It’s not a third way of work, it’s a freethinking way of work

A pansy

I have used the expression ‘the third way of work’ quite a lot in recent months, and this post is an attempt to explain why I will no longer be using that expression. Note this this also will lead to a new title for the book I am writing in 2014, and in at least one case I will rewrite something I published at Chautauqua — the Manifesto for A Third Way of Work — reflecting this.

Before outlining where I have come down on subject, let me share why I am recasting my discourse in this way. There are a number of distinct problems with ‘the third way of work’ nomenclature.

  • Recently, a political organization was founded called The Third Way, whose ostensible purpose was to create a centrist Democratic organization, but then turned around and attacked Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Bill de Blasio for economic populism. Turns out to be backed by investment bankers (see Why the Third Way hates Sen. Elizabeth Warren). I think they have poisoned the term ‘third way’ for the foreseeable future.
  • Rawn Shah pointed out that Drew Jones has written a book called The Fifth Age of Work, which might be confusing.
  • Several people pointed out that the obvious ordinal version — Work 3.0 — sounded very tired, and perhaps some sort of riff on Enterprise 2.0. I had no idea of that arising in people’s minds, and I think it’s negative.
  • Lastly, a few contacts suggested that ‘the third way of work’ doesn’t define that way, it just makes it seem like the next wave or transition which might be rapidly followed by the fourth way, which is again not my intention.

So, having gotten myself into this situation, I spent a few weeks mulling over various ways to characterize this new way of work. There’s a long list of adjectives that I have ruled out because these emphasize one aspect of the new way of work over others, and I don’t believe that agile is more important than loose, or that autonomy is more critical than social.

Then I decided to back way up, and consider one the drivers of my investigations, an idea that sit at the foundation of my claims about the transition needed in work today. As Marco Steinberg put it,

Our fundamental problem is that we are organized for an 18th century world, facing 21st century problems.

18th century thinking was starting to shift toward progressive ideas, and the application of technology to business, like electricity and the telegraph. But a great deal of management theory and business practice — even today — is basically unchanged from the time of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Perhaps we’ve had more and newer technologies made available, but the scientific findings of the past 30 years — which have shed light on human cognition, the nature of social networks and sociality, and opened new fields like complexity, the science of cities, and bioeconomics — those results have not really trickled through to the slow-to-change core of entrepreneurial, late capitalist business thinking.

So I searched for a term that would represent the premise that, whatever else, business should be grounded in rational thought, not in folklore, which is what so much of business dogma actually is. And folklore in a strongly pejorative sense, since many business leaders are obdurately ignoring science that could lead to greater engagement of workers, greater innovation, creativity, and happiness in the workplace, and better customer satisfaction. (And of course today’s science is also imbued with awareness of human bias, irrationality, and the dark side of our natures, too: it is not purely sunshine and flowers.)

So, I’ve settled on ‘freethinking’ as the central characteristic of this new way of work: a term that originally arose to denote those that oppose the dogma of churches and other institutions. As Wikipedia defines it,

Freethought or free thought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.

Freethought holds that individuals should not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason. Thus, freethinkers strive to build their opinions on the basis of facts, scientific inquiry, and logical principles, independent of any logical fallacies or the intellectually limiting effects of authority, confirmation bias, cognitive bias, conventional wisdom, popular culture, prejudice, sectarianism, tradition, urban legend, and all other dogmas.

One of the pleasant side effects of my realization that this application of freethinking to business, today, is that I can inherit a great deal of its history. For example, the British mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford wrote what may be the best characterization:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

And lastly, it turns out that the pansy is the symbol of freethinking, because of the association with the French work penseé, or thought.

Some might wonder, given the association of freethinking with anarchism, whether I am an anarchist: no, I am neither anarchist or communist (which is possibly a worse sin in the United States). I am merely a freethinker, looking to advance new and better ways of work, and putting aside the dangerous and destructive practices of the past, and helping to cast light on the patterns and shapes of organizations geared to the imperatives of the postnormal, 21st century.