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Chapter 7: Work Changes

Intranet Organization: Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.


The communication explosion  resulting from the printing press eventually led to the Industrial Revolution and dramatic changes in the way people worked, the skills they needed and the views they held on what constitutes value and status. The communication explosion resulting from the Internet and Web technologies promises to be no less sweeping in its scope. In this chapter we will revisit concepts introduced in the preceding chapters and explore how they might affect our work and work environments in the future. 

Key to understanding these changes is the concept of structuredness and the value we place on structured versus unstructured content and processes. In much, but not all, of the industrial world today, we have a tendency to place value on structured content and processes while we view unstructured content and processes as less important. In a world where wealth is based on efficient production, and production efficiency  is based on breaking work into discrete chunks that can be optimized as linear processes, this makes sense. But the world already was changing even before the advent of Intranets. The book The Seven Cultures of Capitalism (if you can find a copy) provides useful insights into the nature of value and wealth in this context. 

As manufacturing processes became well understood and widely used, the measure of value began  to shift. Quality started  to  replace simple availability of goods as a business differentiator. But today, even quality is becoming less of a differentiator, while  innovation and personalized service have started to emerge as the value differentiators in business. A point to note in this trend is that what constitutes value is shifting from attributes easily supported by structure to attributes that require less structure. At the higher levels of business, this has always been true. Business is about conversations and commitments. Both are unstructured processes. Only after the commitments are made do the structured processes become important to support meeting those commitments. 

The trend toward increased valuation of unstructured processes  is true not only in business. In this century the world of science, the evangelist of structured processes and content, also has begun to produce work acknowledging  the importance, and primacy, of unstructured processes. The writing of Thomas Kuhn, mentioned in Chapter 1, is all about the role of creative, unstructured processes in science. But even before this, Albert Einstein provided numerous quotes along these lines, including his famous, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." This statement of Einstein's may be the best overall description of the work changes the current  revolution will encourage. Increasingly, business value will come not from production, but from imagining innovative things  to produce and how to apply what is produced in innovative and personal ways. 

A distinction that has been emerging for some time is that of information versus data. It became apparent several decades ago that the context of data was more important than raw data itself. In his book, The Art of the Long View, Peter Schwartz, President of the Global Business Network, suggests that even this distinction is not sufficient. He contends that the human mind learns best from stories about possibilities and implications rather than from facts, checklists and process descriptions. People perform better in novel or adverse situations when they understand the story that is unfolding as opposed to when they follow procedural descriptions, no matter how well rehearsed. 

The success of  Shell Oil over the past few decades, where Schwartz was involved in strategy development,  is a tribute to the value of the unstructured approach in business. The use of scenario planning, a story-based approach to knowledge,  allowed Shell to prepare for many world events that were unthinkable to their competitors before they happened: including the fall of OPEC's influence in the price of oil and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

The use of scenarios to explore and prepare for future possibilities is becoming a powerful tool. The process helps us understand our options and where we may have choices. But the term I am beginning to hear more and more in conversations with business executives and strategists  is not about data, information or even possibilities. It is the term "meaning." In the world of structure we were concerned about the correctness of data. In the world of imagination and innovation we are becoming more concerned with the meaning of information. In many areas of business,  trends and gestalts are being recognized as more important than the absolute correctness of any specific data value. The business questions are shifting from "what do we need to do," and "how do we do it" to "what do we want to do." In a very real sense, business strategists are rushing headlong toward the existential search for meaning, Can the impact on the rest of the business be far behind? 

Meaning happens at the intersection of the individual and the community. Meaning comes from applying a value system to a challenge. The challenge provides the energy, or driving force, and the value system provides the standard against which we measure the usefulness of specific information, approaches or even the importance of the challenge itself. If our value system identifies a challenge as important, and specific information as useful for confronting the challenge, the information is meaningful. If our value system rejects the challenge or the  information, for whatever reason, it becomes meaningless. 

Key to value and meaning is the concept of communities of interest. Communities of interest are the strongest forces in creating and reinforcing value systems in individuals. They are an important concept for understanding and managing many aspects of an intranet (or Internet for that matter). 

Development of Communities of Interest

Communities of interest are a part of being human. They have evolved over time with the evolution of information systems discussed in the first chapter. At one time, an individual was born into a community of interest, her tribe or local community, and lived in it all her life. Today, we still are born into our first community of interest, our immediate family. 

