Category Archives: Workplace

A Paradigm Shift in Project Management: Hierarchy to adhocracy

“Sharing power is not the ideal of some ‘utopian’ future. It’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.” – Mark Pesce

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In my search to uncover blogs about copyright issues, I discovered The Human Network. Mark Pesce’s video presentation to the Personal Democracy Forum and transcript both struck me as worthy of the attention of internet community members and people interested in the new organizational structure we’ll see soon; a new structure seems a nearly necessary outcome to the victory of efficiency, a consistent human pursuit.

For example, the ideal corporate workplace is an hierarchy: you know via network or job title who is responsible for what and how they should be approached, and you also know to whom you and they are responsible. Therefore, when an assignment falls to you, you track down the people you need in order to complete the task under budget and ahead of schedule. You have to negotiate the political struggles that exist in large workplaces as people strive to either make their name or shirk any work possible without standing out as a slacker. If you do this successfully, your project will likely succeed. Situations of this type gave rise to my favorite capitalist maxim: Successful business is not about money; it’s about pooling together the correct assortment of talent to fulfill a need and the money you need to do that.

However, anyone who has worked in a corporation long enough to dry their wet ears and withdraw their big eyes knows that luck plays a larger role in whether you’re equipped to handle any given project than coordination and that the budget and schedule have as much tendency to be unmanageable as they have to be set by someone other than you. You also know that the larger a company is, the more difficult it is to find the person you’re looking for. Instead, you become complacent with your social circle within the company and rely on them to either help you complete your project or to put you on the path to a person who can probably help. Initiative, while praised, is your prerogative, and you learn thatmore often than not its only reward is hours spent tracking down a person who’s too busy to help you anyway.

And while sometimes it’s assumed that the smaller the company the more efficient because people do more tasks than their job title allows, there are obvious flaws that small businesses constantly evidence. Job-title creep breaks the ideal of division of labor and results in shoddy jobs that require more time than an expert would take. In addition, sometimes the relevant expert simply isn’t available, and the financial position of the company makes tracking down an expert either impossible of futile.

Even in the best of all corporate hierarchies, when we let go of the fallacies and human error that plague all communities and look at them at their most sublime, politics, ignorance, and misinformation exist as constant variables in the equation of efficiency that downsizing attempts to get around and networking tries to nullify. Yet they persist.

Adhocracies are communities whose networks are far less structured than hierarchies and yet are more capable of sustaining efficiency for several reasons. Examples include Wikipedia–where a crowd (hence the term crowdsourcing) generates information that, through editing, supposedly reaches an unbiased state–and open source communities such as SourceForge.

First, unlike the top-down hierarchical structures of corporations whose efficiency depends upon the trickling down of responsibility and the ability of the lower castes to find proper function-matches within their own castes (about as reliable as Malcom’s demonstration of water falling down your hand in Jurassic Park), adhocracies post jobs and users volunteer. Whether or not the job gets done on time and according to parameters is guaranteed only by the community’s ability to organize itself around a set of priorities, which, since their communication tool is the internet, specifically their website and whatever design functions are built into the core site, users tend to fulfill reliably.

Second, the pure universality exposure of posts and searchability of online communities resolves the hassle of finding the right member with the right skill set to complement your project. Rather than your cubemate Bill telling you that Janice from tech support might be able to assist you, plop your requirements into a search bar and go–as any seasoned HR personnel can tell you, if you have a specific problem and need a specific skill, you’ll find everything you need is hotword coded, thereby searchable–or let the talent pool come to you.

The end game of adhocracies is a more dynamic community layout able to complete projects more efficiently than hierarchical structures. Some problems will remain.

First, and most obvious, is human error on a small scale, including typos and erroneous information or algorithms. It exists and can only be mitigated by assuming it will occur. Wikipedia, for one, has this angle covered in more ways than by reminding you that they make no claims of accuracy. Many of the tools they have on their website including a cache of previous pages, editor tracking tools, and their editorial team all work to mitigate human error from their site. Also, the flexibility of their project (due largely to their disclaimer about accuracy but also to the community’s commitment to accuracy) allows them to update pages long after a corporate campaign would have to have moved on.

