Blog Post

Busyness vs. Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive

There’s a culture clash inside office buildings where workers from the busyness economy sit in cubicles next to workers from the burst economy — web workers. Yes, that’s right: even if you work as a corporate employee in an office building, you may still be a web worker, using the Web for radical and unconventional productivity. If you are, your coworkers who don’t get how the Web changes work may think you’re a malingerer, given your incessant online connecting and surfing combined with your lack of attention to the old rules of work.

The busyness economy works on face time, incremental improvement, strategic long-term planning, return on investment, and hierarchical control. The burst economy, enabled by the Web, works on innovation, flat knowledge networks, and discontinuous productivity:

We used to talk about two steps forward and three steps back, and so on, but today it’s more like 50 steps sideways and 2000 steps forward. Networked, social-based opportunities are so explosive today than when we pursue them we’re flung forward at pace.

Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee identifies the culture clash between these two economies:

We’ve spent the past couple weeks in my MBA class discussing E2.0 technologies (including blogs, wikis, and prediction markets), approaches, and initiatives. One of the most interesting things for me about these classes has been how often students bring up one specific concern: that people who use the new tools heavily — who post frequently to an internal blog, edit the corporate wiki a lot, or trade heavily in the internal prediction market — will be perceived as not spending enough time on their ‘real’ jobs.

The lack of understanding between busy and burst goes beyond just the inability of the busy to see the value in using Web 2.0 tools. In almost every aspect of work, bursters look entirely unproductive and irresponsible when judged by busyness economy rules.

Let’s see how.

Busy: Show your face during all standard working hours.
Burst: If you produce what you need to, we don’t care when you do it or how long it takes.

The busy economy relies on face time as a proxy measure of real work. The burst economy relies on workstreaming — the flow of output that a worker creates, documented online as automatically as possible. With the Web, we don’t need to use proxy measures like face time any more. We can see what people are doing, through their blogs, the knowledge they put onto wikis, via source code check-ins or online to do lists showing marching progress towards a goal.

For those still stuck on face time, though, the burster who doesn’t show up at normal hours looks unproductive no matter how much he produces. The busy aren’t watching your workstream — they just want to know whether you showed up before 9 am and left no earlier than dinnertime.

Busy: Immediate response to email required.
Burst: Use better ways to communicate when available including blogs, wikis, IM, chat rooms, SMS, and RSS.

Email is the natural habitat of the busy — everything goes there, from reminders of tasks they need to do to documents they’re collaborating on with colleagues to read-only announcements to an archive of project information. The busy expect immediate response to email. They live in their email and they expect you to also.

Bursters realize they don’t need to live in their email or respond immediately because the information will find them in other ways. They look irresponsible to the busy who jump on each email as soon as it arrives. Bursters know you should try instant messaging if you need a quick answer, go with a blog post if you’re announcing something, and use a wiki for archiving information useful to the entire team. Bursters know that you can use RSS readers with RSS alerts to track all sorts of useful events from system management to code check-ins to development schedule updates to mailing list messages — your email doesn’t have to serve that role. Bursters know that the less they respond by email, the more their colleagues will seek them out using other channels.

Busy: Manage the hierarchy inside your company.
Burst: Connect laterally outside your department and company.

The busy prioritize good relations with their boss and their boss’ boss and their boss’ boss’ boss. The busy spend time managing down also, by making sure their subordinates are not slacking off on showing their faces and immediately responding to email requests.

Bursters see that opportunities to take 2,000 steps forward in one hyperleap are more likely to happen through connections with people outside the company. To the busy, bursters look uncommitted to the company because they’re not playing by the old hierarchical rules.

Busy: Always available during working hours.
Burst: Declarative availability.

The busy wouldn’t dream of announcing on Twitter that they were headed to the mall to stock up on underwear — because that would ruin the carefully constructed illusion that they’re always working from 8 am to 6 pm.

Bursters don’t hesitate to declare what they’re doing whether it’s personal or professional, because this makes it easier for colleagues to connect, collaborate, and coordinate with them — it makes teams more productive and binds them together on a human level. Of course, this is yet another way that bursters look to the busy like irresponsible, unproductive goof-offs.

Busy: Web surfing is bad.
Burst: Web surfing fertilizes and seeds the soil of the mind.

Bursters spend some working time each day surfing the Web, so they can understand the present and see the future. To the busy, that’s just wasting time.

Busy: Long-term planning rules.
Burst: Try agile experimentation and fast failure instead.

Bursters try crazy projects and watch them flame out fast as the busy look on with smirks on their faces. “How dumb,” the busy think. But it’s not dumb, because one day those bursters will fly forward at warp speed, when one of the experiments works. Meanwhile, they’ll have learned all sorts of things from their failures and made good connections in the process.

