The ten commandments of digital work

January 27, 2013


Industrial-era thinking consists of cultural metaphors that have guided the development of firms and societies for the past 100 years. These habitual mindsets act as intellectual and emotional standards for determining what is the right way to think and what are the right things to do.

Lately I have had a series of conversations with a group of leaders of global high-tech companies. It became very clear during my conversations that their vocabulary reflected a new way of thinking about work. The executives emphasized that the key to success in the new digital economy is likely to be a new position for knowledge professionals and a wide social acceptance of more sustainable values.

These people represented a very different set of standards from those the mainstream thinking portrays.

We still think according to a mindset, in which capital is the key resource and the investor is the ultimate boss. Accordingly, the modeling approach we still use in corporate governance is the principal-agent model, in which managers are viewed as agents of the shareholders, the principals. It is a chain of authority that leads to the knowledge worker only at the end of the chain.

But once acquired, knowledge and skills that are specialized to a given enterprise are assets that are at risk in the very same way that financial assets are at risk. If one can’t continue for some reason, the value of context-specific knowledge and competencies may be much lower somewhere else. Human capital then follows very much the same logic as financial capital and should be treated accordingly.

There is, however, one major difference. Human capital is by definition always linked, social and contextual.

The capabilities of the members of a team are worth more together than when applied alone. With context-specific human capital, the productivity of a particular individual depends not just on being part of a community, but on being part of a particular group engaged in a particular task.

The contextual and social aspects of business matter much more than we have understood.

The ten principles of digital work, the new standards, that the leaders acknowledged:

  1. informed free choice, rather than compliance, is the basis for decisions
  2. active participation, rather than passively accepting instructions, is the basis of growth and development
  3. work activities are carried out within a framework of personal responsibility and goals for self-direction rather than direction from outside
  4. activities are carried out in a transparent way with the goal of distributing the cognitive load of work rather than work being based on reductionist principles and social isolation
  5. one is responsible for one’s own actions rather than being responsible to someone else
  6. a worker is engaging in complex, responsive activities with others in contrast with engaging in closed repetitions of the same activity
  7. the network, rather than offices or organizational hierarchies, is the main architecture of work
  8. productivity is a result of creative learning rather than doing more of the same. Increasing the quality and speed of learning matter more than increasing the quantitative output of work
  9. knowledge work can be understood as investments of human capital following the same logic we have used to understand financial investments. Workers should share the responsibilities and possible upsides that used to belong only to the investors of financial capital.
  10. knowledge work is about interdependent people in interaction. Intelligence, competence and learning are not any more about the attributes and qualities of individuals but about the attributes and quality of interaction


The impact of technology on industrial jobs.

10 Responses to “The ten commandments of digital work”

  1. pertti korhonen Says:

    Esko, a very impressive crystallization of the essence. Congratulations. And then the easy part: implementation ….

  2. eskokilpi Says:

    Thank you Pertti! I think you are one of the leaders in Finland who are well underway in the implementation of the new paradigm. In most places, it’s still early days

  3. John Says:

    Very interesting. This of course means that social skills and interactive ability in groups becomes more important. However, smaller family sizes, together with digital isolation in technology from infant hood, is likely to inhibit that necessary social maturity.

  4. Yes, to make a paradigm shift is to think differently about capital. Capital is where your heads sit, not where the figures in balance sheets are. In stead of currency, we have values, that behave in similar manner as currencies (inflation, normas, stock market etc.) It is the differense in spreading, hierarchy and application of values that we need to measure.

  5. Kirsi Anna Hämäläinen Says:

    What is the right way to think about the right way to do – too often our organisations don’t accept opinions that are against the mainstream. Perhaps it tells us about the conscious of unconscious choice of keeping the authority. Although the real estimation comes from noticing the early symptoms of the change and getting the organisation involved to develop it. Even if it might mean lower hierarchy.

    • Matti Ahola Says:

      Yes, Kirsi, I think you are right. Authority means having clear borders, so everything what is expected is clear and you can meet the expectations or fail, meet or fail, meet or fail, meet or fail, year to year, plus having some bonus or punishment. That is a common mainstream, at least in some organizations. If you find yourself in a “mainstream” organization, it can be a tough path to walk through, to talk about the quality of interaction, 10 times without any response. What to do, change work or be more creative to change the status quo?

  6. David Hurst Says:

    Excellent summary. As you point out, the way we thought about work in the industrial era was dominated by a need to conserve the scarcest resource – capital. Now Western capitalism’s scarcest resources is creativity and innovation – financial capital is plentiful.

    Your commandments are highly compatible with an ecological perspective on human nature that sees us as rational but in an eco-logical way (non-Cartesian) and our minds as embodied, not just “embrained”. We can think and learn about the world in just as many ways as we experience it! Contexts matter, history matters and narratives matter.

    For a reconfiguration of management and leadership from an ecological perspective you might be interested in my book – you can read about it here:

  7. […] recently ran across his post “The ten commandments of digital work,”  from his blog “Interactive Value Creation.” […]

  8. […] recently ran across his post “The ten commandments of digital work,”  from his blog “Interactive Value Creation.” […]

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