Second are the major snags that that bog down all projects. Scope creep will not disappear due to a more efficient allocation of resources. Volunteers or even whole communities biting off more than they can chew due to ambition or greed cannot be wholly mitigated.

Therefore, what’s truly at stake in the discussion between hierarchies and adhocracies is the way in which projects are managed. This situation is not, though I enjoy Mark’s rhetoric, a meeting of the finite and infinite, but rather a clash between an old paradigm and a new one where the business world is awaiting a widespread shift from one to the other. If we assume that these stated management problems will continue even after the widespread adoption of the new project management paradigm, are we left with the cataclysm Mark discussed in the linked entry? No; rather, we’re left with an old question which wants to guarantee security in an endeavor (That is, Who is responsible for completing the project?) to a question that seems to have less though actually implies more security (Namely, Can the project be accomplished?).

Having said that, I must admit that I see the inherent power shift to which he’s referring, and I must assume that those in power will resist the necessary transference. For all the badgering about Communism that techies and internet junkies receive, the paradigm into which we’re moving is community-based. However, when you hear about the power of communities to organize themselves and complete a task, do not think about Stalinist Russia, which was in itself an hierarchical power structure where responsibility trickled down from, well, Stalin. Instead, imagine a thousand separate and independently functioning Craigslists where DNSs define the national lines and Google checks all the passports. Somewhere in one of these communities, someone posts, “I need y” and a multitude responds, first from within the community and then from without, “I can supply y” and the poster is left to pick out of the responses who he’ll trust to fill his need including but not limited to accepting all offers for help.

Money, along with other project limitations, will and must exist and sets limits to the amount of effort a community contributes to any particular project. For nonprofits, which most adhocracies are today, the community acts on passion and does all things at all times. As the paradigm shift occurs, however, money will become a prime concern for adhocracies as people become professional rather than volunteer, as we can see occurring with Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk and on Craigslist itself. In these instances the efficiencies of adhocracies remain and yet the community’s desire to do all things is severely limited by their desire to eat and to guarantee such necessities as housing.

Because adhocracies will accomplish tasks more efficiently than an hierarchical management structure, money will become an issue. I will not engage in the folly so early on as to think that such communism will mount outside the bounds of the internet; we have seen that it will not. Also, such communism is not done in the name of communism as an ideal but rather, as it stands now with nonprofits, for passion, and later, as corporations adopt adhocracy as a management style, for money.

This exact issue will demand the power shift that Mark mentioned, a shift of power from the hands of managers into the hands of the community, or, for rhetoric a lay readership may more readily appreciate, a shift from facetime to efficacy. The community will demand and have the power to secure absolute transparency within corporation as they have with the current nonprofits, especially when their efforts are combined with other communities whose sole stated purpose will be to establish said transparency; the adhocracies currently in existence have already set the tone for what users will expect from new communities in the future. The power and efficiency of adhocracies come from hyperawareness and hypervigilance spawned by a community’s open access to all relevant information, keeping account of all aspects within a company; thus, force will shift from the hands of managers, who for the large part will cease to exist, into the hands of the communities crunching and reviewing the numbers.

I have no doubt, as we have already seen, that managers will fight the elimination of their class at large. However, the shift of business from a worse to better solution will facilitate the shift over and despite their moaning. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge them their moment of complaint. Managers are people who have spent their entire lives developing a set of skills that in one fell swoop will become obsolete, and I pity the frustration that moment must cause. But happen it will, if only in the pursuit of efficiency.

I expect a class of community analysts to rise up in place of managers. Their main function will be–rather than spurring workers to get the project done, for that will happen of its own accord do to the nature of an adhocracy–to make sure that the resources are available within the community to solve the problem put before it. This will not be a source of governance but rather a source of publicity, or rather of recruitment. Multiple communities with the same aim already exist, and competition between online communities will rise as management structures shift into the new paradigm. Community projects will be posted and completed with little or no oversight, drastically reducing the overhead cost of corporations in addition to the simple benefit of efficiency increase brought about by shifting from an hierarchy to an adhocracy.

