When the American colonists rejected the rule of monarchy, much of the world considered the rebellion doomed to fail. After all, the colonies were young, possessed a small army, and lived under an experimental governing structure. The disobedient rabble—the grassroots—would fall into line once the British military might came to bear. Right?
Well, we all know how it ended, don’t we? And it all started with those considered to be “at the bottom.”
Fast forward 250 years, and while the discussions of today’s new world of work revolve around information mobilityrather than taxation without representation, this idea of grassroots movements driving change is still embedded in our culture. Today, individuals feel comfortable reaching out directly to C-suite executives of major companies, or organizing and managing global conversations and events via social media platforms. In today’s transformative digital world, people have the same access to the same information as everyone else around them – anywhere, anytime. It’s an even playing field of knowledge and accessibility that did not exist at any prior point in our history.
But this access to information, technology and people isn’t just confined to the office. In fact, the technology driving some of the biggest changes in the way we work today are often first adopted outside of the office walls. From VOIP or shared cloud spaces, to tablets or mobile applications focused on productivity – this technology is enabling change from the bottom up faster than at any point in our history; which means your business needs to adapt. Here are a few examples of this principle in action:
SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE ENTERPRISE
Ten years ago, social media barely existed. Five years ago, Facebook and Twitter weren’t considered serious extensions to a business and blogging was considered a personal hobby. Today, blogs are not only a corporate standard to provide a point of view, but also a critical sales tool to connect with potential prospects. Facebook (among others) is at the core of many a marketing team’s ecommerce strategy to drive user acquisition and bottom-line dollars. Even how we communicate and receive our news was radically altered with the sudden appearance of Twitter as a real-time communication tool.
It wasn’t always like this. It took years for professionals to realize that these tools had a business function outside of their initial intended uses. The steady drum beat of innovation building up to today’s new world of work made it inevitable that a grassroots movement would figure out how to adapt these technologies to power businesses – and in response, many a new business has been created because of it. It’s turned business models on their head, as “social influencers” become recognized voices of authority even before well-established journalists, forcing the c-suite to take notice and shift marketing budgets.
Online gaming is not usually associated with the corporate world (though The Office may tend to disagree). However, services like Steam have been connecting players around the globe since March of 2002, and businesses have been scrambling to duplicate this concept ever since. Although it wasn’t initially called “the cloud”, the Steam platform familiarized millions of gamers with the concept of connecting to a global network of like-minded people, gaming and sharing experiences from the comfort of their living room or basement. Few understood the technical intricacies involved, and fewer cared. But how many times did an employee sit at his or her desk and wonder why their company couldn’t figure out how to connect their employees, like millions of gamers were doing every day?
From these humble gaming roots, the concept of the cloud has morphed into entire industries powering businesses. From shared cloud spaces, data storage solutions, social enterprise networks, software and infrastructure as a service, to unified communication platforms, the cloud has come a long way from simple beginnings.
THE HOME AS AN INCUBATOR
As touched on previously, the new world of work means that many technologies are developed and adopted in homes before becoming an indispensable part of how business is conducted in the office.
The mundane and ubiquitous email systems first exploded in living rooms all over the country well before being embraced by CEO’s. Tablets were a plaything and neat gadget until they had the time to mature and evolve into a worthy tool for the business professional. Video conferencing was used to connect families across oceans before it was used to connect teams across offices. The internet itself was merely used to support “electronically exchanged information” like purchase orders before consumer demand helped craft the internet as we know it today.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
The time from niche to trend to business adoption is condensing as the pace of technological change continues to increase. And hierarchal structures must respond faster than ever in order to remain competitive. So what’s really happening in today’s new world of work? It may be nearly impossible to predict, but here are a few indicators of the current revolution that might be driving change at your business:
PERSONAL CHAT NETWORKS
We’ve all seen it – kids texting each other in the backseat of the car. Yes, they may be more than a foot apart, but they’re not talking – they’re texting. And this trend toward a wider embrace of instant messaging is being reflected in businesses, as companies of all sizes incorporate internal chat/collaboration via internally hosted systems or public chat platforms like Skype, AIM, Jive, Yammer and MSN. This type of collaborative communication may also drive the creation of ad-hoc, “personal Internets” or wireless mesh networks that allow for a more personal, instantaneous connection with friends and colleagues.
Shifting tedious and fatiguing tasks into interesting, engaging experiences is nothing new. After all, Tom Sawyer gamified fence painting long ago. Today, the technique of leveraging people’s natural desires for achievement, status and self-expression is being applied to everything from customer service to finance, to organizational advocacy on the part of the employee
Today, every student can access any piece of data or historical reference point from anywhere, and at any time. News feeds are real-time, and for the first time in history, information is truly at the tip of our fingertips. And that’s true of everyone. This democratized flow of information is so dense that it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff on our own. This is why smart searching and intelligent matching of interest applications like Zite are today becoming more prevalent. A step further, and we can see that the paradigm of searching for information is becoming outdated. In fact, new world of work innovations such as Google Now are flipping the model on its head by having information relevant to a user search them out and be available at a contextually relevant moment. It will only be a matter of time before business professionals seek to educate their leaders on the benefits of having contextual systems with information at the ready.
GRASSROOTS CHANGE – NOT ANARCHY
In the past, the ruling class has decided which devices to buy, what features to expect, and how much we should pay, typically based on their go-to market strategies and production schedules. I call this demand generationwithout representation. And it’s not sustainable. The days of being able to easily shape the technology landscape are waning as end users demand more and faster innovations. Five year manufacturing schedules and three year marketing plans are stodgy, slow and out of touch.
One company who understands this grassroots approach is Valve, the creator of the Steam platform and games like Half-Life and Portal. Valve’s Michael Abrash showed a great understanding of today’s changing business world when he wrote:
“…hierarchical management had been invented for military purposes, where it was perfectly suited to getting 1,000 men to march over a hill to get shot at. When the Industrial Revolution came along, hierarchical management was again a good fit, since the objective was to treat each person as a component, doing exactly the same thing over and over…”
Today, processes performed over and over can be automated and delivered in an app. Military-esque command and control hierarchies are only serving to choke innovation. But just as in the American Revolution, people are finding reasons to look to each other for change, rather than waiting for it to come from above. In today’s new world of work, revolution – and transformation – is constant, and how well your business adapts to this fact will be a key indicator of your future success.