Imagine if Google.com and Wikipedia were only available to groups of 3-5 people from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. What if web services went dark at night. . . or when their kids got sick?
I guess we'd have to find alternatives to Google.com and Wikipedia so that more people could access information concurrently and independently.
But what would a world like that look like?
Probably like the typical workplace before the mid-1990s. Before always-on and infinitely shareable information sources, we relied on people for answers, especially at work. And we recognized that one mind could serve only so many other minds.
We still rely on people for information, only there are fewer people in a typical 2012 office than there were in a typical pre-1990s office. Salting the wounds of downsizing further, I think we tend to treat modern “human resources” more like web services because, like web services, we now have always-on access to people.
We treat people the same way we treat web servers: we query them with a keyboard. And we don't give two shits who else might be doing the same thing at the same time.
When you unwrap the truth like this, it’s easy to see that the way we work today is unsustainable. Because unlike Google.com and Wikipedia, the human mind isn’t infinitely shareable. It never will be.
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Something I said on Twitter the other day:
The knowledge worker’s progressive tax: The more successful you are, the more emails you will be copied on.
It’s something I’ve noticed in my own career, and it’s certainly something I’ve observed about those above me. The more you know, the more you'll be asked. The more hits per hour your cerebral API will get. The more your day involves reacting—to the unsolicited.
It's a topic that, to my eyes, appears in this excellent post by Michael Lopp of Rands in Repose:
When an engineer becomes a lead or a manager, they create a professional satisfaction gap. They’ve observed this gap long before they became a lead with the question: “What does my boss do all day? I see him running around like something is on fire, but… what does he actually do?” The question gets personal when the now freshly minted manager begins to understand that life as a lead is an endless list of little things that collectively keep you busy, but, in aggregate, don’t feel much like progress.
As a knowledge worker realizes success, I believe his value rises because he becomes an information asset. On paper, successful knowledge workers may be promoted to make more things, but in practice they’re promoted to become servers of answers to those actually moving 1s and 0s around.
But being in a constant state of information-giving can result in the kind of busy-for-nothing Michael talks about. Call it an over-taxation of the human mind: being forced to give back more and more until there's virtually nothing left for self-investment.
As with a progressive income tax—which tacitly asserts that the more money an individual makes, the more of it they owe back to society—a successful knowledge worker eventually finds himself at a point where he owes so much knowledge to those around him, he can’t use his knowledge to move forward himself.
A free economy stalls when individuals stop moving forward. The same is true of companies. When you punish success, people stop seeking it. More accurately, individual success becomes antithetical to organizational success. Interests misalign.
Perhaps companies will find real success again with an approach that’s more contrarian to the contemporary: reward success with increasing isolation from interruption.
It sounds so crazy it just might work.