Why it’s critical to understand that your work takes place in a system

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Screen shot of Amazon Associates emailLast week, Colleen reported on the email Amazon sent to all California-resident Amazon Associates (s amzn) warning them that if California enacted a law imposing new taxes on Internet sales their participation in the Associates affiliate sales program would be terminated. I received my notification of termination Wednesday. Others will have deeper insight into the legal ramifications, as California is not the only state in the U.S. moving in this direction. My contribution is on how to work within such a complicated ecosystem.

It is important to understand that our work takes place in a system. In this case, the system is shifting quickly and is not well understood. Individuals, organizations, states and countries (recall the recent e-G8 meeting in Paris) are all trying to both understand and create reality in the Internet-enabled world.  To be an effective web worker, it is vital that you think about the whole system that you work in, not just the critical dimension of the moment. Here are five dimensions to consider as you think about your own work in this system:

  • People. Who are the people that you must engage with? Knowledge, skills, abilities, preferences.
  • Organizational process. This includes policies, procedures, workflows, and standard ways of operating.
  • Organizational structure. The organization chart/reporting structure that you work within, which is often a good indicator of what an organization thinks is important.
  • Technology. Both electronic and physical, on-hand or available.
  • Context. The legal environment, your organization’s strategy (early mover, follower, growth, etc.), whether your organization is local/global, etc.

To make effective decisions about your work, understand that you can never change just one thing. There is no such thing as a single silver bullet that will solve a problem. Fredrick Brooks, summarizing the issues in a classic 1986 article, writes, “There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity” (pdf). Even just changing from one email client to another has a human learning curve and may also affect your workflow.

Do a quick mental scan of the five dimensions in your situation. Focus on the two or three that you expect to have the greatest initial impact (this keeps you in tune with another piece of advice: go for small wins rather than stretch goals) and will help you understand how things are working. If you change everything at once it is difficult to track the causes and outcomes.

For California residents, our context has just shifted. The most effective web workers had this possibility on their radar well before receiving the letter from Amazon and were proactive about their options and how the different dimensions were part of those options. For example, they have been lobbying their legislators, hopefully considering multiple dimensions as they thought about how to persuade them: Understanding their particular legislators’ priorities and the organizational process to reach them. For some, moving to a different state may be an option, and again, multiple dimensions should be considered: The human costs of moving, supplier costs of moving, whether the new locale is next in line for a tax change. There will be no one right answer for the web workers affected by this change. The only “right answer” is that for this adjustment, and any other organizational decisions that you must make, you need to consider the entire system as you come to your understanding and choices. You can never change just one thing.

How are you preparing for changes in your working environment, regardless of whether or not you live in California and/or were a member of the Amazon Associate program? What were the dimensions you considered as you thought about the future?

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