Today, we think of organizations, both in the commercial and the non-profit fields, as legal entities with operations, a budget, a structure (e.g. of business units and their supply chains), and a cadre of mostly permanent employees, remunerated via wages and salaries.
Society is questioning today’s forms of organization.
There are some questions that begin to arise about the continued functionality of this form of organization. People worry about an excessive focus on the short-term, and about unseemly bonuses for C-Suite managers tied to profit targets, and about reported violations of ethics and norms. Hierarchies feel oppressive and unresponsive to new ideas. Social impact, quality of life impact and community development impact become part of a skeptical analysis.
Today’s organizational forms will disappear.
It’s entirely reasonable to think about this organizational form declining in the future, perhaps disappearing.
Organizational evolution is tending towards firms as a cluster of projects, each project having a specific end in mind. The project will assemble labor and capital as needed, and the specific types of labor and capital can be flexibly added and subtracted at each project stage as needed. Many contractors and vendors are rented rather than owned, and consumed by the unit – an hour of computing power, a crane leased for a day or a week, a loan to finance inventory for as long as it takes to get from China to New York.
Some of the contract labor might be engaged in the same way – entering the project with specific skills to address specific tasks, and exiting when the task is done, to go on to another project at another company. The walls of these firms are permeable, with labor and capital moving in and out as needed. Teams and resource clusters are ad hoc, flexible and ever changing. These companies and many others are already redefining the work structures that will replace the old hierarchical models.
Our institutions will change, too.
With all of this organizational change going on, we can expect to find our institutions changing, too. The term “institution” can be a little bit loose in modern parlance. Let’s take it to mean the norms of behavior that people in a society or nation follow. The organizations that become institutionalized follow from the norms of behavior.
The emergent norm of “No taxation without representation” gave rise to the U.S. Constitution, Congress, the Executive branch of government and the administrative state, and the Judiciary. Norms of behavior such as “Get a high school diploma and a college degree to advance in the workforce” gave rise to our current educational institutions and an institutionalized pathway for most of us. “A career is upward progress on the rungs of the corporate / professional hierarchical ladder” is a norm giving rise to institutionalized jobs, training and assessment.
The new norm may be something like “Make yourself as uniquely useful as you can as a collaborator with other knowledgeable actors” and may result in institutionalized education, institutionalized professions, and institutionalized jobs withering away to be replaced with totally new forms.
The individual drives all this change.
In all these future scenarios, uncertain as they are, there is one consistency. The individual is at the center. It’s a heightened responsibility for your own future; it’s a call for active management of your life path while happily bearing the future uncertainty. It’s the entrepreneurial attitude.
You’ll think of it as knowledge gathering and curation, and you are in charge. You will actively navigate your own career, making frequent changes of emphasis and taking new pathways from time to time as circumstances change around you. You might be an employee for part of your career, a freelance contributor to projects and teams for another part, and an entrepreneur for a third part. You will be at the center of your own health care: managing your own wellness, taking charge of all your data, managing your behavior in response to the data and the diagnostics available to you, and choosing your own team of doctors and specialists and healthcare service providers (presuming that healthcare can be made universally accessible and affordable with choices through the healthcare system). You will be at the center of your own media cloud, acting as your own editor, taking responsibility to be sure the news information you receive is useful, accurate, and aligned with your interests.
Opportunity and Responsibility.
The new individualism comes with great opportunity and some responsibility. It requires us to take charge, assess ourselves and our contribution objectively, augment ourselves with the right technology and assemble the right tools, always embracing continuous change and lifelong learning.
The institutional resistance may be high, but the progress of individualism promises to be unstoppable.