Authority

Like Arnold Schönberg disrupted traditional classical music into what most of you would describe as noise, so has technology radically upset the world of work into what most of you would call a new economic paradigm. Digital disruptors and Unicorns dominate the financial and economic news. They are also spearheading all new HR and organizational thinking. Some of these firms seem to foreshadow the future of what the old Economy will transform into. That new world of work will dictate the way things get organized, decided and executed.

True, the Old Economy is being challenged. It cannot ignore the major transformation it will need to go through. Is the root cause however the digital imperative or a broader cultural force?

If you look at how things get decided in the New Economy, it is clear that classical top-down authority, with a command-and-control hierarchy headed by a CEO, doesn’t apply anymore. This phenomenon has in my eyes nothing to do with the digital imperative. As our western national industrial economies transformed into global service economies, knowledge displaced physical manpower. The workforce evolved from docile doers to educated, technology-savvy, emancipated intellectuals. Generations now of these intellectuals have been raised to function as autonomous individuals. They participate in economic, social, political and cultural life as independent actors, thinking and acting for themselves.

Some companies have long understood that capturing the combined intellectual and executive power of these individuals brings far more value than any CEO can bring with his limited executive committee. More and more companies today are looking at alternative management structures as there is ample evidence the top-down approach is suboptimal. Today’s knowledge workers are eager to displace the command-and-control hierarchies. They understand that with autonomy comes accountability. I believe companies unleashing that potential will be the winners, irrespective of Old and New, as long as they adapt to the digital age.

Let me go back to Schoenberg and all modern classical composers. None have true mass appeal. Bach, Mozart, etc. continue to dominate the classical music scene. In economic terms, the traditional Warren Buffet type companies are not about to disappear. Yes, they will have to adapt to the digital imperative at work. But that’s not really their biggest challenge. The emancipation of the knowledge worker is: how decisions are made and work gets done is up for total renewal. The incessant drive for economic value will leave companies no option but to change how authority is applied.

The philosophers under us which I presume to be few will see in this evolution the Enlightenment at work: horizontal organizations with a deliberative or bottom-up democratic authority show remarkable likeness to our political and scientific systems where equality and freedom dominate.

The economists under us which I presume to be many will see the omnipresent rule of capitalism at work. Both explanations carry validity. I’m sure you have your own explanation. All explanations will be formed by the rule of reason. That’s Kant’s definition of Enlightenment at work: Sapere aude (Dare to know). Remember what the Dormouse said: Feed your head.

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