The Future of Work: Belief and Currency

Many Organisations are actively engaged in exploring the Future of Work: their drivers include a desire to optimise their physical footprint (and save costs), engage and retain the best talent, reclaim a lost agility of old (or find a new agility in approach), and to capture a competitive edge in a rapidly evolving context of operation. As markets evolve, so too new markets are emerging: as the Trans-Nationals claim ever broader swathes of the existing market, they do so from a new, online, engaged, and connected territory of data and hyper-globalism.

Into the Social Age

Older Organisations struggle for two broad reasons. Firstly, they adapt badly within a known space, often with great pain and exhaustion, but even when they do adapt, it’s within an old paradigm, so their end state is equally maladapted, even if different. And secondly, they frame that adaptation is physical and contractual, when in reality is a is shift in the nature of knowledge and engagement, so they end up with a rebalanced physical and hierarchical structure, but still cannot access the social connection and engagement that they need and desire.

Probably there are two central tenets to understand this: firstly, the ‘Organisation as belief system’, and, secondly, ‘The multi currency Organisation’.

Let’s start with the Organisation as a belief system, and to do that, we need the foundation of understanding the tension of the formal and social structures. Within the paradigm of the Social Age, we learn to operate within the Dynamic Tension between formal and social systems, but with a recognition that we need both to thrive: the formal system is that which is owned and controlled by the Organisation, and the social one is that which flows through and around it, a radically complex network of trust, pride, aspiration, etc, structured within social, tribal, units.

Everything that you can see, that you own, or control, sits within the formal system: the buildings, the laptops, factories, lorries, employment contracts, organisational structure diagram, and coffee machine. You own this: you can do what you like with it. The social system splits into the ‘tribal’, and ‘meta-tribal’, reflecting that our engagement appears to exist on two levels: immediate and trusted (tribal), and negotiated and convenient (meta-tribal). We join a ‘tribe’, but we work alongside people in other tribes too, many of whom we like and respect, but are not necessarily so strongly connected to.


Not that this, above, is still something of an abstraction (e.g. it’s probably wrong), but i feel it’s a useful abstraction to understand that engagement is both complex, and multi-levelled (of which i am confident).

Having set up our understanding of these two structures, we can more easily visualise the Dynamic Tension: because you own, and can see, the formal structure, you can do whatever you like to it, but the ‘soul’ of the Organisation (certainly engagement, belonging, community, and probably innovation and ability to change) sits within the Social one. And even if you can visualise part of it, engage with part of it, you do not own it. Our engagement with the Social Organisation will always be negotiated and consensual, and to understand it fully is to understand gradients of power, and tribal structure, which i won’t go deeply into here, but which i have written about widely elsewhere.

One consequence (or possibly driver) of this understanding, is to realise that we are ‘engaged’ to the Organisation in two ways: one is contractual, and the other is belief. You have a legal contract that stipulates the limits of your power and reach within the formal structure, and you have a tribal network and broader network of connections that determine the reach and power of your effect and influence. If asked which of those networks you ‘belong’ to, it’s probably the social one.

The consequences of this are broad, and speak precisely to why change as a formal approach is so limited, and why understanding change as a social movement can be so valuable.

An Organisation exists as a legal footprint in the formal structure, and as a belief system in the social one. Think back to your University, or school: your memories of it, the idea of it that you hold in your head, will sit alongside your understanding of it’s current state, providing your comprehensive understanding of ‘what that thing is’. Your memories of lecture halls, hangovers, trees, and beers will all contribute to that. It’s unlikely that your memory will simply consist of physical descriptors: the lecture hall was eighteen by fourteen point six metres. More likely, your memories will be ‘happy’, rose tinted, or tied up with the people you were there with.

If we subscribe to the notion that our understanding of a ‘thing’ is inherently tied up with stories, memories, people, then we can start to understand the Organisation as a belief system: we ‘believe’ that it is good, that is will protect us, that it is loyal to us. We believe in purpose and intent. We ‘believe’ in the current state, and mission. But change challenges all of this: when Organisations change the formal structure, they tear at the heart of the social one: they fragment tribes, and try to claim the narrative. They write new doctrine and create change stories. Hence they attack established systems of belief and, predictably, are rejected for such action: not necessarily with opposition and hostility, but rather through passivity and casual indifference.

In the context of the future of work, we need to understand the Organisation as belief system, to understand exactly what it is that people are joining, and probably more importantly, what we need them to join, and how.

Our older, domain based Organisations, are used to this question, and they have an answer: they want you to join contractually, between the hours of 9-5, and to leave all your emotional baggage at the door. Moreover, anything you create of value, within those hours, they expect you to give to them. This includes your engagement, trust, and belief. But in the context of the Social Age, this is far from a given. And cannot be demanded. You can be employed, but not engaged. Your ‘belief’ can exist within a notion of the Organisation held by your local tribe, entirely divorced from, or even in opposition to, some streamlined and future state defined by the Change Group.

Social Leadership - Reward

The notion of the ‘Multi Currency Organisation’ builds upon this, and goes broadly thusly: domain Organisations are built upon a premise of time, money, and utility, but a Socially Dynamic one will have all this, but also engagement, trust, and a deep seated ability to change.

Our organisations today are relatively modern constructs, and represent collectivism (of people with diverse skills), to do known jobs in known ways: as such, their core capabilities are ones of consistency, conformity, replicability, to scale. With great effort, they can also innovate and change, but it tends to be hard, because the mindsets of risk, conformity, and control, detest ambiguity, and change.

Within this domain structure, we give our time, we bring our utility, we are paid in money, and we do the things we are employed to do. That is the single currency Organisation, and represents our core model of productivity today.

But much of what our Organisations want from us today, and as they envisage the ‘future of work’, is engagement. And engagement is traded in different currencies, not simply the currency of money. How much, precisely, is an open question, but one result from my own research stands out: in the Landscape of Trust research, people differentiated between engagement that delivered direct financial gain to the Organisation, and engagement that help others to succeed, that made the culture better.

When individual engagement directly was seen to generate more revenue for the Organisation, over fifty percent of people wanted more money as a result. But when individual engagement helped others, and improved culture, only seven percent wanted more money. Alongside this, i asked what people wanted, if they did not want money, and the largest response was ‘freedom’. Fifty four percent of people wanted that: and with that freedom they said that they would help others to succeed, that they would share, that they would experiment. Typically the very things that Organisations envisage in their future ways of working.

These things are traded in different currencies: pride, trust, empathy, and so on. How many different currencies, i do not know, but one thing is clear, and worth remembering: when we trade in money, we own the ‘central bank’. Organisations can decide who gets paid how much, they own the bank, and divide the currency. But they do not own the central bank of trust, of pride, of fairness etc. They can trade in these currencies, but they do not own them.

So the multi currency Organisation still inhabits a formal space, trading money for known utility and time, but it also inhabits the social space, the belief system, trading in fairness, trust, gratitude, empathy, and does so by spending new currencies that it must first earn.

For these reasons, i thin that a discussion about the ‘Future of Work’, and our ways of working, must account for, or be viewed through, those dual lenses: the Organisation as belief system (at the intersection of formal and social spaces, at the Dynamic Tension), and a a multi currency entity.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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8 Responses to The Future of Work: Belief and Currency

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