Let’s all get plugged into the new network

The impact of working in a networked economy cannot be ignored, argues Will Hutton of the Industrial Society, which launches its Futures Domain this week.

The next decade promises to bring more change in our working lives than any since the war. There is the emergence of a single world market in goods and services, the accompanying growth of titanic corporations and the further development of a global financial market generating vast and volatile flows of capital.

These alone would define our times as something close to revolutionary. But on top there is the impact of digitalisation on our capacity to communicate and disseminate information. This is the world based around the Internet, the potential of which as a change agent is only just beginning to be understood.

Organisational refocus

Professor of sociology at Berkeley University in California, Manuel Castells, whose pathfinding work on the information society has led him to be hailed as the intellectual prophet of the 21st century, argues we are watching the emergence of a new form of organisation – the network.

In essence, to compete on speed, price and competence, organisations cannot expect to do everything in-house. It is not just that there is a new impetus to contracting out; it is that the Internet refocuses the entire organisation so that the barriers to internal and external communication collapse.

The office and factory become more porous; partnerships, alliances, joint ventures and new all-encompassing industry structures will emerge that, of necessity, must change the way we work. And because this is a world phenomenon, globalisation will ensure that these drivers of change become universally adopted at astonishing speed.

This emerging economy and society is the environment the Industrial Society’s Futures Domain – to be launched on 28 July – will be mapping to enable society to anticipate what is happening and to campaign, inform and consult on the consequences.

For those who have doubts about the arrival of the network, consider the following examples.

Scientific research is now wholly networked; no laboratory or research centre acts alone. The Human Genome project is a classic example of the way new computer power and the Internet have transformed the depth with which research is undertaken.

The Sangster Laboratory in Cambridge was in daily contact with the other research centres in the US and Japan, down- and uploading the results of each phase of new work in a fashion that would have been inconceivable only five years ago. The result is that the genome network has delivered the “book of life” – the structure of human DNA.

Call centre culture

In another part of the economy, call centres now employ 2 per cent of the UK workforce. The centres can be located anywhere in the UK or where communication costs are low. Although they are telephone-based, each work station is part of a networked whole. Some call centres are wholly owned by the host organisation; others are companies in their own right contracting work from other companies and organisations. This networked structure is, as every reader knows, growing exponentially.

Some car makers, either alone or in alliances, are posting what will ultimately be all their supply needs on a master web site, inviting suppliers to engage in an auction for the contracts. This makes the process more transparent and competitive, driving prices down, but it also makes processing and monitoring work much easier.

Knowledge workers

The fashion is to describe all this as the knowledge economy, but I think to limit the impact to knowledge industries is misleading. Certainly knowledge workers, like those in scientific re- search, dotcom companies or the media, are at the forefront of this networking wave. But the real story is that the network will permeate every nook and cranny of our economy and society.

This is the assumption behind the first paper we are publishing, Free Workers, written by John Knell, deputy director of Futures. For people with the right mix of intellectual capital, self-confidence and emotional intelligence this new environment is empowering and liberating. What lies behind the new demands for work-life balance is the way individuals feel empowered and self-confident enough to insist on a balance between their personal agendas and those of work.

The impact of the network on the practice, conduct and culture of work, and the way organisations balance the pressures to deliver to ever-more demanding consumers, staff and shareholders alike, is the story of our times. The Industrial Society intends to be at the forefront in analysing these trends.

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