We need the busy AND the burst economy. The busy economy gives us our groceries, our electrical power, and our newspapers every morning. However, many companies will find themselves at risk of not benefiting from the hyperproductivity of the burst economy because to the busy, it looks like an excuse for slacking off rather than blasting off.

115 Responses to “Busyness vs. Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive”

  1. ….. at present bosses who are seldom trained and accustomed to Web-2.0 don’t see what a subordinate who acts as a knowledge worker can truly achieve.

    It is all too often about action, action, action – without prior thinking, small prototyping.

    The time is right now changing its face and CoWorking and other forms of work are springing up like fresh new and green grass in the dessert after a short and quick rain.

  2. once it is realised that all “business” has been some kind of “web business” since coinage was developed as the original data packet, a lot of these compare/contrast scenarios fall apart. the issue has been whether workers are “mechanisms” to be placed and kept running at 85%+, or are people “organisms” that produce cyclic fruit.
    “deal makers” are being left more free agent than work performers, but then, a horse always got better treatment than the wheel spokes…right up til the wheel breaks.

  3. Being a bursty worker myself I have experienced the workspace there this kind of work is appreciated (building a new plant, being within a help organnization working in a crisis) and where it isn’t (being put down to standard work, without getting a chance to improve the process; working under a control orientated boss).

    Bursty really looks alien to other workers who are used to 9-5-jobs, they can’t imagine that ideas can come up at midnight, or during holidays that have relevance to the job.

    What makes the environment more friendly towards bursty workers.



    PS.: Thanks to Trib of Acidlabs to learn about this,

  4. Wow. Just, wow. This article sums up–completely–the whole history of my “failures” as a corporate employee. My firings, my “quit in a big fuss”, the suspicious attitudes of micromanaging middle-managers wondering what I could be doing on the internet all day, their baffled attempts to reconcile how high my productivity was with my incessant “time wasting surfing”… it is SO CLEAR right now.

    THANK YOU, web worker daily. A major demon of my past work history is now laid comfortably to rest.

  5. Hey, Ann!

    I`m not 100% sure that the “burst” style is acceptable anywhere in real economy. I mean construction or manufacturing. Here in Russia we don`t have a chance of mistake – In our sector (diamond drilling and sawing of concrete) the market is still so undeveloped, that each more or less serious customer is often not a way to inprove business, but a mean of surviving. So if I`m questioned – would I prefer personal development of our employees or tough control – guess my choise…

  6. Echoing Tom Mandel’s recent post and with a nod as well to Anne Zelenka, I want to try to give a concrete example of how a traditional enterprise workflow (closing a deal) can be augmented with Enterprise 2.0 technologies, breaking down organizational boundaries and letting users uncover associations and gain new insights.

    We go back to the world of Enormabus and meet Bursty:

    Bursty employee finds a way to adapt outside tools into his work-life to give himself an edge, in the process reinventing how he works and leverages information.
    Bursty works for Thogwheel and is trying to close a big deal at Enormabus. Bursty is browsing Facebook and finds out about Eargot, a potential influencer at Enormabus through a fellow MIT grad. Bursty then uses a social networking search service to identify two possible links or shared tags between himself and Eargot. He investigates one by email; no response. He investigates the other by IMing a friend who says he’s lost touch but offers a cryptic clue: Geneva. He searches for Geneva across all of Thogwheel’s CRM repositories and finds that Eargot (misspelled) is based in Geneva even though his office location is Toulouse. Inside his company, he uses employee search to find fellow employees in Geneva who might be able to secure a meeting with Eargot.
    On another front, Bursty discovers through a search of his channel partner’s wikis that one of the critical decision criteria for the deal is making the Enormabuses fly longer with less maintenance.
    Meanwhile, Bursty gets a personalized alert from his search portal telling him about a materials study that may help alleviate one of the deal’s sticky points. He posts the doc to the group wiki and flies to Geneva on his way to Toulouse. At the critical meeting with Eargot, he has the author of the materials report on the phone, his local contact whom Eargot plays tennis with, and a just-in-time proposal that shows the link between Thogwheel’s product and the life expectancy of Enormabus. Eargot walks away convinced, adds Bursty to his network, and writes an influential report to the decision-makers advocating Thogwheel.

    While some dealmakers are already using these tools and infrastructure, many others are not. At the end of the day, the winning proposal will be what matters in driving behaviour at Thogwheel and beyond.

  7. The burst/busy barrier, oh my! It is not quite as marked between the burst/busy regimes. There are loads of people who are bursters in part of the day and busy people in other parts of the day. AND what about people who try to be busy as telecommuters, what a mashup! So while the burst/busy divide looks nice on paper, in all these ways of analysing the world of work we need to take for granted that the divide is not always as neat as one describes.

  8. You’re preaching to the choir here and have done a great dissection of something I’ve been trying to put into words for ever so long.

