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Chapter Eight: Open Work

Seb Potter is a pasty pale young man who eats too much take-away food and spends far too much time at his computer. He programmed his first computer at the age of eight and has not stopped since. Potter is an unlikely looking organisational revolutionary: baggy jeans, skater T-shirt, trainers. There is no reason why executives in large organisations should take any note of him. Yet the way Seb Potter works says something about how jobs are evolving which even large and conservative organisations will eventually have to take note of. I met Potter in a pokey conference room in a run down and over-crowded building in Brighton where Get Frank, the web development company he works for, is crammed into two tiny rooms, with developers working cheek by jowl, the office cluttered with bikes and workstations. It looks more like a student flat. Perhaps it should be no surprise that radical organisational innovation would start in marginal and overlooked places such as this and not in the work pods of the corporate mainstream.

Potter got involved in open source software development as a student in 1998, when he helped to launch an online community called Evolt to bring together amateur and professional web developers. Evolt started with 24 online collaborators who had never met face-to-face, but started to converse with one another, through a discussion group hosted by a magazine website. Frustrated by the magazine’s new owners’ plans for the website, they decided to create their own alternative to share ideas. Potter recalled: “It was really very simple. We just exchanged emails and agreed it was a good thing to do. We divided up the tasks among ourselves, depending on who could do what and within a month we had a fully functioning website which people could visit to get tips and advice to make life easier if you were developing a web site. We just wanted to make it easier for people to solve web development problems they faced.”

When the community got started contributors would vote on what should go on the site, using email. By 2001 the site had 3,000 signed up members, and Potter and co decided it needed a more formal system of committees, to oversee different aspects of its work. Occasionally members would get together face-to-face in a London pub for a “beer-volt.” Once a year there was a big conference. A couple of the original community members got married. By 2004 the Evolt community had 7,000 contributing members worldwide. “Most people hear about Evolt because they’ve got a problem to solve,” Potter explained. “If you go onto Google and type in ‘web development problem solving’ Evolt comes close to the top of the list. The more people who get involved adds to the number of questions that get asked and the amount of knowledge that gets generated in the shared knowledge base.”

GetFrank encourages Potter works for, encourages him to spend at least a quarter of his work time involved in these open source projects because the company gets access to software they could never afford to develop on their own. Frank Byford, GetFrank’s founder explained: “We are very small so open source software gives a small company like us access to a potentially massive research and development capacity. It makes R & D affordable for small companies who collaborate.” For Potter, though, the motivation for his open source work is far more personal: “I love problem solving and if you are into software then pretty much the only way you can do that is to get involved in open source projects because proprietary systems are closed. Open source communities judge you on the ideas you have and the contributions you make not on what you look like. If you have good ideas you get recognised.”

Traditional companies find it almost impossible to tap into the passion and imagination of people like Seb Potter. That is why open source communities are going to change the way we work, in all organisations, even those quite unlike these communities. As Potter puts it: “For me work is the oddity. Work is a kind of compromise. I feel most myself when I am doing this open source stuff. When I am doing this and give it my full attention then everything else around me fades away and I become completely focussed.” Most managers in large companies can only dream of creating a work environment like the one the Evolt community seems to have created, without design and almost by accident. How can a group of 7,000 people work together, sharing out tasks, building up a knowledge base, set of tools and services, without needing an office, a management hierarchy, a knowledge management programme or an organisation chart? Seen from within the walls of the traditional organisation it does not make sense. But in time these open approaches to work will become the new common sense. They will expose just how odd, distorted, dysfunctional and unpleasant it is to work for large corporations.


Organisations exist to get work done. Any successful organisation must do three things well. It must motivate people to work, to make the most effective contribution to the collective endeavour. It must coordinate the work of many people to make sure it all adds up and takes places in the right order, to fit together. It must innovate by learning, adapting and evolving with the demands of the environment around them, exploring opportunities for change. Sounds simple. Yet traditional corporate organisations are in continual crisis over their shape, structure, management, pay systems and ethos because they find it so hard to fashion an approach to work which meets all these challenges – motivate, coordinate, innovate - at the same time.

