About a year ago I wrote a blog on the post retirement phase of my life. Tom Foremski, a journalist blogger and friend who reports on the business and culture of innovation in Silicon Valley Watcher, wrote an interesting comment in my blog:
“In some ways, I see your post-retirement life as being somewhat futuristic, in that it will be the way many people will be working in the future. It's what I call an "atomic" model - collaborating with others on specific tasks/projects and then dissolving those collaborations as you work with others on different projects. In some ways, this is the way Hollywood has been working for decades. And it's also one that I increasingly see in Silicon Valley.”
“It's a model that increases individual productivity and also organizational productivity because you bring in consultants/experts for specific tasks. Why have them sitting around on salaries in-between projects?”
“You've retired from the old style of working and you are now pioneering the new style of working :)”
Tom himself made such a transition when in 2004 he left his position as the Silicon Valley reporter for the Financial Times to found Silicon Valley Watcher, one of the first journalists to leave a position with a major newspapers to make a living as a journalist blogger.
I have been very intrigued with this new distributed work phase of my career, where I am associated with several institutions instead of one primary one, as was the case when I worked full time at IBM until I retired in May of 2007 after 37 years with the company. In particular, I have thought a lot about the role of the Web and related technologies as key enablers of such a distributed style of work.
Over the years, the Web has significantly transformed the working environment of just about all companies and institutions around the world. But, what I did not quite appreciate until my own transition to a distributed work style four years ago, was the even more dramatic impact the Web was having on the work environment of self-employed individuals and entrepreneurial businesses, who now had access to many of the same capabilities of people employed in bigger institutions with large budgets and access to expert IT support.
In my own case, I have transitioned from being an executive working full time at IBM to my present position as a self-employed professional associated with a variety of institutions. Roughly speaking, two thirds of my work is spent consulting on innovation and technical strategy, primarily with IBM and Citigroup, but now and then with other companies as well. A quarter of my time is spent with universities, primarily MIT, Imperial College and SUNY’s Levin Institute. The remaining time is spent in various other activities, including boards and government panels.
People often ask me what I have been doing since I retired from IBM, and when I tell them, they typically say that it sounds like I am busier now than when I had a full time position. I generally answer that while I am indeed quite busy, being a self-employed professional is markedly different from working full time at a large company like IBM, both in obvious and subtle ways.
My time is now my own. I have a lot more flexibility and personal choice in what I do and how I spend my days. The boundaries between work and personal life, already very porous when working at IBM, are practically non-existent.
But, as a self-employed individual, I am also on my own. While the various institutions I work with provide me some degree of support, their infrastructure and processes are geared to support their full time employees, not part-time professionals and contractors. I thus have had to come up with my own infrastructure and processes suitable for my present distributed work style.
I cannot begin to imagine how I would have done this in the not so distant, pre-Web days. The Web has now essentially become my primary work infrastructure. My work processes are essentially web-based processes. While I use physical offices when spending time at any one of the institutions I work with, by primary office is the Web. My primary business address is someplace out there in the cloud.
Home office used be a physical concept - the office in your place of residence. For me and many others, the home office has evaporated into the cloud. I access my web-based cloud office wherever I am, using whatever devices I have with me, - whether it is my laptop, tablet, smart phone or just about any computer at the location I am working in that has open access to the Web. Let me review some of the key ways that the web-based cloud office enables my new style of work.
First of all is access to information. In just about any job, access to key information is critical. This is clearly true for knowledge workers, that is, those “individuals who are valued for their ability to interpret information within a specific subject area.” But increasingly more and more jobs, even those primarily dealing with physical things, e.g., electricians, plumbers, mechanics, are becoming information intensive and knowledge-based as well
Access to all the information now available on the Web, - as well as the search engines and other tools that permit us to quickly find what we are looking for, - have become the critical tools for knowledge-based jobs like mine as well as for the increasing percentage of just about all jobs that have a significant knowledge-based component. The Web has pretty much leveled the playing field, enabling entrepreneurial workers to have access to the latest information in their field, whether they work for a large company or are self-employed.