    If only I could add something insightful other than to tell you that I’m really impressed.

  9. Joe Dokes

    Best-buy has adopted the phrase performance-based, as opposed to time-based workflow. This has a more neutral, less stereotyped, ring to it; but it boils down to willingness of the top mgmt levels to empower their workers w/greater flexibility in managing their lives with their jobs. If the communication tools and the tracking/workflow tools are in place then happy workers will become more productive workers.
    Me, I’m a mid-50’s knowledge worker for an IT company ( a sysadmin ) who has flex-time, telework, etc… and is nearly in ‘always on’ mode. But i also have an easier time dealing w/chores, errands and the mundane details of daily life. Com tools and the internet, my field of expertise, makes that possible. I wouldnt trade what i do for anything, and more employers are discovering that what was deemed a perk only a few years ago is now becomming a practical, pragmatic reality for a large segment of workers. Its’ more cost effective as well; too bad it’s limited (as mentioned earlier) to such a small segment of workers.

    Hope this contributes

  10. I find the observational definitions between ‘busy’ and ‘burst’ mode people very interesting – particularly the comments on the hierarchical vs. flat-structured management and web-workers vs. non-web-workers. I think the suggestion, though, that web-workers are somehow superior to non-web-workers, though, is eronious.

    We know from social and organsational psychology that different people work in different ways dependant on a) their personality, b) their environment, and c) the clash (or hamonisation) between the two.

    Andrew McAfee is making an inference that hails back to an old term called the knowledge economy coined by Peter Drucker.

    The overall suggestion that Anne should be giving is that if your people are actually knowledge workers then support them with technology and ways of working that will enable them to get the job done no matter how they wish to approach it, rather than looking for an excuse for the appearance of ‘slacking off’.

  11. I don’t think that these are mutually exclusive. Rather, I think that the issue is akin to what doctor’s run into with new interns and residents. They had to work ungodly, unsafe hours that they hated to pay their dues and these guys should too. Those who have come up through a busyness economy probably feel that those who are “bursty” are not doing their fair share. This is why it is almost always bad to have a Help Desk Manager take over a Design group. He or she won’t understand the types of workers in the design environment – or even in certain types of other cyclical environments.

    Personally, I’m a wee bit suspicious of adoption of the the burstiness lifestyle after seeing what it has done to many friends and their families. The expectations from customers becomes too great and personal lives suffer. It is much more common than you think that the boundaries between work and home get blurred into non-existence when companies give lip-service to bursty work styles.

    There are some industries that have always had the “bursty” work styles. Many of them involve salespeople. Many of the “creative” disciplines are like this as well. It is not something our current economy is truly set up to deal with. The reality is the workplace is set up to accommodate your least productive workers by demanding controls on their time. Talented workers have always had time on their hands – until management assigns them more – that could be used on alternative projects – or just to snooze. (Inadvisable, but it happens.) For many of the professonal

    The busy economy employs many more people than the bursty economy, thus the majority of managers will come up through the busy economy. I doubt that there is going to be a major paradigm shift. Even attorneys charge by the hour.



  12. Anne

    An interesting article.

    I find myself naturally a combination of both, which varies with the things I have to do. For instance. At the moment I am very busy with my Interim Marketing hat on, preparing a couple of direct marketing campaigns. Coordinating all the different aspects of the campaigns and the people who need to deliver each of them is just busyness through and through. There probably isn’t any other way.

    At the same time, I am very bursty (there must be a better word than this) with my Consultant hat, on researching the economics of multi-sided markets for a book chapter I am writing on ‘Valuing Conversations’. I do the research in my spare time, ask people at work who might have an interesting viewpoint and think about what the research means when I have a quiet moment. Serendipity definately comes in bursts.

    You are right. We need both busyness and burstyness in different proportions.

    But there is also a bigger question about how organisations structure work to enable the right mixture of busyness and burstyness to get it done. This is an issue that not many organisations have really thought about. It goes to the heart of how to organise for both efficient & effective business-as-usual and adaptive & creative business-as-unusual. In today’s fast-paced business environment, we need both.

    Any thoughts on this bigger question?

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  13. Anne, this is a wonderful article and sums up a lot of the behavior we see in “professional services” firms– my domain for most of the last 9 years.
    Also, while I agree that the age stereotyping is dangerous (and not just because I’m a burster on the tail end of the baby boom) I do think there is something to be said for the impact that newer college grads will have on the workplace. For them, the natural burstiness of the college environment has been augmented by social technologies and their sheer numbers will require companies to adapt, if for no other reason than to manage retention.
    Finally, I think it helps to think about bursting as a natural behavior– after all, most of us burst in other aspects of our lives. So busyness seems a bit unnatural to us, which is why we drift toward bursting whenever we can.
    Again, thanks for a great article.