In closed, industrial era organisations people were allocated to tasks by a division of labour, with work divided into manageable chunks. This allowed workers to become specialists in their particular task, while the central design ensured all their efforts could be brought together. If a worker was not clear what to do next, he could have a look at his job description, which would describe the role. If that did not provide the answer then he could ask someone in authority to provide guidance. The way we work now, in many respects, is nothing like this caricature of factory age work. People no longer have to work at the same time and in the same place to be producing the same item. Work has become dispersed to networks of contractors. Management hierarchies are flatter and working practices more flexible, at least for some. Detailed job descriptions are a thing of the past in many organisations. Workers can be deployed wherever they are needed. The coordination of these networks of far more flexible workers has become an art form in itself, involving logistics and international communications. The psychological contract, what both sides expect from work, has changed as well. In the US and the UK employers seem less committed to providing stable jobs for life. Relationships between workers and companies are less secure and stable, more cynical and short term. In Europe and Asia traditions of stable employment have been more enduring. But even there they are under pressure to change.

Underlying all this change in working life are two competing trends, which many feel makes life impossible for them. Big organisations with big brands, need consistent products, services and processes – often on a global scale – to deliver a consistent customer experience. Wherever you go – Starbucks, Coke, Microsoft – must mean the same thing. That means work has to be highly systematised. The workers have to follow common rules and processes. Product launches have to be planned meticulously, like a military campaign, from the centre. Yet at the same time all organisations – public and private – face a challenge of innovation and adaptation, as new technologies, competitors, consumer trends and kinds of organisation emerge around them. Responding to that changing environment means bending or breaking rules, trying to do new things or at least old things in a different way. Innovation requires variation, experimentation and acceptance of failure, not activities that a high quality, brand-led company can easily tolerate. This balancing act is complicated because these days workers are far less compliant. They have higher expectations of how they should be treated, especially younger, well-educated knowledge workers, who will make up the majority of the workforce in developed economics. Our culture has told them they should be in control of their lives. They want to extend their sense of authorship from how they design their living rooms to how they design their careers. They want to feel autonomous, able to take the initiative and be rewarded with a sense of achievement and ownership. They want their work to belong to them. These younger generations of workers have essentially democratic values: people in authority have to earn their respect, be open to question and justify their decisions.

The kind of angst these tensions create can be seen in corporate offices all over the world, but they seem most troubling in large US corporations. In 2005 I spent a few days advising a division of a very large US multinational software company. On my first day I sat in an airless, windowless room, barely large enough for two people, which had just been redesignated as the “ideas space.” The previous “ideas space”, which had been decked out with orange bean-bags, had just been taken over by extra tele-sales staff, to flog more product, because targets had been increased. Everyone seemed to be strapped to their desks, even for lunch. That day my task was to talk to each of the senior managers to find out what their main challenges were. It was not difficult to get them to talk. My pokey little room became a kind of confessional. One after the other they told a story with some common themes. It ran something like this.

The people here are great but the organisation seems soulless. Young, fleet footed competitors are emerging the whole– Google and Linux – and we are embarrassingly slow to respond. We are one of the biggest companies in the world yet in reality we are following the lead of smaller companies. Coming up with new ideas is pointless because all the decisions get made on the West coast of the US. We have no space for innovation: we just deliver products to market, according to a plan set down somewhere else. One of our main tasks is to report back to headquarters with detailed plans but the numbers in those plans are semi-fictional. When we exceed the numbers we get congratulated and when we fail there is an inquest but no one has the courage to point out the plans never made sense in the first place. No one seems to have enough time. Executives are either on a plane to the US to get their marching orders or in conference calls. Most executive time is spent serving the hierarchy, trying to fight it or simply working out what is going on at headquarters. No one seems to be very happy. Most people have their eyes on another job somewhere else, preferably soon. People with families find life pretty intolerable. The Soviet Union’s plans had nothing to compare to the detail of those that ruled this corporation.

Many large organisations seem to be like this: they are engaged in a low intensity civil war. Much of the paraphernalia of modern management is an effort to square the circle: to make organisations that are top down and financially driven, appear to be more humane, democratic and bottom-up. New forms of open, collaborative organisation are emerging because they resolve these tensions between efficiency and innovation far more effectively than the traditional corporation. These new kinds of organisations answer central questions about work – Why do I do this? Who is in charge? What do I do next? – in a very different way. That is why organisations based on open work are proving so potent.

