What Is digital “work?” Can we sell a cloud of smoke? Yes and the impacts are very tangible. [2 of 8]

IN THIS second in an 8 POST SERIES, BRAD SZOLLOSE AND ROB HIRSCHFELD INVITE YOU TO SHARE IN OUR DISCUSSION ABOUT FAILURES, FIGHTS AND FRIGHTENING TRANSFORMATIONS GOING ON AROUND US AS DIGITAL WORK CHANGES WORKPLACE DELIVERABLES, PLANNING AND CULTURE.

So, what is a Digital worker?  Before we talk about managing them, we need to agree to the very concept of digital work.

A Digital Worker is someone who creates value primarily by creating virtual goods and services.  This creates a challenge for traditional work because, in the physical world, no material goods were created.

ManagersBack in The Day, this type of work was equivalent to selling day dreams – it had no material value. It was intangible.

To today’s tech savvy workforce, even though their output exists simply as numbers in the “cloud,” digital work is tangible to digital natives.

Tangible work is directly consumable. If I create something I can see it, hold it in my hands. Eat it and enjoy it in the three dimensional meatverse we call “reality.” So, If I baked a pie and Brad ate it then I produced consumable work. That same rule applies for digital work like this blog post that Brad and I produced and you are reading. It’s nothing more than photons on a screen, but the value is immense and you can see the tangible results of our work.

The entire industrial age up until now was driven by a basic premise of effort equals results so eloquently stated by management consultant, Peter Drucker“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

But much of what we do in the nascent stage of Digital Age, the beginning of the 21st Century, can NOT be measured using traditional value placements.

Case in point, what happens if we only worked when our spouses told us it was time to stop playing Candy Crush and get back to writing? We’re still producing digital work but now our spouses have taken on the role of managers. While they played an essential part in the content being created, their input is intangible and something that cannot be measured. Our spouse becomes the influencer in this model.

We need to revisit “If You Can’t Measure It You Can’t Manage.”  It is BS! no longer applies in digital work.

This distinction is important because we want to distinguish between digital workers and managers. They do very similar actions (type on keyboards, send email, go to meetings), but one creates digital goods while the other coordinates the creation of digital goods.

In the world of physical goods, the people coordinating HOW the work gets done have a significant amount of power. They provide the raw materials, tools, capital, supply chains and other requirements to get the goods to market. i.e…logistics. The actions of any single worker cannot scale in a meaningful way without management being involved; consequently, management has a tremendous amount of power (and corresponding respect) in the worker-manager relationship paradigm. This is not just for industrial work, the same applies to farming, singing, writing or other industries and defines most work in the pre-digital world of the Boomers, Traditionalists and earlier generations.

But let’s extend our simple example to a team of animators creating special effects for a movie. Pixar for example. The work requires each member of the team to already be up to speed on their specific role in the animation process. Whether a sculptor, character development, a digital set designer or character animator, each member knows what they need to do to be their very best, and how to reach their own deadlines. They are self managed and the very best at their jobs. And each is in charge of creating from the digital universe the same logistics mentioned above. Instead of management providing that support, the digital worker is their own support within the team.

The digital world inverts the traditional worker-manager dynamic.

With digital goods, the raw materials, tools, capital, supply chains and other requirements to get the goods to market. i.e…again, logistics are readily available so the worker’s creativity and effort become the critical resource.

A so called “manager” in this framework has one job: to provide the support and right environment to get the work done. Like a beekeeper, he must trust that each bee knows how to create honey. His or her job is to make their jobs friction free by making the environment the very best to get that work done. Trust is the key word.

bunny slippersThere is still need for management and coordination, but the power dynamic has been radically altered. While anyone could follow Rob’s pie recipe, you cannot simply replace his role as co-author on this blog post. Even more radical, there’s often no perceived need for managers at all!  Digital workers simply order pizza and produce digital goods in their bathrobe and bunny slippers.

While this vision is held as a core belief by many digital natives, we don’t believe it entirely.

But wait Rob and Brad, what about those YouTube millionaires who upload cat videos and cash in?  In those cases, there is a lot of invisible coordination in the distribution channel. The massive infrastructure needed to deliver Grumpy Cat is also digital work and Google invests vast sums of money to reduce the friction connecting those content creators and consumers. [Google and YouTube are the beekeeper.]

We believe the need for coordination of digital work is a critical and necessary component for real digital work to get done on time. Unfortunately, the inversion of power means that managers have neither the authority not resource controls that were in place when “modern management techniques” were created.

Our focus here is not on the lone wolf digital workers, but instead, we are focused on the collaborative digital worker. Those people who must collaborate with each other to deliver their goods. For those workers, there is a need for capital, supply chains and coordination. Their work is just a bit of the larger digital whole.

If “modern management” does not work for digital workers then what does?

Let’s keep in mind as we explore this discussion that these are High Trust environments and the subject for our next 6 posts.  Read post 3.

3 thoughts on “What Is digital “work?” Can we sell a cloud of smoke? Yes and the impacts are very tangible. [2 of 8]

  1. Pingback: Jazz vs. Symphony: Why micromanaging digital work FAILS. | Rob Hirschfeld

  2. Pingback: Management free falling! Why The Zappos & Valve Model is Terrifying [Post 4 of 8] | Rob Hirschfeld

  3. Pingback: Can Digital Workers Deliver? No. [cloud culture vs. traditional management, post 1 of 8] | Rob Hirschfeld

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