How we became professional, part 3 – From organizations to collectives

Posted on | August 27, 2013 | No Comments

(… continued from parts 1 & 2)

Now that I work for industry, this interest in the history of professionalism needs to bear relevance to the practices of a company. Part of the learning curve for my job so far is grappling with the ingrained register of critique that has been an inheritance of my humanities training. There is a difference between being a critical theorist facing industry and producing critique for a living, and that is one way of explaining the difference in my job role now. I have to know both the reasons why something is wrong and the better alternatives that should be pursued. As my fellow engineers at Intel keep telling me, what they want from social science is not a list of problems but recommendations for things they can fix.

Adjusting my research to these conditions means thinking pragmatically and ambitiously about what change I would like to see in the workplace. It means contemplating outcomes in areas such as policy, practice and design – and finding stakeholders in and outside the company to advance this agenda. The beginnings of this approach can be seen in the following set of questions:

Instead of promoting productivity as the primary application for workplace technology, how can we design for composure at work?

How can we design for positive but not necessarily aggressive values – like modesty, thoughtfulness, and cooperation?

Is there a way to design for efficiency through collectivity, rather than pitting employees against each other?

What would our workplaces be like if technology helped us think about the health and environmental impact of our jobs, including the ways that our jobs isolate us from each other?

We are moving away from a 20th century concept of professional identity attached to particular workplaces and organizations to a more mobile and improvised work world. Many have theorized this as the time of the “network”; it can just as easily be thought of as a bubble. This shift may turn out to be quite damaging if it means workers spend more of their time alone. The psychological impact of mixing entrepreneurialism and precarity is already well documented.

In well-compensated jobs, the performance of professionalism means being engaged in work-related activities in a range of places beyond any one physical office hub, fortified by resources available “in the cloud”. In previous writing I called this the territory of the post-professional. The case studies I am working on now suggest it is more accurately described as ad-hoc professionalism.

Ad-hoc professionalism is a term inspired by the ad-hoc network – the technical infrastructure that enables a device to draw from a common pool of possible connections in order to achieve specific and timely objectives. This is the work environment professionals increasingly deal with. It is mobile, opportunistic, spontaneous, cobbled together, unpredictable, intense and fleeting. It simultaneously makes work more fun and exhausting, more autonomous and risky. It involves investing in one’s own technical and subjective capabilities because there is no one else likely to do so.

The trouble comes when organizations try to control or instrumentalize this work practice, whether by locking it down through proprietary software, formalizing it through mandatory training policies, or conscripting it through stupid terms like “gamification”. The attraction of the ad-hoc work mode is its very informality, its apparent spontaneity, its simulation of voluntarism. To bottle it is to kill it.

I say simulation because these work preferences evolve in response to the fact that few organizations pretend to provide the foundation for exploring sustainable long term collegiality: no company wanting to sound ruthless enough to shareholders or challenging enough to potential employees is going to suggest the possibility of a job for life. “No layoffs, ever!” seems hopelessly naïve to us now, even if it captures the high watermark for modern professional ambition.

As individuals, we are left to discover the psychological and material resources necessary to thrive in a new context. As we do this, smart companies will be those that allow independent, innovative and generous workers to explore the possibilities together across hierarchies. In a culture of ad-hoc professionals, the best workplaces will be those that find sympathetic ways to let their employees speak collectively about work and about feeling. They will match investment and confidence with technical tools that equip workers to self-manage. Only at this point will we finally break with the Oedipal model of daddy-daughter transference inherited from Mayo, and apply our motivation to pursuits more significant than the blind dictum of productivity.

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