Check the Label

We feel the industrial era dissolving around us as its values of perpetual growth, hoarded wealth, and destruction of our planetary commons become not just unsustainable but abhorrent.

When things change, we inevitably carry a lot of baggage from what was before into what’s emerging, and it often doesn’t serve us well.  In this case, the baggage comprises whole skill sets and attitudes that have formed the basis of businesses and jobs for generations. 

Horses gave way to cars, craft gave way to factories, and quantum mechanics eroded our comforting ideas of the absolute precision of materialist science. Along the way, whole tranches of infrastructure went with them. Now, it’s the turn of large chunks of the professions, journalism, consulting, sales staff and others to look on with concern as AI and machine learning eat their job descriptions. Labels that once denoted status and certainty are disappearing as jobs that were for a time made efficient through process move from managers to algorithms who don’t need expense accounts or holidays. 

What happens when those labels that defined our place in the world for several generations disappear? When the power that went with hierarchy, seniority, and expensively acquired knowledge dissolves to be increasingly replaced by more complex inherently human elements? Elements such as compassion, empathy, creativity and wisdom as the channels through which change flows? When the masculine energies of dominance and competition give way to the feminine energies of creation, connection, and continuity?

Warren Buffet, one of the icons of the dissolving age, famously said that it’s only when the tide goes out that we can see who’s been swimming naked. I think we’re in for something similar, as the labels we have used to define us give way to our essential humanity as defining who we are. 

In their excellent short book Re-sounding, Rik Spann and Simon Martin write about four ways of knowing; the first two are the “doing” language of business, propositional and practical knowledge. The second two, presentational (or artistic) and experiential knowledge, is that of “being”, of the wide-ranging aspects of our humanity. As the tide goes out, we will see who are human doings and who are human beings. 

There is much in the business writing of how organisations will adapt to this new environment. I’m not sure that’s the best question. Organisations in their current form are creatures of the industrial age, and I’m not sure they are the ones to take us forward. Their DNA is in the values of the era that created them, and I’m reminded of Henry Ford’s observation that “If I’d given people what they asked for, I would have developed a faster horse.” A more human corporate is a big stretch.

Technology is giving us myriad options for organising our efforts in bodies far more flexible and ethical than corporations. We can create businesses organised for the benefit of most people who work in them and the communities they are part of, rather than a tiny, tiny proportion of them. Scale no longer means size.

We can imagine what might happen if we focused on developing people’s innate talents rather than the ones convenient to an employer and what sort of organisations might emerge as a result. The sort of creativity that might emerge, the connections that might arise, and the consignment of “engagement” to the museum of organisational curiosities.

I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none.

Ben Shahn

To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, the labels that got you here won’t get you there.

It’s an excellent time to think about the labels we attach to ourselves and others, and seriously consider replacing them.

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