Reflections on life in a post-industrial world

It is no longer news that careers and the work environment look very different in a post-industrial economy than what it used to look  like.  We are all still a bit uncertain how it will pan out, but we do know that 21st century career paths will be very different from what it was like on the 20th century.

I have been reflecting on the fact that the post-industrial economy is not only a knowledge economy, but increasingly also a relentless innovation economy where things change at an ever increasing rate.  Currently I am visiting a number of countries in Europe primarily to establish links and build networks for collaboration.  But this journey also brings ‘life in a post-industrial society’ into sharper focus.

In her book “States and Markets” Susan Strange discusses the knowledge structure of national states, and also how knowledge works and differs from the industrial focus.  She comments that knowledge has an impact based on the three intertwined characteristics:

  1. Who you know
  2. What you know
  3. What your position is

In a knowledge economy, or in knowledge-led innovation economies, the trend has been towards more individualised career paths, with an increase in personal autonomy.  In such an environment the first two aspects of knowledge impact are clearly very important.  It is the third one, which used to be linked closely with vertical career movement in large organisations, that I have spent a lot of time thinking about.  How does that work in a world where career paths are no longer defined by vertical career movements in organisations?  If “what your position is” is no longer defined by a job title indicating vertical career positioning in an organisation, by what is it defined in this new world?

I had pointers before, but this trip to Europe has brought much clarity in my reflection about this.  It has to do with the “belonging” part of the new career paths.  Knowledge workers assume autonomy, but in the process lose being part of a bigger entity.  They replace this with becoming “voluntary members” of larger groupings.  This can be a formal paid membership, a community of practice, or a business model catering for this trend through a cluster of legal entities.  It is best explained through a few examples.

Enspiral (New Zealand)

Enspiral  is a membership based cluster of companies that share the same values, and importantly the same culture – they are part of Enspiral because they want a nurturing business environment, not a highly competitive one.  They share more than office space, they also watch out for one another and almost function like a chosen ‘family’.

Knowmads (Netherlands)

They build strong relationships in their cohorts of students, enabled through dedicated social media sites well beyond the completion of the programme. Many of their learning also takes place in group sessions and activities, cementing the team culture and dynamics even more.  They even call their student cohorts “tribes”, once again describing something that has a stronger bond than merely being in the same student cohort. It almost indicates something like a chosen ‘family’.

Pieter and Guus indicated in our discussion that they recognise this as an important part of the Knowmads offering and are currently working on ways to give this more prominence and make sure they retain this close bond as the movement grows.  So in this instance doing the programme initiates you into a community that lives beyond the scope of the programme and is a known factor in creating your success afterwards, as you can draw on the community not only as a connection (who you know), but your position as a member of this community.  In fact, becoming part of this community is an expressed reason why people come to do the programme – they want in on a community of like minded people as part of building their careers in this highly individualised post-industrial world we now live in.  It goes beyond ‘building networks’.  There is a sense of long term belonging – being part of a tribe.

Innovation Lab (Denmark)

I was not prepared for what I found when I met with Mads and Martin to discuss their work at the Innovation Lab in Aarhus, Denmark (and like both Enspiral and Knowmads the movement is spreading across the globe to other countries).

Innovation Lab is basically a group of independent businesses being paid members choosing to work together under the banner of Innovation Lab as knowledge service providers.  Each member has their own company, i.e. they are all CEOs of a company.  But they are all members of Innovation Lab, paid members.

So why are they part of Innovation Lab even though they need to pay to be members and are separately responsible for the success of their own companies?  They bring in work for one another because together as a team they have a wider base of capabilities.  They also have regular meetings as a group with external (also paid) member organisations interested in what services Innovation Lab has to offer.  These external member organisations get certain benefits, and the companies that comprise ‘Innovation Lab’ have the benefit of having regular access to the member organisations that want to make use of Innovation Lab’s services.

So once again there is the recognition of both autonomy and the voluntary choice to ‘belong’ to something bigger.  In the case of Innovation Lab initiation into to be part of the group of companies providing services to the customers of Innovation Lab can only take place if current members (i.e. the service provider members) of Innovation Lab agree, and they watch closely that they do not introduce internal competition, but rather synergies and complementary capabilities.

So what’s new?

All of these have one thing on common – they champion both autonomy and belonging.  Gone are vertical hierarchies.  They are replaced by individualised autonomous entities who position themselves by becoming members of larger groupings that share their values and approach.

Of course you have read all of this only to realise you already know this.  Look at Uber, Airbnb, and the trend of groups of autonomous service providers is already abundantly clear.  These bonds are strong and prevailing and spearhead success, just think back to its less democratic predecessor, the notorious ‘old boys club’.


Innovation Lab

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