  14. I think I’ve nearly always been a burst employee working in a busy workforce culture, feeling guilty when at times I didn’t sit for the requisite duty time. I slowly figured out the tricks to appease these sorts (email here and there in the weekend, be sure to pick up the cell calls) while not letting it drag me down from my natural burstiness, which I know in the end lead to more effectiveness and productivity than those pure busy types. I don’t think I’ve been completely successful though, as several bosses have given me nicknames like whirl, hyper, tornado, and a few less charitable monikers.

  15. Nice Anne. You may have noticed that netflix doesn’t limit vacation; we see more companies abandoning face time protocols.

    I think MLO is onto something as it relates to compensation: part of the reason busy econ persists is that still tend to pay for time (“fee for service”) worked. It’s ironic to me that web design jobs, for example, are mostly paid by the hour. Same with lots of white collar jobs, consultants, attorneys, etc. We pay by the hour b/c we haven’t quite figured out how to pay for “burst innovation”….and paying by the hour promotes busy economics

  16. Anne, question…does “busy” vs. “burst” work in any other environment. Consider homebuilding, do you want your contractor to be “busy” or can you tolerate him to be “bursting” as his schedule permits. It seems this may only be available to the small segment of knowledge workers, like ourselves, who can use the tools of the trade adeptly.

    I spend some part of each day, surfing the net, looking for the next “hyperspace bypass” that will allow me to jump to the next level, like you suggested in the post. Gotta go, next set is coming in…Surf’s Up, Big Kahuna!

  17. Who wouldn’t agree that being a “burster” is more fun while also productive? I love this article and, for me, equivocate it with fun in the workplace. Fun is often seen in the same light as the “burster”. I would venture to say that if you’re not having fun in your place of employment — you’re busy.

    Stop being busy and start bursting!

    Best, -Eric

  18. Most of us work in the “busy” world, even if we are web workers. This is a case where the technology of work has advanced much faster than the culture of work. Bosses demand face time and bodies in cubes because that is the culture they grew up in.

    However, I think the “burst” style will gain greater acceptance in the near future as employers grow accustomed to it. An additional pressure will be when employees, especially time-starved Baby Boomers, start to demand it.

  19. MLO: no need to ask for forgiveness — that was quite mild so far as diatribes go.

    Oversimplification that stereotypes older people may be more dangerous than identifying busy and bursty working paradigms.

    I wonder whether there is what you call a “happy medium.” I don’t think that these two ways of working are necessarily commensurable. The bursty style may represent a paradigm shift relative to the busyness style, and those who primarily live by the busyness way may not ever understand what the bursters are doing. Twitter’s a good example of this. It looks like a useless waste of time and invasion of privacy to many people — because those people are operating under a different mindset than the people who use it, not to tell the world “everything they are doing” but to stay in touch and connect and be more productive in a world where teams are distributed across time zones and across organizational boundaries.

    Are hybrid modes possible? Or is it just one or the other? The fact that the busy don’t understand the bursters suggests it’s a radically different way of doing things not just a different point along the continuum from busyness to burstyness.

    If they are radically different and incommensurable ways of working, does that mean that the bursty never do busy things and vice versa? Not at all. They’re not mutually exclusive in activities but rather in outlook and approach.

  20. Oh my, the oversimplification and naivete this post shows in the real-world. The issue is that our economy is based on the idea of an hours work equals an hours pay for the majority of workers. This holds over even to salaried workers. I have found that the biggest problem is age. Those over about 45 want to see people in seats – oh, and those with control issues. Those under 45 are more comfortable with production based economy.

    The second problem is that this is not so clear-cut. My career choices have led me to places where it looks like I’m “bursty” but I have a lot of “busy” attributes due to necessity. Sometimes you have to be available during core business hours due to the specific support services you are providing. Not being available is simply not an option. And to those who value privacy, Twitter is just another invasion thereof. Not everyone wants the world to know everything they are doing.

    There is a happy medium to be found. Unfortunately, due to the entrenchment of certain business practices we are unlikely to see those in our lifetime. There are solutions to our economic woes that are rather straightforward – but we are more likely to implement the opposite in the current environment.

    There has always been a bit of these dichotomy – even among different “bursty” workers. Designers have always been in this bind. Their jobs require a lot of “mulling it over” which looks like doing nothing to those who don’t know what designers do. Those same designers provide value with deadlines. That takes strategic planning – which is not the exclusive purview of the “busy”.

    Oversimplification of complex issues is a hot button for me. So, please forgive the diatribe.



  21. I like that last point. Maybe in the future eventually everyone will be a web worker, because we would have found easier and more faster ways for the busy to auto work itself instead of relying on human energy. Or eventually one type will overcome the other based on productivity speed, which is web working.