The perplexing thing about Linux, Evolt and other open source initiatives is that skilled people give their time and effort for free to create a complex product that they give away for free to anyone who wants to use it. Why do they do it? One answer might be that it is just really a way to get a good job: a bit like work experience. Young software programmes use their participation in these communities to show off their skills to their peers. That way they build up a reputation, which at some stage they translate into a well-paid mainstream job. There may be something in that but many of the people who take part in these projects are not after jobs because they have jobs already. Another possibility is that they are motivated by dislike of the opposition – particularly Microsoft – and they buy into the altruistic and egalitarian values of the open source movement. But this only applies to a minority, surveys suggest, and dislike of an opponent is rarely enough to generate creativity. According to surveys of open source programmers, participants contribute to these projects for three main reasons. First, they want to solve a problem. Seb Potter was attracted to Evolt because it provided a better way for him to develop the kind of software he wanted. His employer, GetFrank, regards it as an effective way to share development costs with like-minded smaller companies. Second, individual programmers see it as an investment in their own skills and learning. By taking part in these communities they refresh their own ideas and human capital. Third, they seek a sense of authorship and recognition. Seb Potter likes the sense of achievement he gets, the way he feels in flow, when he is working on open source projects. Open source taps into a richer range of motivations – pragmatic, practical, ethical, personal – than large organisations which many people regard as a necessity: longer hours, more targets, rules and stress.

As these communities have very low costs of entry – it is very easy to take part – they also attract a much larger range of contributions than traditional organisations. Even if your contribution is very limited – spotting a bug, correcting a Wikipedia entry – you can still add to the larger project. Most open source and file sharing communities depend on perhaps 20% of the contributors – or less – making most of the big contributions. The Linux kernel is supported by a relatively small team. But the other 80% make a long tail of smaller contributions. Innovations in Linux start with users reporting bugs that then get fixed by other programmers and in turn might provoke a significant innovation. Large organisations, by and large, like to employ people who come to work on a regular basis and devote most of their working time to the company. That is what employment contracts achieve. The need to accommodate people who make smaller, less regular contributions, is reflected in the growth of part-time and short-term contract working. But setting up an organisation to cope with lots of people who want to make lots of small contributions is very costly for a traditional organisation with its management hierarchies and brand strategies. One of the distinct advantages of open communities is they allow people to make contributions of just the scale that suits them, large, medium, small, miniscule, episodic, intense. This flexibility allows them to mobilise a much larger range of players from fanatics to occasional dabblers.

The second challenge is how this myriad of contributions is brought together to form a coherent whole. The traditional organisation is based on a division of labour: people are allocated to tasks, divided up from above, according to a strategic plan set out from the centre. That works only on the assumption that the centre – the people who design the work system – know what needs to be done. But these open source communities are designed for innovation and growth. People at the centre cannot say for certain in advance what will need to be done. Open source communities coordinate their work through a distribution of labour: people distribute themselves to tasks they think need doing and they believe they have the skills to undertake. A self-distribution of labour – if it works – is far cheaper and more innovative than a centrally planned division of labour. An organisation does not need a layer of management supervisors to check what people are doing. That decision is left in the hands of the people doing the work, facing the problems, seeking solutions.

Ronald Coase, the organisational economist, famously argued that firms emerge to coordinate work – through management instruction and planning – when it is too costly to achieve the same result through the market. Coordinating complex activities at the right time, in the right place, is a difficult task. Relying on contractors in the open market is a risky business. That is why it makes sense for firms to control the process. But as Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Yale Law School points out, people do not generally get involved in open source projects because their boss tells them to do so, nor because they stand to make money. In open source work gets completed and coordinated, people build complex goods like encyclopaedias, without anyone appearing to be in charge or anyone offering to pay for the service.

Benkler’s explanation for how open source communities coordinate themselves runs something like this. The raw material of these collaborations is creative talent. But creative talent is highly variable. People are good at different things and in different ways. It is very difficult to tell from the outside, for example by time and motions studies, who is the more effective creative worker. It is very difficult to write detailed job descriptions and contracts for creativity, specifying what new ideas need to be created when. Creativity cannot be delivered just-in-time. Open source communities resolve the difficulties of assessing creativity and quality by decentralising decision making down to individuals and small groups. They decide what to work on, depending on what needs to be done and what their skills are. There is little sense in working on a project that is already well staffed and where your contribution will add very little. It is very difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of your peers: they will soon spot if the contributions that you make do not really come up to scratch. That allows people to work on just their bit of the puzzle. Good central design rules allow the whole thing to add together. Work in open source communities gets done when creative people self-distribute themselves to different tasks, they submit their work to open peer review to maintain quality and the product has a modular design so that individual contributions can be clicked together easily.

