The Five Estates of Technology

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…work is no longer a place to go and come back from… it’s a state, a state which is no longer hinged to locations or to premises…

My daughter is in third grade but, she is already conversant with computers. When I got her an iPad, she mastered its use in a couple of days. There is no denying that technology is evolving quickly, continuously, and getting more embedded in our lives. It makes me wonder how the world would be when today’s 8 years old are in their twenties.

Porter said that organizations – in order to maintain their competitiveness – should focus on their core competencies. Implicit in this is (a) value stems from structural advantage, (b) uncertainties being low, strategies can be made according to competitors’ behavior, and (c) automation can lead to structural advantages. As a result, workflows, processes were either based on management laws like these or on lessons from the industrial revolution.  However, rapid technology and business changes are eroding these concepts. Their failure is often attributed to the incorrect focus on beating competition instead of generating more business.

Success stories such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon demonstrate that high-speed response to rapid changes, unique offerings rather than standardized services, and obsessive focus on customers is the new normal. This means centering strategies on the human being – as a consumer or as a resource.

In sociology, stratification of a community is an optimized approach to maintain balance – both of power and resources. These estates of stratification can be used as an analogy to describe technology’s usage, evolution, proliferation, and effect.

First Estate (The clergy): Characterized by the limited use of technology and it being shut-out from public. This is partially because technology is expensive and requires specialized skills, and partially because its use is limited to serve specific objectives that do not have immediate touch-points in everyday life and business. Hence usage remains in the hands of few and for limited functions.

Second Estate (The nobility and royalty): The beginning of devolution of technology is the hallmark of this Estate. Although technology becomes more accessible it is not necessarily easy to use. Hence its operation and management continues to be limited to a few who understood its intricacies due to their expertise, experience, or closeness to decision making. Large scale usage in the industry is still absent.

Third Estate (The generality of people):  Technology begins reaching the “shop floor”. Businesses begin to understand how it can be harnessed to improve productivity. For progress and efficient processes more technology is deployed. However, at the same time rationalization and consolidation are used as means to build more control, structure, and efficiency.

Fourth Estate (The societal force): Technology becomes more commonplace, easier to use. Skills required to use technology become widespread, and technology integrates heavily into workflows. The decentralization approach is used to enable agility and flexibility. However, technology remains bound within four walls and processes that it supports remained buried within the premises.

Fifth Estate (The perfect storm): Technology costs decrease and its capabilities improve dramatically. Convergence of networks, powerful devices, game-changing services, and blurring of boundaries between work and pleasure fosters “Ubiquitous Computing”. Technology is liberated from the confines of workplaces. This is the fifth estate.

The fifth estate creates a living fabric comprising of services, processes, technology, and humans. It provides the possibility of innovating faster beyond organizational boundaries compared to internal setups. Questioning traditional approaches it creates new business models. It pervades everyday life, work and evolves as it encounters new scenarios and challenges. It manifests itself through Social Media, Mobility, Analytics, and Cloud – dominant forces that will shape future organizations and societies.

If economic, geo-political events have taught us anything, it is that “rapid change” is here to stay. Organizations will have to jump into new scenarios without necessarily knowing the full details or the final outcomes. In order to succeed, they will need to develop the ability to fail fast, learn, innovate, and regroup.

This is the initial stage of the age of “knowledge work”. And already there is a growing demand to break-out of silos (functional, technological, process-based, location etc). Knowledge workers believe that “work” is no longer a place to go and come back from.  Instead it’s a state, a state which is no longer hinged to locations or to premises. This fundamental change in thinking brought about by the fifth estate is turning the concepts of the Industrial revolution on their head.

As pressure increases, traditional workflows will be abandoned; job families superseded and organizational models changed drastically. Business ecosystems are likely to become even more symbiotic. In effect, the nature of work will undergo a radical change. The following are my predictions for the future of work:

  1. Ecosystem Kanban: Task assignment was direct consequence of the industrial revolution where a more linear workflow was required. Workers of the future will no longer be assigned individual tasks. Having broader skill-sets making it will be easier for them to perform a variety of activities. Hence, they will probably choose what they want to do from a central location. This kind of work crowd sourcing will require Kanban type approaches on an organization or business-ecosystem level.
  2. Hyper Specialization: Future processes will be highly automated, running on advanced rules engines and supported by self-correcting systems. Incapability, needs, and gaps in systems create job families to fulfill them (E.g. System Administrator). Job families then become basis of specializations. In the future, specialization will become highly “niche” focusing on areas extreme criticality or where know-how is rare. These “Hyper Specialists” could have deep expertise in one area or extremely broad cross-domain experience.
  3. Ecosystem Optimization: Mobility, cross-boundary processes and blended nature of work will lead to service management initiatives at the business ecosystem level. These efforts will focus on amalgamation of processes to facilitate enhanced, secured (and yet unrestricted) interactions among relevant stationary and transient components – technology, information, human, and organizational actors. The intention being to improve the whole ecosystem in adapting to changes in business goals, economy, objectives, and needs.[Note: Ecosystem Kanban design, development, and implementation will become in component in these initiatives]
  4. Global Ohana: Processes will become interconnected, and more people will be involved in making and executing on decisions. This connect-and-collaborate environment will give rise to self-managed, self-organizing, multi-disciplinary teams that will work in a complex and adaptive environment. Hence, management will change from the hierarchical function divided structures to something which is more organic in nature where each node will operate as an information receptor and responder.
  5. Disrupted Narrative: In brick-and-mortar model processes are liner in nature. This helps in building assembly lines which can be optimized and use economies of scale. However, linearity is not the hallmark of knowledge work which is intrinsically non-liner in nature. Due to this, on a macroscopic level, future work will look chaotic. It will require new means to manage, anchor the process, and measure productivity. Hence, traditional project management based on the philosophy of achieving milestones will be abandoned or overhauled.
  6. The Matrix (…one can’t be told what it is…): Two decades from now workforce will be tech-savvy and most likely come with an advance level of knowledge. Hence, they will probably not go through any training. As initiation exercises, organizations will provide sandboxes, different problem types and tools. Workers will be encouraged to analyze problems and determine the tools that they would like to use to solve them. These rites of initiation will augment innovation processes by harnessing novel approaches developed by new-hires.
  7. Intelligent Convergence. In the future, AI, augmented reality, and analytics will be at their peak. Workers will have fewer restrictions on the tools they want to use. And these place and time agnostic tools will be supported by high-class networks and data stores. Typing being a time consuming exercise, information will be captured from speech. Intelligent analytics will sift through ideas (or commands) to identify patterns and improve them with relevant information gathered through secondary information stores.

The five estates of technology will probably continue to exist in tomorrow’s world. In the present they are demarcated chronologically, but in the future technology might move from one estate to another more rapidly. Due to process breakthroughs, technological advances and innovations will most likely be much faster. Two decades from now, technology and its usage will snap from one estate to another. The existence, interaction, and friction between the five estates will lead to further innovation which in turn will drive society and business forward.

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Prashant

Technologist,by profession. Principled,by nature. Nonconformist,by choice. Thinker,by habit. Corporate Slave,by force. Dreamer,by desire. Seeker,by destiny.