But, as we grow older and become independent, most of us have more choice in our potential communities of interest than in the past. Modern transportation and communication  allows us to move and affiliate with individuals at much greater distances. But geography still remains a strong factor in maintaining strong, close, communities of interest. That is, until recently. 

The Internet has suddenly made distance and time much less of a factor in maintaining communities of interest and their support structures. Individuals with like interests and values can find each other, and reinforce and evolve each other's ideas almost instantaneously, regardless of their physical location. The same is true on intranets. As more people in an organization become adept at intranet communication, they will begin to find each other and form communities of interest that cross today's organizational and geographic boundaries. In fact, a role that should be developed consciously in intranet organizations is the role of cross-pollenator, individuals who are  responsible both for actively spreading ideas across existing communities of interest and stimulating the development of new communities of interest. 

We should note that communities of interest are different than virtual work groups, another phenomenon enabled by an intranet. The basic difference is that individuals are assigned to a work group, whereas they voluntarily belong to a community of interest. Here are some specific implications of that difference. 

  1. Communities of interest are self-subscribing - virtual work groups are  mandated or appointed.
  2. Communities of interest maintain their own history, statistics, stories - in virtual work groups these are maintained by the larger organization.
  3. Neither is bound by physical geography.
  4. Communities of interest set their own goals and visions - in virtual work groups the goals and vision are set by the larger organization.
  5. Communities of interest generate their own rules and codes - in virtual work groups internal rules and codes are heavily influenced by the larger organization.
  6. Communities of interest enforce their own rules - in virtual work groups enforcement is largely carried out by the larger organization.
  7. Communities of interest maintain their own reward systems, usually non-monetary - virtual work groups are rewarded by the larger organization, often with direct or indirect monetary implications.
Virtual work groups, particularly effective ones, tend evolve community characteristics. This is what is happening during the early phases of team bonding. However, unless they become an organizational renegade, they continue to take their direction, gage their effectiveness and gain their rewards from the larger organization. 

Most groups in a larger organization are a hybrid, somewhere on the continuum between an independent community of interest, that has become alienated from the larger organization, and a completely focused virtual work group, that fails, or provides sterile results. As we move from a command-and-control,  machine, model of organizations to a virtual community model, understanding how to nurture independent virtual communities and at the same time keep them integrated will become increasingly important. This may be the biggest organizational challenge of the new era. 

Community Roles

In his book,  Organizing Genius, Warren Bennis identifies at least two roles for managing creative groups that provide some insights into managing the new organizations. One is the role of the visionary, the person who articulates the challenge and its resolution and who spends her time reinforcing the common image. The other is the role of the guardian of the community, the person who negotiates the commitments with other communities and the larger organization. 

While the roles of visionary and guardian are important for community cohesion, there are numerous other roles that are equally important for the effective functioning of the community. A vital role is the brokering of information. As David Shenk, author of Data Smog says: "Knowledge is power, but an unregulated stream of information is rarely the best route to knowledge." 

The brokering of community information generally is accomplished by a collection of agents. Both individuals and communities have two distinct information needs: the need to collect information to gage current conditions and the need to impart information that will create a desired effect. We will refer to these as sensory agents and action agents. Current organizational roles, with which we already are familiar, can be classified in this way. 

Roles that fall under the sensory agent category include the collection of information, the organization of information and evaluative reactions to the information. 

When we go to a government agency to file for a license or certificate, the person who we interact with  is an information collection agent. The same is true of the person  in our companies who processes our benefits information, payroll hours, etc. Clerical roles tend to be information collection roles. 

In contrast, the functions we most associate with librarians are those of an organization agent. They organize the information so it can be found, and act as brokers, assisting those who are not as familiar with the contents or organizational structure to find what is meaningful. But formal librarians are not the only example of this role. Administrative assistants in an office perform this role as do database administrators. Anyone who spends their time organizing information so it can be found again is acting as an organization agent. 

Finally, historians, critics and analysts provide a community evaluation of the information. While the community may allow everyone to participate in this role, most communities have a limited number of recognized authorities who provide the community-accepted evaluations. There are many ways to become an authority, ranging from being sanctioned by the community leadership, to building a populist reputation and following among the community members. Visionaries, revolutionaries and cult leaders are evaluation agents whose value systems differ from the official community leadership. 

