Why isn’t the future of work top of mind?


From one perspective. last week’s ‘big story’ was the continuing fall-out and discourse about Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ diktat. I added a bit of fuel to the fire with Cultural change is really complex contagionWhy are disengaged employees disengaged?, and Why work doesn’t happen at work. But since I analyzed that issue at some length last week, I’ve decided to talk about something different.

Last week, SxSW ramped up, with the event’s curious admixture of tech Mardi Gras and the search for the next-shiny-app. I decided, several months ago, to sit out SxSW, for a variety of reasons.

SxSW obviously jumped the shark a few years ago. In Jan 2011, I wrote about SxSW:

Stowe Boyd, Why I Am Not Going To SxSW

I have attended SxSW Interactive a few times, and I’ve found it to be a high-tech Woodstock, without the mud or the music. Just lots of people milling around, and queued up for the parties, the after parties, and the after-after parties.

The selection approach for the talks is all about popularity, and there is no obvious thematic control, and no MC, so the sessions are very uneven. Some can be great, but the majority are a rewarming of shopworn topics. The most popular talks are too crowded to admit all those that want in, so you’re lucky if you get into one in five of those.

By a curious turn of events, I had clients who wanted me to meet with them during SxSW that year, so I wound up in Austin during the event, but without a pass. And I found that sort of interesting, since I could observe the goings-on without the same expectation of attending a conference, but more like an errant anthropologist. Again, in an odd twist of events, I was asked to be on the program committee — which meant a free pass in ’12 — and I accepted thinking that I might have some impact on the program. And, I also had a panel accepted for ’12 (with Dave Gray, Megan Murray, and Gordon Ross), so I had reasons to attend.

But there were only a small number of sessions that appealed to me last year, and some I couldn’t get into because Interactive has become just way too packed. I looked carefully at the program, and there just wasn’t enough that I wanted to see to make it worth the money, time and travel. So, although I am still on the program committee, and I have a free pass, I opted to not go.

But I want to use that as a pivot point to ask a related question: why isn’t the future of work more of a burning issue? Why aren’t there more sessions at SxSW on social business, why aren’t more social business vendors out there promoting their vision of the future?

Perhaps the acquisition of Yammer, Podio, and Socialcast has made social business software seem like ‘business as usual’ and not as likely a breakthrough in productivity as apps like Tempo or Mailbox.

I think there is a huge dislocation going on. Issues like Yahoo’s ‘no remote work’ ban are top of mind, as are the societal stressors like our increasing work/life imbalance, the freelance economy, the downsides of temp work a la Amazon distribution workers, and a long list of others.

We seem to be lacking a positive vision of the future of work, one that would make it more interesting. In business terms, some set of ideas that would put the future of work in the black, and pull it out of the red.

I’ve written a bit about open work (see Open work is the next high water mark for social business), but absent some actual software products being developed to implement that (where are you, LinkedIn?) it’s just a handwave by a futurist.

What I think is needed is a better understanding of what is going on, in the office buildings and home offices across the country and across the world, to help people understand that we aren’t just being blown before the winds of a precarious economy, we are actively headed somewhere, even if we haven’t been able to say exactly where that is.

So I think that the fact that this critical and timely discussion isn’t occupying top of mind in the business world reflects a failure of people like me to do our jobs, which is to try to make sense of the large trends shaping the world of work, and to cast those in terms that help others to take affective action. And specifically, to make clear where we are headed, and why. I promise to rededicate myself to that task.

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