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The Future of Work Influencer Series Part 1: Nilofer Merchant

  • 30 March 2018
  • Expert Insights

This post is part of our new Future of Work Influencer series where we interview the world's leading experts to get their take on the state of the industry, the top trends to watch for, and what the future holds.

The following is an interview we recently had with Nilofer Merchant, Recovering Business Executive turned Author.

1. How has the future of work evolved in the past 5 years?

NM: In 2012, I wrote a book with Harvard Press on how value creation was going to change as “connected people can now do what once only large organizations could”. Since then, I continue to be floored by what that looks like in real life. For well over 20 years, the NRA has been able to block Congress' ability to even study the relationship of human health and guns. Despite 80+% of voters wanting, but Parkland kids are now changing what actions companies take. Delta, and a series of other companies faced pressure to change who they supported based on a bunch of non-voting, young people. Think about that. It's accountability beyond shareholders or even stakeholders, and instead society. There will be no sidelines, no place to say “it's not our job” because companies will be held to this higher standard. The future will look more like this. Organizations small and large will be asked to do more than value creation, but to stand for a set of values.

2. What are the top future of work technology trends you're seeing?

NM: Social networks are letting seemingly disparate people organize in new and different ways.

And before I dive into the networks, I should make a distinction between Social Media and Social Networks. Social media is the way information we share is used to market to us; it’s the message board of Facebook. Social Networks are Twitter or the private FB groups where you can find people with whom to form action with. I belong to several of these private FB groups. One is a group of 400 professional speakers who backchannel who is not paying their invoices, which conferences are mistreating speakers and so son. We're getting contractual and financial leverage through learning from each other. I also belong to an economist group who care about prosperity. In a professional network of women entrepreneurs, we're helping each other with raising funds, and scaling those enterprises. And so on. This is an important way for us to find and know, later to trust and depend on, and ultimately to act together as one. It changes the economic opportunities, too.  It is networks (sometimes funded by the social media model) that let people gather together and now do what once only large, centralized organizations could; this tectonic shift changes everything.

Let’s take for example, the recent #MeToo movement. Individuals (both men and women) have been speaking about their distinct experiences of sexual harassment within centralized, hierarchical organizations for years and years…only to be silenced, dismissed, and isolated by corporate HR and Legal. Now, those with shared purpose use distributed networks to gather together, in self-organizing connectedNESS, to make a new reality. It’s honoring each “only”, and connected by purpose, thus allowing an idea to scale. This is the power of Onlyness, as people gathered together can create impact.

In the world dominated by Harvey Weinstein, you get blockbusters like Shakespeare In Love or the English Patient. Yet, it’s hard to measure what didn’t get made. How many potentially valuable perspectives were lost because the rigid power structures of who gets to count? One case study (a chapter 5 story in “Onlyness”) could provide us a proxy.

Franklin Leonard’s onlyness-centered model of the Black List opened up Hollywood’s elite doors to script writers outside the establishment and circumvented the powers that be. By asking people to (anonymously) submit scripts they loved, not ones that could be approved by the power-brokers in charge, the Blacklist helped “discover” scripts previously destined for the dustbin to be picked up and put into production. Moonlight, Juno, The King’s Speech, scripts once dismissed, were able to create value. In 10 years, as of 2015, nearly 300 of the 1000 Black-Listed scripts have been produced, earning over $25 billion worldwide. They also received 223 Academy Award nominations, and won 43 Oscars. Four of the past six Best Picture winners, ten of the last fourteen screenwriting winners, and three of the 2014’s screenwriting nominees were Black List scripts. Most interestingly, for each of the first 8 years, the Black List’s top five scripts were submitted by outsiders — writers not living in Los Angeles nor represented in the industry. The Black List opened doors into the walled city, past the gatekeepers so that new people and their ideas came in.

This construct of networked individuals adding that which only they could showed up in economic and artistic results. Note how this is not a marketing or social media shift, but a core “product” using networks to effect change. Based on the qualitative research of 300 examples, the Black List outcomes are not coincidental; There is untapped capacity when new ideas count, and scale through connectedness.

3. How will AI change the Future of Work?

NM: Right now, 60% of US jobs and 80% of global jobs require zero decision making, creativity or judgment. They are the pick n' packers, the service employees who are asked to do rote work. AI can and, in my opinion, will replace those jobs as fast as is economically viable. This is a fact. Organizations currently optimize for efficiency and when so many jobs are about people being treated as cogs today, this is inevitable.

4. How will blockchain change the Future of Work?

NM: Blockchain is one model, but I think we'll find it is an incomplete idea. I prefer the construct of Holo, which is the power of a truly peer-to-peer Internet. It's a model where you control your own data, and let users co-create things. This is the truly distributed network (not decentralized) — which lets each party play an active role and have agency in the system.

5. What's the future of Work?

NM: The future of work is one where each of us, quite possibly all of us have a way to contribute that which ONLY we have. I believe that each of us has something of value to offer—all 7.5 billion of us. While not everyone will, anyone can. The fact that today so many people do not is not a sign that they lack capacity, but instead, it’s a sign that the scaffolding and structures need to be built to let them do so. I think of it as the Star Trek picture where a person who is otherwise sight-impaired ends up with the capacity to see in many ways “better” because of his visor. Compare this to modern day. So many of us are told we are “too much” – too wild, too something – but really what they are saying is we don't fit into the mold of yesteryear, a mold predicated on maleness and whiteness. That means that nearly two-thirds of are told to find a way to fit in rather than be ourselves. This is a loss of humanity, dignity but most of all the ability to add our bit to the world.

I've coined a term to capture that each of us can add our bit, based on that spot in the world ONLY we stand in. It's Onlyness. It is a different way of conceiving of who can add value. Not those that “fit in”, which can then be a lever of change that could shatter the status quo and pull all of us into the future.

  • This shift lets everyone/anyone contribute, not just the credentialed.
  • This shift lets everyone/anyone create, not just those who fit the mold of who should lead us.
  • It lets old problems finally be solved through a fresh perspective. It opens up new opportunities and solutions.
  • And more to the point: it creates more economic value as people are enabled to add their value.

About Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant is a 3-time author, most recently of The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World (Viking, 2017). All 3 books talk to the future of work: collaborative, networked and tapping into an ever-broader capacity. She's also a Fellow of the Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management studying Power.

Prior to her career as a thinker/author, Merchant personally launched more than 100 products, netting $18B (yes, that's a B) in sales and has held executive positions at Apple, Autodesk and GoLive Systems. In 2013, she was awarded the Thinkers50 Future Thinker Award which is to recognize ‘The #1 Person Most Likely to Influence the Future of Management in Both Theory and Practice” by the UK-based organization. She's now ranked #22 on the 2017 Thinkers50 list of management thinkers.

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