Free-Agent Nation / The Rise of the Network Organization

“Free Agent” is New Face of Workforce

– More than 40% of American workers classified themselves as a “free agent” in 2012

– The trend is driven by both necessity and possibility

– The shift is clear in industries like software development and construction

– The baseline level of skills required in traditional organizations is increasing — in some ways, those skills that are needed as an entrepreneur: Self-motivation, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork


Three stages of development / evolution:

1) Monolithic / traditional structure (largely historical)

2) The rise of a more granular (agile / flexible) structure as a significant component of economic activity (free-agent, contract / temporary work — the current trend — trending even further toward hyper-granularity)

3) Integration / optimization of the more granular component with the more monolithic component (the next generation of industrial organization)

From the perspective of neuroscience in the workplace (see “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock): The two components of industrial organization (monolithic / granular) map roughly to functional specialization (operational activities / creative activities); that functional specialization in industrial organization also maps roughly to brain function (pre-frontal cortex = non-repetitive, creative activities; basal ganglia = repetitive, operational activities). Interesting how we humans tend to create industrial organization in our image / the image of the human brain.

monolithic structure –> operational activities –> primitive brain                             – granular structure –> creative activities –> advanced brain

(For more background on organizations as brains / organizations as organisms, see the classic works “Images of Organization” by Gareth Morgan and “The Well-Being of Organizations” by West Churchman.)

Although granularity is on the rise, monolithic-type organizations will persist (largely for more operational / scale-based / repetitive activities). Insofar as monolithic-type organizations persist, they will nevertheless migrate toward internal structures that emulate granular-type organizations — by ‘decomposing’ their breadth of scope into smaller / more agile components and effectively integrating those components into larger super-structures (including super-structures that form beyond the organization’s natural boundaries).

While the network organization is only in its practical infancy, the discipline of software engineering has shown significant maturity in applying the principles of decomposition / integration. The immense demands on software systems that are vast in scope / complexity and robust in the face of incessant change has forced software engineering to produce radically new architectural and developmental paradigms — just as the emerging workplace realities will stimulate radically new organizational paradigms.

Although software systems are not human / organizational systems, the two contexts share some common characteristics, and advances in software engineering (object orientation, client-server architecture, agile development) can provide some symbols, models, and templates for the organizational challenges that lie ahead.


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