Networks arise when isolated entities link to one another. Improvements in communications technology (e.g., the invention of language, writing, printing, mass communication, computer networks) encourage connections. The denser its linkages, the shorter a network’s cycle time. Speed begets speed.
The connections that knit us together make us interdependent. Because other members of the network impact what you do, you lose even the illusion of control. The future becomes unpredictable.
Factory workers once were paid for what they produced. In a mechanized system, the slowest worker produced only slightly less than the fastest. If workers produced one widget an hour, paying by the hour was equivalent to paying by the widget. It also was simpler to measure. Managers became accustomed to equating time with production.
For the knowledge worker, time on the job often is unrelated to output. Google’s recruiters figure that an exemplary engineer can create 200 times more value than an average engineer. Only a fool would think it fair to pay each by the hour.
Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.
Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.
That single moment of brilliance may be more valuable than years of production. The flash occurs in Internet time. A year of Internet time is roughly equivalent to seven years of calendar time. The term came into being because in its first year, Netscape was said to accomplish what had taken others at least seven years. (The firm has since imploded at an accelerated pace as well.) Internet time is a generalization, like a New York minute, the idea being that it’s faster than regular time.
A businessperson with a watch knows what time it is, but a businessperson with two watches does not. Most managers tell time with Industrial Age watches, acting as if Internet time does not exist and missing the prospects it offers.
Opportunities abound because the world now moves on ideas instead of things. Value has migrated from tangible assets you could see and touch to intangible assets such as ideas, relationships, patterns and reputation. Twenty-five years ago, intangible assets accounted for less than a third of the valuation of U.S. companies. Ten years later, more than 80 percent of that value was intangible.
In the world of intangibles, quality trumps quantity. You can build a relationship or develop an idea in a fraction of the time it took to build a factory. Furthermore, some efforts yield outsized rewards. As in nature, for every action, there may be an unequal and totally unexpected reaction. The butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazon is perhaps the catalyst for Hurricane Katrina. An algorithm might give birth to the 17th most valuable company on the Fortune 500.
Chief learning officers consider themselves enlightened if they provide workers with a month of training per year. This would have been generous when the pace of business allowed for three-martini lunches and the nature of work rarely changed. Today, everyone is busy nearly every waking moment, they figure things out on their own, and they deal with increasingly complex situations. Routine tasks crowd out reflection and innovation.
Today’s managers have scenarios and possibilities, not single-track plans. This calls for new models. Some creative workers would produce more value were they required to dedicate 11 months of the year to learning and one month to innovation and decision making. Meta-learning and flexible infrastructure are becoming more important than individual topics. “Learning to be” will supplant “learning to know.”
At the dawn of the network age, managers enjoyed the luxury of annual planning. They communicated the firm’s goals to the training department, which in turn translated those goals into workshops, learning management systems and so forth. Back then, the past resembled the future closely enough that driving by the rearview mirror was feasible. Today’s rapid changes require very responsive driving skills. The road is being built a little of the way ahead, and it could take a turn we don’t expect.