Open source communities are a challenge to the established order because they answer the three critical questions about work – how to motivate, coordinate and innovate at the same time – highly effectively while requiring little in the way of top down bureaucracy or financial incentives. They motivate a mass of contributors by providing interesting work, posing interesting questions to answer and attracting interesting people to work with. The work is coordinated because the products clip together with modular architectures, performance is judged openly by common yardsticks and the community shares an overarching goal. Open source communities have to be efficient and low cost: they cannot afford overheads so they seek out the lowest cost solutions. Yet these communities also encourage constant exploration, driven by curiosity. Authority is exercised mainly by peer review and with a light touch. It is worth reminding ourselves what open source communities do not need to succeed: restructuring, re-engineering, knowledge management, career reviews, brand strategies, vision statements, corporate bonding sessions in the jungle, embarrassing lunches with the boss.

Open source provides an inspirational new model for how we can work together, collaboratively and creatively. But it will not work in all settings. It depends on people feeling motivated. There are plenty of tasks – collecting the community’s rubbish – which most people will not willingly do out of a sense of curiosity. Some products cannot be broken down into modules. Many do not have the equivalent of a source code to be shared. Collaborative and cooperative forms of work have a long, romantic and often disastrous history. Collaborative, peer-based working will not completely supplant market incentives and firms. Yet collaborative working models like Evolt, Wikipedia and Linux cast a long shadow over traditional hierarchical organisations. The biggest impact of these open models may come from how they force established, traditional and top-down organisations to adapt by becoming more open and participative.

Large organisations will have to start learning from open communities of innovation. Employees increasingly need to be flexible, self-motivated problem solvers, not rigid rule followers. More jobs will involve the investment of imagination, creativity and empathy, factors of production that are difficult to measure. The more that people are expected to multi-task – to deliver and execute effectively, but also to innovate and learn – the more difficult it is to set clear incentives and reward them. A performance based pay system that rewards individual efforts and output will do little to encourage new ideas and collaboration. Traditional firms will have to become more democratic, open and egalitarian – if they are to match the innovation capacity of open source. Traditional, top-down companies – with power invested in an unelected executive – are an anachronism in a democratic age. It should be no surprise that young and entrepreneurial companies, founded by people who share these more democratic values, look and feel quite different from traditional organisations.

A fashionable example is the British drinks firm Innocent Drinks where the work culture is defined by informality. The company’s three young founders have slightly grating titles such as “Chief Squeezer” and “Top Banana.” The Innocent offices abound with the paraphernalia of trendy modern business: table football and photos of staff when they were babies. Everyone is on first name terms. New parents get a £2,000 baby bonus and newly weds an extra week’s holiday to have a decent honeymoon. A high proportion of profits are donated to development charities. Over one door of their offices in a non-descript industrial park in Hammersmith, West London a sign hangs: “Burglars’ Entrance.” The open, entrepreneurial work culture, which encourages people to speak their minds and link their work to their lives, has helped to propel Innocent to become one of the most exciting and widely emulated new entrants into the British food and drinks markets.

Approaches like this are not confined to companies that are small, young and trendy. WL Gore, the maker of Gore Tex and a range of other products has sales of close on $1.4bn – but claims to have no managers, secretaries or even employees. It has a global network of 6,000 associates, who jointly own the company. Salaries are decided collaboratively. Every new associate has three peer mentors who help to navigate their career. Bill Gore, the company’s founder, argues that in most companies, the work gets done through informal networks that bear little relation to formal organisation charts. He set out to design an organisation based on those informal networks. As one Gore employee put it: “Why go to someone with a title when you can go to someone with the answer.”

Large companies are attempting to cherry pick elements of choice and self-management they want to introduce. In 1998 BT, the British telecoms incumbent, created a Freedom to Choose scheme for field engineers, after an experiment with a particularly recalcitrant group of software engineers in Cardiff. Almost in desperation the managers gave them the right to self-schedule their work. The pay system for engineers had encouraged them to work at weekends and to clock overtime. As a result engineers failed to complete jobs so they would be able to earn overtime. The Freedom to Choose programme allowed small teams of engineers to choose which work should be done, in which order and by which team members. Many of these decisions were made in chat rooms on the Internet with the help of scheduling software. Engineers earn points by completing work, mentoring peers and leading groups. The points can be redeemed for pay. In March 2002, the original pilot was extended to 20,000 engineers who self-schedule their work. The BT scheme is a limited form of the self-distribution of labour that is a central feature of open source communities. After three years the average engineer was earning more money and working two hours less per week. Productivity was up by 5% and quality up by 8%. BT’s will never become a community. Yet it is adapting elements of the open approach to work because that is how best to motivate and coordinate staff who want to be self-motivated innovators.

