Life in the Middle Ages wasn't as fun as it's depicted on TV. There weren't dragons flying around or centaurs coexisting with human beings, I'm sorry to say. It was pretty oppressive if you take the perspective of a feudal servant. Feuds were independent units owned by a central authority, like a king or a feudal lord. The feudal lord assigned people to work on specific pockets of land in exchange for protection and survival. By the 15th century, the Great Navigations gained traction across Europe, draining the power and influence from the feudal lords to the merchants. The merchants orchestrated economic life and, in doing so, attracted people away from feuds towards cities, changing their lives and the nature of work forever.
Firstly this enabled the exchange of goods needed to survive. Secondly, it allowed people to specialize their working skills, thus becoming blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, etc. In that space the natural networks of artisans and merchants began to form the first corporations, intensifying the opportunity for exchange and collaboration. The transition from subsistence to trade paved the way for a global, connected economy, which is still the essence of Economics nowadays.
Let's leap forwards hundreds of years to today: much more has changed in technological and economic terms, shifting the value created by a business from, for example, merely trading coffee beans (commodity), to promoting an entire experience of drinking a Non-Fat Frappuccino With Extra Whipped Cream And Chocolate Sauce at Starbucks (experience). The coffee could be the same in another fancy coffee shop nearby your office, but what makes each over-priced purchase different are the layers of service experience that someone designed to be unforgettable the next time you wander out to have a coffee.
While designing experiences, we are dealing with people’s perceptions of a brand, a completely abstract entity. Intangibility became the raw material for the artisans of our time - our contemporary merchants are trading attention.
In an Experience Economy, technology plays an important role in digitizing and measuring interactions between brands and their customers, generating data as an outcome. So, the more you interact with a system, the more data you're generating, and here’s where we fall in the maxim that “data is the new oil”. The debate of whether the analogy between data and oil is fair is still open, but we do all agree about the relevance on the use of data to run a business in this century.
The impact of digital technologies on businesses affects not only the customer side but also the work relations within an organization. Let’s take the most prominent example of a company that has been thriving for years in this new scenario: Uber. Their mere existence coined the neo-euphemism “uberisation”, a synonym for “Sharing Economy”, which basically means accessing underutilized assets that are put in a system to be shared. Their system - and other similar cab apps that came after – just happens to eliminate any kind of management level. The Uber driver has no contact at all with a human being telling her what she has to do, it works more like a gamified job - far removed from what was meant by work a century ago. And of course, the “new” boss, the algorithm, is fueled by an overwhelming quantity of data.
Organizational structures are also being shaped by new business models that are also being shaped by technologies. I would dare to compare our most advanced research on cognitive and behavioral sciences to what the Great Navigations did to the feudal lords hundreds of years ago. Due to this advance, professionals from around the world are draining the power and influence from intermediary levels in organizations in an ever-widening range of industries, acting as the miners responsible for exploiting the “oil” of the century. Those professionals are called User Experience (UX) Designers.
First of all, UX design is much more a process encompassing a complex skill set, such as research, drafting, sketching, prototyping and many other specific skills that can contribute to a product to be successful. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, in 2017 there were at least one million people working in this field, and its predicted to grow by a factor of 100 by 2050. Making use of knowledge on human behavior, UX designers are able to design digital systems that are more efficient and more appealing for users to interact with, generating the data businesses need to be data-driven and thrive in this new and connected reality. This raises concerns about the responsibilities of such a (not so) new category of worker. Proving UX impact is one of them, on which my colleague Molly Rempe, an associate UX researcher at Cognizant Accelerator, has been writing about for an event she attended in the US. During her experience as a Researcher, she's identified four strategies to indicate UX success within a company. These strategies include building a user-centered database; tracking user engagement, demonstrating risk mitigation, and establishing usability performance, which are good ways to start.
Once the impact of UX has been proven, another big debate emerges on the ethics of how it’s used. The way we’ve been designing digital technologies for the last ten years is now compared to drug addiction, raising debates on whether it’s fair to have different tax policies for media companies that are draining our attention to mine our personal data. This is the main topic being discussed right now by tech specialists, such as Douglas Rushkoff and Tristan Harris.
Bringing it back to our main topic here, at the Center for The Future of Work, my point is: who’s designing the technology inside your company that ultimately shapes your organizational structure? Sooner or later a multidisciplinary team of technologists will get together to change the nature of your work by delegating anything that can be automated to a machine, for better or for worse. It’s time to approach this problem collectively and collaboratively, and try not to replicate the behavior of the corporate feudal lords from centuries ago, otherwise, your talented artisans will probably flee to another city.