" directory.
Please let me know if you notice any mail-based anomalies (other than the usual ones of content and style) in this issue. Thanks!
Business and Time:
The Death of Done-ness
Be prepared for the most heavy-handed introduction to a cheesy business trends article, possibly in history. (Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)
In 1927, Martin Heidegger published Being and Time, a seminal work (not in the Clinton blue dress sense) that said that the defining characteristic of existing things is how they are in time. For example, the traditional (= Platonic) view is that what's really real is eternal and unchanging whereas the experienced world is less real precisely because it is always changing.
Now let's try to apply this to today's business world, without actually laughing.
Intranets provide an infrastructure that enables people to work together in new ways. The nature of that infrastructure itself affects the nature of the work done using it. (If you disagree, please tender your resignation to JOHO; it is the premise of all we do and say. Hell, it's the basis of my 62-year marriage.)
Maybe the most important change intranets will bring will be in the temporal nature of business, that is, what business time is like.
No, I'm not referring to "Internet time" although it is certainly true that the Internet is speeding up the metabolism of business. It's so true, it's a truism. (We here at JOHO shy away from truisms, far preferring Falsisms, statements so false that they're especially fun to maintain.)
No, I'm referring to the quality of business time. Right now, business time is chunky, a type of "punctuated equilibrium," to use the phrase of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. When you get a knowledge-heavy assignment ("Should we be partnering with XYZ Co.?", "What's our marketing strategy for introducing the self-strangulation module?"), you retire to your cubicle and pound away at a document for a week, print up five copies and defend it at a meeting. Once you have punctuated the equilibrium by "putting your stake in the ground," changing your mind constitutes losing and you will do whatever you have to to make your stake stick. (This dogged insistence on maintaining even one's false positions is one of the few ways in which being a businessperson is like being a philosophy professor.)
In a previous issue, I maintained, in a stake-pounding sort of way, that once we have an office tool capable of producing web pages as easily as it produces "normal" documents, and once it is as easy to publish to an intranet site as to your networked HP LaserBombadier (did you see "Hellcats of Toner" with Nancy "Reagan" Davis? Stirring!), we will approach our assignments entirely differently. We will immediately build an intranet site, post some "initial thoughts," and invite in a group of comrades to "kick around some ideas."
Pretend I'm right for once. Would it kill you? This "little change" will have very large consequences for how we work with documents (and, as we'll see in a moment, for how we work in general):
The intranet site itself becomes the locus of value, not the finished document.
The site has value throughout the process, while the finished document has value only once it's published.
With a normal document, the author is responsible. With an intranet site, there are many ways responsibility can be assigned: the site manager may take sole responsibility, there may be a vote, it may work by consensus, it may rest on the last person standing.
Clearly this gets at the two main characteristics of normal documents:
1. They are created by authors who take responsibility for them.
2. They only have "standing" (and thus corporate value) once they are done and published.
Breaking the rhythm of normal documents, going from work-work-work-publish to talk-talk-talk-talk-talk, will make a difference beyond the way we work with documents.
Changes in the public and private
Consider the close relationship between done-ness and privacy.
While we're working on a normal document, it is not yet public. Being done with a document means publishing it and publishing is the act of making public.
Because we work in private until we publish, currently there's lots of weight on the finished document. The done document, after all, is the value the corporation receives from the work you were allowed to do in your cubicle. The document further represents the author's career chances: the thin paper on which it's printed is the ice on which the author hopes to skate to the top. (Ok, forget the metaphor.)
So, the current publishing cycle creates a clear demarcation between the public and private, and it encourages you to go public with highly formal presentations of your work self, written in the voiceless voice of the corporate world to abate some of the risk inherent in declaring yourself in public.
The new way of working via collaborative web sites changes the line between the public and private. You'll work in the public eye for a large percentage of your time -- maybe just about all your time.
And moving the line between public and private obviously has many ramifications. For example, because we'll remain averse to risk and public humiliation, we will increasingly adopt a cynical, hands-off attitude towards our own work. "It's just some BS I thought of," you'll say as you post what you think may be a pretty cool idea.
Authorship, ownership and voice
The concept of ownership is tied up with authorship. (Authorship is tied up with authenticity, i.e., being your ownself, as well.) When we "author" documents differently, when it becomes a group activity, we move into a world of document communism (see the previous issue), not the current document feudalism. The work of business resolves not into the fiercely-marked contributions of individuals but the squishily-marked domains of groups. As they say in detective novels, there are too many footprints to tell who the culprit is.
At the same time as authorship as a type of property right slips away from individuals, individual voices will return. Collaborative web sites will be full of the sound of individuals speaking in their own voice. In fact, there will be a tendency to exaggerate one's voice to maintain distinctiveness. (I.e., we're all going to sound like our own version of RageBoy. Ack!)
Hyperlinked organizations, wit and bad ideas
We will also have more control over whom we deal with in our public business life. After you've created the intranet web site for your project, you'll send the URL to the people you think can contribute. Org chart boxes and lines of authority won't concern you much at all. Thus, we'll see the immediate subverting of the traditional hierarchy and the growth of truly hyperlinked organizations.
In this anarchy of roles, the witty reply will become more valuable than the well-reasoned brief. We already see this happening. On the negative side, you can destroy more competing ideas through snarkiness and a well-placed drop of poison than by plopping down the tome of research you've compiled.
This will require us to learn to tolerate bad ideas as a defense against having our own bad ideas used against us. This, in turn, will allow people to maintain a ratio of nine bad ideas for every one good one without losing face.
Ready vs. done
In every place that it's feasible, we'll move from shipping-on-deadline to shipping-when-ready. And when it's required that we make time chunky, that we drive to a deadline, we'll want the group responsible to set the deadline, not the external, blind, ignorant managers who will deliver crap if that's what it takes to make a deadline. (Crappiness takes a while to detect while lateness is apparent immediately.)
The motor for speed will be in each of us, not imposed from without.
There will, of course, remain business processes that do not lend themselves to collaborative web sites, diversified responsibility, and readiness instead of deadlines. For example: processing mortgage applications, manufacturing tongue depressors, and complying with the federal safety standards for insertable items of personal hygiene. We're looking at a mixed economy of time.
The rhythm of our work life will move from punctuated equilibrium -- narratives with dramatic scenes at the end -- to constant effervescence (with just a hint of lemon). The wits and the bon vivants -- and, therefore, the lightweights and the gadflies -- will flourish. Chatter beats speeches. Repartee trumps tragedies. Nimbleness creams Schwarzeneggerian heroism. The lunkheads perish in the cold. The mayflies swarm, flit, swarm some more.
Communities, yes. But communities in the flavors of herds, flocks, and swarms. (Notice that it's time that distinguishes these flavors.) The buzzing of flies replaces the precise click of cogs.
Time is changing. Duck.
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