What will happen to governmental hierarchies… well, that’s another fun question. But that’s for another time and another post.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Youth in the workplace

An issue that’s close to home was revisited by my girlfriend Ashley the other day. We’ve both worked in offices where our youth made us stand out from the rest of the work force. It reminds me of one of my favorite analogies of the workplace: A corporation is like a tree full of monkeys: the monkeys at the top look down and see a bunch smiling faces, and the monkeys on the bottom look up and see a bunch of assholes. What the analogy doesn’t say is that monkeys are known to throw feces at each other, and in my experience, the whole treeful will aim for the lowest monkey most of the time.

Pressures run high in small business environments, especially new offices under seasoned overhead and low-budget not-for-profits. Directors feel the need to cut corners in order to make the book as black as possible, and one of the easiest corners to cut is to hire a novice to fill an insubstantial role. At first, the young and bushy-tailed worker looks for all the world like an anime schoolgirl who just had all her dreams fulfilled: wide and wet eyed, and jubilant.

One error continually recurs in all-to-common for us young-professionals situation: the pressure stored up in the older coworkers suddenly has a pinhole through which it finds release, and no one has the time or initiative to provide protection for the weakest link in the team.

Take Ashley’s situation, for example. One week she’s sick and isn’t in the office; the next week she’s in Florida. Her boss has agreed heartily to both absences, having been aware far in advance of the trip to Florida and nearly commanding that Ashley stay home when she was sick. During her absence, one of her coworkers places a piece of inter-departmental mail on a shelf above Ashley’s desk with no note specifying what type of mail it is or what department it needs to go to. Upon Ashley’s return, the coworker asks why the mail hadn’t been delivered yet and berates Ashley for not being vigilant about her workplace.

It could’ve ended there, but Ashley complained about her coworker’s rudeness to her boss. At first, her boss presented a mail-drop solution that the coworker could’ve used to specify that her parcel was inter-office mail without having had to speak to Ashley directly. No communication took place with the coworker to reach a better communication solution.

That also could’ve been the end of the situation. But Ashley’s boss has a lot on her plate this week and so is also under pressure. Later in the week, long after the situation had been at least partly resolved, Ashley’s boss pulled her into the office and told her that complaining about how a coworker treats you is unprofessional. She also went on to talk about how Ashley was obviously “losing enthusiasm for her job” and that she hoped and knew that one day soon the duties of an administrative assistant would just “click” (as if an administrative assistant’s responsibilities are so heavy that they’re not just a matter of training).

Take into account that Ashley’s boss made no specific complaints about Ashley’s work, schedule, or attitude. When Ashley asked for a specific criticism so that she could make an effort to improve her boss’s opinion of her, her boss said that she didn’t have any specific complaints.

Now let’s make a move I’ve made before and compare workplace politics to relationships. If a guy or girl you’re dating and comes up to you saying, “Things just aren’t working out. It’s not really anything specific, I’m just not into it,” what’s your response? Fucking bullshit! Why? Because if there is no specific complaint, then there’s no complaint at all. The person is just hurting you; you know it, they know it. The symptoms of using obviously poor communications to wound are undeniable.

Second is the fact that Ashley’s boss is a social worker with over twenty years experience under her belt. I’ve met the woman: she knows how to talk. Talking is her job, and you can be sure if only by her years of professional experience that she knows that in order to properly communicate to fix a problem, specifics need to be mentioned and addressed. If she’s aware of that, why doesn’t she mention specifics when Ashley asks for them? Simple: they don’t exist. Ashley’s boss is using an unprotected workplace peon to relieve her stress.

It’s not uncommon, and one of the main reasons corporations employ human resources, aside from taking the responsibility of paperwork away from people whose jobs lay in other areas, is to handle poor office communications, to act as mediators in disagreements in order to make a workplace more amenable. A harsh reality comes sharply into focus for a young employee at this point: you’re easily replaced, and HR doesn’t give a fuck about you.

When in a directly parallel situation, I complained to my boss about the way a coworker was treating me. My coworker was in her early thirties and in charge of a large data-entry project worth a lot of money to the company. I, on the other hand, was a young copyeditor who had foolishly drained my workpool and, when eagerly looking to help around the office, had been placed on the data-entry project as my coworkers’s working subordinate. Therefore, my boss told me to can it and get back to work; it’s unprofessional to complain about mistreatment in the workplace.

