Storytelling is not what I do for a living – it is how I do all that I do while I am living – Donald Davis
Most, if not all, of you will be familiar with the parlour game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” in which players try to connect anyone in Hollywood with the eponymous actor through their film roles. It is thought to have its roots in the small-world experiment of social psychologist, Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s experiment had its genesis in Guglielmo Marconi’s conjectures which he articulated in his 1909 Nobel Prize address and Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy’s challenge to find another person to whom he could not be connected through at most five people. Anyone reading Milgram’s findings will see many significant parallels with the social networks we interact through so often today. The principles it introduces foreshadow the way in which these networks allow us to overcome the tyranny of distance and the virtual shrinking of our world. I see Jon Husband’s work on wirearchy (as opposed to hierarchy) as an organising principle to be a direct descendant of Marconi, Karinthy and Milgram.
One train of thought is that the interconnectedness enabled by digital, mobile technologies might improve opportunities for collaborative innovation and, by extension, productivity. The challenge here, as it was to Milgram’s findings, is one of nonresponse bias and attrition rate: “If one assumes a constant portion of non-response for each person in the chain, longer chains will be under-represented because it is more likely that they will encounter an unwilling participant.” Overcoming this challenge requires more deliberate action across the chain to “force” connections and visual topologies as an aid to navigation and thus to unleash that elusive productivity. Western economies are faced with flat-lining productivity, as highlighted in recent reports from the Office for National Statistics and the International Monetary Fund and this represents a significant drag on sorely needed economic growth. This growth is seen by many as an imperative in reducing inequality and raising living standards.
One factor cited in reports on the productivity problem is that of engagement. That is, people find it hard to see that they make a worthwhile contribution to something they believe in. The work they do does not seem to serve any useful social purpose and the organisations in which they work seem to value short term profits over long term, benign, sustainable, socially useful influence in the world. The ephemeral nature of much of this work lies in “knowledge work”, the movement of packets of information or data across networks. It’s hard to ascribe a monetary value to much of this work. Post-industrial economies don’t have widgets rolling off a conveyor belt. The monetisation of “knowledge work” remains troublesome and our current measure of output per worker per hour worked is imperfect in this context.
Something akin to “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is often used to ascribe value to work that might at first glance seem inconsequential to the overall purpose of an initiative or organisation. There is an apocryphal tale in which JFK, on a visit to Cape Canaveral in the 1960s, asks a man in overalls (I’ve heard him variously described as an office janitor, the guys sweeping the runway and a spacesuit technician) what work he did there. The reply comes “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”. There’s a remarkably similar story about an incognito Christopher Wren visiting the under-construction St. Paul’s Cathedral. In this instance he is told “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.” As with all good stories, apocryphal or otherwise, this one has gained currency because it tells an important truth about how we might value contribution.
This storytelling is important because bald statistics and economics do not tell compelling stories by themselves. The absence of these compelling stories of our alternate future lies, I believe, in the paucity of answers to the challenges we face. The organisations that wield influence are intent on maintaining the status quo. Our pernicious reliance on debt props up the financial sector; our love affair with fossil fuels keeps us in bed with oppressive regimes; shopping as our third most popular leisure pursuit and our flighty relationship with morals and ethics maintain sweatshops in the developing world. At present there are but a few degrees of separation between our work and something unpleasant. With no tangible product we can’t even tell ourselves if we are being productive. We feel busy. We work longer hours. We have longer working lives. But there seems little to show for it. The temptation, in the face of this stalled or invisible productivity, will be to turn again to the workforce.
To rush to look at skills and learning and development, important though these assuredly are. To look once more for discretionary effort against a backdrop of low wage growth. To sweat those “assets”. To treat the symptoms rather than the disease.
The cathedrals we now build are monuments to a failed and failing world of work. We are in a headlong rush to a world of impermanence built on the quicksand of man-made volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We can choose to follow those who want chaos to be our story. Or we can start the hard work of building something more permanent and stable. Something we can see and feel. Something worth telling stories about.
Serene, certain, straightforward and clear.