Evaluation agents provide a bridge to the action agents, because their vision and value systems can stimulate and mold the actions of the community. 

Action agents translate information into physical action. Traditional action-agent roles in organizations tend to be manufacturing and sales. Engineering falls somewhere between an evaluation agent and an action agent. There is a point worth noting about how complex systems regulate and refine their actions. This generally is done through the use of tension-opposing forces. For example, our muscle tone is a measure of the balance between different sets of muscles that pull against each other. The tension created gives us very accurate control over our movements, once we learn how to coordinate the forces. Likewise, most of our hormonal systems have on and off hormones that balance each other and help us track the daily changes we encounter. 

We already are aware of some of these tension agents in our traditional organizations. The tension between manufacturing and sales is one well documented example. In this case, the manufacturing operation does not want to get "stuck" with inventory and have to lay-off workers in the future. The sales organization does not want to miss sales and market share because product is not available. The tension between the two, presumably, keeps the organization on an optimal track.  Another example is the check and balance system put in place by the U.S. Constitution. Here a three-way tension system (Congress, the President and the Supreme Court) was deemed necessary. It is interesting that a fourth agent (a sensory agent) also is required to maintain the proper control, that is the free "press." 

Action agents are not all outwardly focused. Systems require action agents to perform infrastructure maintenance and improvement. We see these agents at work everyday both in our companies and our government institutions. They remove waste, move walls, put in and repair roads and communication lines and a myriad of other tasks. 

As mentioned above, an  infrastructure maintenance-agent role that every large organization should consider, explicitly, especially with an intranet, is that of cross-pollenators. I know some companies, like Hewlett-Packard, have a formal organization and role to do just this. As intranet communities of interest begin to develop, these proactive ambassadors will become critical to the continuing mix and integration of  ideas. They are important organizational catalysts. 

Values and Wealth

When speaking to audiences, I often start with a version of a very old story, that is particularly relevant today. In this version of the story, a woman comes out of her office building after work on a dark winter evening. She sees one of her colleagues under a street light in the parking lot seemingly searching for something. She approaches him and asks if she can help. He explains that he has lost his car keys and would very much appreciate another set of eyes. 

After some time of searching, the woman becomes convinced that the keys are not there and suggests another strategy. She asks where he last saw his keys, so they could trace the path back to that point. Recognizing immediately where she is going with this line of questioning, he replies: "Oh, I know where I lost them. Over there." And, he points to a dark spot across the parking lot under a tree. 

The woman, flabbergasted, says: "If you lost the keys over there, why are you looking for them over here?" 

To which the man replies: "Because the light's better." 

As absurd as this story sounds, this is the way we approach many of our decisions. When justifying intranets, we attempt to use ROI measures that are well known  (under the street  light) because the real value may not be conventional or easily measured. The same is true of how we pay for and reward individuals and companies for the "new" value. What we value and how we pay for it are critical elements in the evolution and survival of organizations in the emerging order. 

Remember, before the industrial revolution (an outcome of the printing press) value and wealth were viewed very differently than today. Land and gold may still be important, but as Adam Smith pointed out, the route to attaining them is through control of the processes. Today we appear to be shifting again. We went from property to means of  production with the industrial revolution. We now are moving from means of production to means of knowing as the key value. 

At the dawn of the scientific revolution, the process manufacturers (wineries and breweries) wanted to protect their processes by hoarding information. Their researchers were not allowed to share their basic research, because it was considered a trade secret. Fortunately, some of these early scientists took a risk and published their key research under pseudonyms in order to advance the whole field more quickly. The most famous case is that of a brewery researcher who published under the name of  Student. One of his publications, to this day  known only as the Student t-test, still stands at the base of the scientific method as an elegant way to determine if experimental differences are more likely the result of chance or of the proposed hypothesis. 

This entire book is based on the premise that hoarding and gate keeping information is detrimental to learning, knowledge and the evolution of both individuals and business environments. The incredible inefficiencies and expenses that the business community at large  put up with in the early days of computerized information, because our value and wealth systems reinforced the hoarding of ideas and their application, is incredible. 