I knuckled under this coworker for months. She made me and several others on the data entry project cry through her sheer abuse, and yet nothing could be done to get around it. The business was small and had no real HR program, and my only real boss told me to suck it up. When I asked my parents for advice, they told me to look for a new job and in the meantime suck it up. So I did. I sucked good and hard until I was purple in the face, until the sound of her boot heels thumping down the thinly-carpeted wood floor gave me heartburn.

In the meantime, my coworker complained to my boss about me, about my work ethic, about how slowly I worked and how many errors I inputted into her system. I had no defense against these complaints when my boss pulled me into her office to talk about it. Then my boss had me sign a sheet of paper that told me if my coworker’s opinion of my work didn’t improve in thirty days, she would fire me. I asked my parents what to do again, and my father told me to take notes about the amount of work I was doing versus the other employees and the harsh and unprofessional feedback my coworker was giving to me and others. I took notes.

After two weeks my boss pulled me in to tell me that my coworker’s opinion of me hadn’t improved and that she was preparing to fire me. This time I fought; I pulled in all of my notes about my hours, my productivity, my coworker’s rudeness. My sense of injustice had become so inflamed that I was sure my boss would finally move me to a different project, would finally confront my coworker about her inhumanity. Lolz: doesn’t that prove how young I was then?

My boss told me to go back to my desk and to prepare myself for what was coming in two weeks. I did, thanking my fucking lucky stars that they would finally fire me and force me to move on. Like Strong Bad says, “Oh, that’s it! I am so totally not going to quit this job but complain about it a little bit more!”

The off-site seasoned overhead found it prudent to fire my boss in the midst of all this and hire a replacement in a less-powerful role. My coworker immediately complained to this new boss about me, putting me again on thin ice. However, the paper stating that my old boss was going to fire me got magically lost in the sudden turnover. My new boss pulled me into her office and asked me about my coworker’s complaints. I told her that they were totally untrue and that I had documentation showing that my her were unfounded. My boss laughed at the documentation and had no interest in seeing it, of course. Still, Mom and Dad, it would’ve been a good idea if the dynamic hadn’t stunk so thoroughly of abuse.

I told my new boss that I would prove myself if she would just put me on a different project, which she did. The move didn’t improve my situation with that coworker at all, but it did make my job measurably better. When I completed my work on the new project, my boss took me under her wing to help her organize all of my old boss’s notes and to database freelance editors’ resumes and even contact some. I almost began to like that job again.

One day after she had been there about three months, my new boss pulled me into her office at the end of a workday to tell me the following: “I know that your coworker’s complaints about you are unfounded. I’ve been watching you like a hawk ever since I got here, and you’ve worked like a dog on that other project and for me. But now you’re doing the work of an administrative assistant, not a copyeditor, and we’re paying you to be a copyeditor. We’ve decided to terminate your position: I have to let you go.”

And that was that. It didn’t matter that I had thwarted my coworker’s complaints about my work ethic; it didn’t matter that I was so efficient at my job that they couldn’t keep me in work. All that mattered was that I was young and dispensable. After months of suffering under that coworker and months of reproving myself to the office, it ended.

I see in Ashley’s position exactly what I saw in mine, a young professional with no umbrella to protect him(/her) from the abuse of stressed out coworkers. Sometimes (Is it just sometimes? Usually?) people will shit on you if they can get away with it. They think it makes them feel better; you can’t do anything to get even (except maybe set their lawn on fire).

So to all the older coworkers and bosses out there who pick on the young worker in the office because you can, this post is a big fuck you. To all the workers who are considering taking a job where they know that their coworkers will be older than them but still think that age shouldn’t be an issue, it is; don’t take that job. To every young worker who is now in the position and suddenly realizing that there is no protection for themselves from this shitstorm, you have two choices: knuckle under and deal with it, or stand up for yourself. Either way, it’s likely you’ll be fired, and best to leave with your head high than covered in corporate-monkey feces.

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Author: Greg Freed

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Filed under Criticism, Workplace