Next is access to people. While access to information is very important and has continued to grow, the Web has enabled a more profound kind of connectivity helping people interact with each other both socially and professionally. These new social networking capabilities have reminded us that humans are inherently social. We get together, establish communities and work and play as a team. We organize into a wide variety of institutions to get things done more effectively. At work, most of us like to communicate, share ideas and learn from each other.
In the past, we did this by going to an office or some other physical workplace. Physical, face-to-face interactions continue to be the best ways for people to deal with each other whenever possible. Physical interactions enable us to exchange tacit knowledge that is otherwise “difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.”
But as we know, it is not always efficient, let alone feasible to have face-to-face meetings because we are working with people in many different physical locations, - some of them all over the world, - throughout the day. That is why over the years, we have developed a variety of technologies to help us communicate and work with each other independent of distance and time, including mobile phones, e-mail and more recently, a variety of social media capabilities.
Our web-based office tools, most of which are now mobile, enable us to interact with people, share information and participate in meetings pretty much wherever we are, and regardless of what else we are doing at the time. The Web has become not only a working place where we access information, apps and services of all sorts, but a critical meeting place for interacting with people. Our offices are indeed out there in the cloud.
I don’t miss not having a primary physical office to go to at all. I can do most of what I need to from my web-based office. But, I miss the support I used to have, when working full time at IBM, with the myriads of administrative tasks that work entails, like managing my calendar, scheduling trips, filling out travel expense forms, sending out and keeping track of invoices, and so on. In particular, I miss my highly capable administrative assistant - Julie Nielsen - who so professionally managed all aspects of my office for over eighteen years and who retired from IBM at the same time I did.
Being self-employed, I now spend quite a bit of time personally handling these administrative tasks. I do get help from people in each of the specific institutions I am associated with. But, they can only assist me with matters involving my interactions with each particular institution. Ultimately, I have to personally put it all together, schedule my time and organize all my diverse activities.
Handling these administrative tasks by myself would have been much more difficult just a few short years ago. If it weren’t for the Web, e-mail, online calendars, mobile devices, and the like it would be practically impossible for me to keep track of, let alone manage all the various activities in my distributed work life. For the most part, the tools I need are all there. But, being my own assistant and office manager does take a significant amount of time.
Finally, there is blogging. I recently wrote about my complex relationship with blogging and the central role it now plays in my life. Blogging helps me structure my fairly eclectic life. Given the different institutions I work with, my calendar looks very different from day to day and week to week. But the one constant is my weekly blog, which I have been writing since May of 2005. Blogging has provided a sense of continuity to my varied and somewhat unstructured distributed work life.
In addition, blogging has become an important ingredient in my personal brand. For many of us, our work is a major part of our identity. When working full time for one institution, especially a strong one like IBM, your identity is closely associated with the brand of the institution you work for.
In my present distributed work style, the brands of the various institutions I am associated with clearly impact my own identity, which is why I have to be very careful not to work with institutions whose brand I would prefer not to be associated with. But, part of being on my own, is that my personal brand is now more important than in the past. My blog is one of the main ways that anyone out there can find out what I do, the main areas that I am currently working on, and my feelings about the key issues I care about.
The blog also helps to provide a very important sense of transparency to my professional identity as well as to my personal opinions in areas like organizational culture, open markets, diversity and certain political issues I care strongly about. In addition, I find that the transparency provided by my blog is useful in helping me sort out any potential conflicts of interest that may arise while working with different institutions. I clearly would never write about matters that are confidential to any one institution. But once the work is public and I can provide links to publicly available information, I like to let people know what I am working on by writing about it in my blog.
I totally agree with Tom Foremski’s comment that my new style of work is one that will become increasingly important in the US economy and that of other countries experiencing similar employment challenges and major economic transitions. I truly hope that the web-based tools, mobile devices and other digital technologies increasingly available at affordable costs will enable many more people now looking for jobs to consider the option of becoming self-employed, start new businesses and successfully embrace this new style of work.