With the advent of  I-net technology, we are seeing cracks in our traditional value systems and what constitutes wealth. Traditional products and packaging are being replaced, and goods are moving to commodity status faster than ever before. How to make enough money to support the development and manufacturing of  products is, increasingly, a mystery. This must be similar to the confusion and sense of powerlessness faced by the nobility and landed gentry during the early days of the industrial revolution, as the basis of value and wealth shifted from land and gold to processes and goods. 

It is not information per se that is the newly valued commodity. As David Shenk, the previously quoted author of  Data Smog, says: "Information used to be as rare and precious as gold. Now it is so inexpensive and plentiful that most of it ends up being remaindered and shredded, as if it is worthless garbage." What is of value are vision and ideas. With the availability of cheap and plentiful information, the process of learning and synthesizing is replacing the process of manufacturing. 

So how might our value systems change to reward the creation, distribution and use of valuable ideas. Today's value systems reward the hoarding of the ideas. From our manufacturing, process, oriented view we believe that if a company's products aren't protected as a monopoly for some period of time, companies would not invest in new knowledge. We as a community agree to pay the monopoly prices to the manufacturing process owners, for a defined period, as a way to support advancement of the community as a whole. 

But is providing a manufacturing monopoly  the only way to compensate people and companies for their ideas? Is it the best way given the information changes going on today? Is it possible to separate the generation of ideas and knowledge from the manufacturing processes, just like the manufacturing processes were separated from their tie to land ownership during the industrial revolution? What if ideas were paid for by how widely they were used, rather than how narrowly they were monopolized? 

One can speculate on a value system that ascribes a base value to an idea, instantiated as a patentable process or product.  But the "patent" holder would not have control over who could use the idea in product creation and manufacturing. The patent holder would be guaranteed the unit price for each unit produced,  from everyone who used the idea. Thus, the way to greatest wealth would be to create ideas, instantiated as processes or products, that are widely shared and used by many manufacturers, rather than monopolized by one. 

In an intranet environment, the same message holds true. How do we reward people for sharing knowledge and ideas? How do we reward them for learning? It is not only our management structures that have to change. Our value and  reward structures also need to be examined. We must look for ways to reward people, both financially and in terms of influence, for creating and furthering the general knowledge. Moving from means of production to means of knowing as a base value requires rewarding people for  meaning, synthesis and discovery along with their ability to continually restructure the future possibilities. 

What does it mean to people?

Starting with the CEO:

Earlier we discussed the role challenges play in meaning. Of course, challenges occur at different levels. The mission, or vision, of an organization provides a common challenge to all the members. By challenging herself to meet the mission, or obtain the vision, each member of the organization helps move the organization toward a coordinated goal. At the same time,  specific implementation, and even strategy, challenges are left  to each individual to solve. Vision and vision statements become critical in a distributed decision-making environment. 

So how do organizational visions come about? Are they the product of a genius leader? Sometimes. But, genius induced visions often are difficult to sustain, even by the "genius."  As pointed out above, visionaries are a class of community sensory agent that share a subclass with analysts, critics and historians. This is a very different view from the common stereotype  held by most Anglo-American capitalist cultures, of the independent leader, somehow superior to and removed from the community, heroically leading the way to prosperity. 

Most successful organizational visions are a synthesis of the unfolding trends and knowledge in the organization, mapped against future scenarios. As change continues to accelerate, it will become increasingly important to view vision as an evolving process rather than a discrete goal. The biggest failure of most organizational visions today is that when they are developed, the corporate visionaries don't begin, immediately, crafting the vision that will replace it. 

The role of the chief executive, the person responsible for articulating the organizational vision, will increasingly become that of a common mirror reflecting the total image back to each part of the organization. The model needs to shift from decision-maker hero to community consolidator. The person, or people, filling this role will need to be adept at synthesizing the challenges and responses of the organization as a whole, seeing the implications and trends, developing thoughtful scenarios and feeding those back to the individual decision makers, not as decisions, but as possible (organizationally productive) futures. The future visions provide the value guides that allows each individual to make independent decisions that are meaningful to the organization as a whole. 


Today many managers view themselves as managing "the process." They take or set goals, devise a detailed plan of action, then motivate and monitor their employees actions according to the plan. As we begin the dawn of the information age, some managers already are beginning to realize that successful management always has been accomplished by managing the knowledge and facilitating the flow of information.  As the trend continues we can expect knowledge management to become the business of managers. Managers, in effect are a kind of action agent, as described above. They take in the sensory information and send out effective (action stimulating) information. As  managers discover the strong "sensory" power of the intranet, they will encourage all work to be done there. 

The most effective managers, and companies, will evolve patterns of work that imbed the normal process of doing  business into an  intranet communication infrastructure. The traditional role of managers as a sensory agent, storing and forwarding information flowing between upper management and workers, will be subsumed by the intranet itself. The manager role will begin to focus more on the agent functions of analyst/critic and cross-pollenator. Managers roles will, in effect, become the  regulatory agents described above. 

Knowledge Workers:

As managers move out of the sensory agent role, knowledge workers roles will need to shift to handle the new opportunities and challenges of being wired directly into the knowledge base. As with managers, many knowledge workers will begin to view their role in terms of  knowledge brokering rather than content output. Helping other knowledge workers find meaningful content for a specific problem will become more important than pre-packaging the notebooks, manuals and summaries that are so common today. It is possible that  this level, more than any other, will involve  the interplay and integration of automated tools and human judgment. This also will create the biggest challenge for new organizations. 

A recent newspaper article referred to a Harvard Business School, "Management Updates" newsletter that talked about learning styles and active versus passive learners. According the information in the newsletter, only 10% of today's organizational population are active learners. We can expect the new workplace to demand and be increasingly dependent on active learners. Whether passive learning is a condition of our upbringing, our educational patterns, our organizational pressures or our genetics is unknown. Whatever the case, we can expect increasing tension to build. 

From the individual perspective, this may mean a decreasing number of  jobs where passive learners can get by. Just as there are many fewer jobs today than in the past  for people without a high school (and now college) education, we may see the same displacement of passive learners begin to occur. From the organizational perspective we will see pressure to meet some needs by structuring roles to accommodate passive learners, simply because there are not enough active learners to go around.  This is another reason middle managers will not disappear entirely. One of the functions of a middle manager is to focus energy and  knowledge to help passive learners be successful in their jobs. However, the pressure will be there to minimize this type of overhead in organizations, and the degree to which it is tolerated will be dependent on how successful we are at creating a higher percentage of active learners. 

As is implied above, the new knowledge worker needs to be more proactive than reactive. They will need to customize more of their own information flow themselves. This means being able to determine what information she needs, knowing how to find it and knowing how to use personal agents to scan, screen and track it. This involves both problem solving ability and the willingness to take responsibility for and control of the information used everyday in every task. It also involves continually re-evaluating and readjusting the personal agents to match the changing requirements of the job. These are all attributes of active learners. 

Measurements of self worth, also will be challenged by the new environment. Many of us measure our self worth on the job by how busy we are during the day. When our day is packed from end to end, so we can barely get to everything, we feel worthy. Never mind that what we spent our time doing was reactive busy work that had little direct impact on the outcome of the organization. Proactive behavior requires periods of quiescence for re-evaluation and retuning. Those who measure self worth by busy-ness will need to re-calibrate to other indicators of success. 

Finally, we can expect organizations to struggle with how knowledge workers are measured and compensated for the value they add. Good ideas generally come from the interaction of multiple people, even when only one gets the credit. Bennis Organizing Genius gives examples of this, ranging from Michaelangelo to Walt Disney. An intranet, with virtual communities and casual collaboration, will likely make measurement and fair compensation for value-add even more nebulous. We ultimately may arrive at a solution as the agent roles described above become better defined and valued. This will only come from experience. 


Intranets give us the power to manage in new ways. Taking advantage of the opportunities requires shifting our view from managing things to managing knowledge and information flows. This shift requires us to look at the entire organization as a knowledge base, not just the information in applications and databases. The workplace becomes a complex sharing of sensory information and localized activities that change the knowledge base as they happen. The operational metaphor will shift from one of  factory processes and parts to one of objects and agents. As the organizational metaphor shifts from machine to organism, control will be viewed in terms of opposing tensions rather than engineered solutions. People become the key element, not as versatile machines, but as important repositories of unique knowledge to be shared and blended. This leads us to perhaps the most exciting possibility: a shift in perspective from the Industrial Revolution as the golden age of individualism and exploitation of community labor to the Information Revolution as the golden age of community development and nurturing of individual knowledge. 

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Original Version: September, 1997
Last Updated: September, 1997
Copyright 1997 - Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

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