In the right conditions these open and participative forms of work can provide better answers to the basic questions that all large organisations face: how to motivate staff to come up with new ideas, and coordinate what they do with as little hierarchy as possible. One can see more elements of this open thinking in the way some large corporations are changing their physical surroundings: their offices.

Organisations revolve around offices. Usually they are designed to help managers coordinate work but as a result they also usually fail to motivate people and can stand in the way of innovation. Offices, in my experience, are good for power politics, flirting and gossip. They are dreadful places for intellectual curiosity. Creativity comes from being immersed in ideas, getting lost in your thoughts. Yet offices provide a constant round of distractions and trivia, the urgent chasing out the interesting. Creativity comes from diversity: exposure to different points of view and experiences. Office cultures tend to make everyone conform to the corporate code, making them seem alike even when they are not. In most offices people rarely move outside their own departments, let alone outside the organisation as a whole. Innovation often comes from creative interaction with customers, yet offices are a good place to hide from the outside world and from consumers in particular. Offices encourage territorialism – different departments on different floors – so it is difficult for people to cross boundaries to borrow and share ideas. Office bureaucracies make people dysfunctional and irrational: most of the conversations I overhear in the lifts of large organisations are either about internal turf wars people are fighting or what they did when they escaped from work. Lateral and sideways thinking is virtually impossible in the standard office environment. People often have their best ideas in idle, marginal moments: after exercise, while walking, on the way from taking the children to school, in the shower. Long work schedules drive out those marginal moments. Innovation thrives on conversation. Days that are scheduled down to the last minute drive out conversation, managers frown on conversation as no more than idle chatter. Yet as we will see conversation is at the root of innovation.

The most open and creative office I have worked in belongs to Ideo, the design and innovation firm. For several months I squatted at a desk in Ideo’s London office, joining project meetings and discussions, while my own home office was being built. There was a constant flow of people, especially customers, into the building. They came straight into the workspace. Everyone could see them. Ideas, materials and images were constantly posted on the walls so that people could see work in progress. People felt at home. The décor was unflashy. There was nothing self-conscious about it. It was designed to feel comfortable and efficient. Unlike many advertising companies and large corporations Ideo did not have to display modern art to show everyone it was creative. People moved around the whole time, bumping into one another, colliding and conversing. There were simple spaces where people could congregate: a large table around which people ate lunch. In some areas the atmosphere was as studious as a library. But it was also highly gregarious and at times raucous and playful. People were allowed to be idle: someone taking a nap on a sofa was assumed to be resting, not skiving off. The underlying ethos was of self-organisation and self-discipline. Idea’s office encourages people to generate ideas by mixing and melding. Ideo is much vaunted in academic studies of innovation and design but it too has its problems: a culture that can become inward looking; people who have become tired and conservative; ways of thinking that have turned into routines. But at its core Ideo’s places of work allow people to be creative together, in a highly self-disciplined environment.

Of course it is ridiculous to imagine most places of work will be like this in future, even in the developed world. Call centres and retail outlets will be experience and service factories: highly regimented, delivering a commodity service, fast and to high standards of quality. Yet as more organisations come to recognise they need to innovate and motivate staff, as well as coordinate their work, so more of the will have to explore recipes like those of Ideo and Linux. Not all these experiments will be an outstanding success. Big companies tend to think that if they bring in modern art, paint walls bright colours, put out some bean bags and most crucial of all – put in a table football table – they will become buzzy, creative places to work.

But even these clumsy attempts at reform confirm the general drift: offices will have to become spaces for creative conversation. The task of the modern office, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in a New Yorker article, is to invite social interaction that makes it easy for strangers to talk to one another. Offices need a social milieu like that in a bustling city neighbourhood, where much of the life takes place on sidewalks and in cafes. Those spaces need to be at the heart of modern offices not in the margins. Do not design the office around the executive offices but around places where people congregate, mingle and talk: cafes, open workspaces, libraries. Workspaces should be designed to promote collaboration, self-organisation and interaction: think barefoot and beach.

- - -

More and more large organisations will feel the gravitational pull of these open and participative ways of working. Many will cherry pick elements of the recipe: self-organisation, self-scheduling, peer review of performance, open plan, café style places of work. Some large organisations, as a result, will be more humane, productive and profitable. But it will prove difficult to take the cherry picking too far: open source styles of work depend on similarly open approaches to leadership and ownership. Open source communities encourage freedom of speech and association; decision making is transparent; ideas are held in shared ownership. Not many large companies are prepared for all that this entails.

This call for more open and participative forms of work may all sound utopian and I might have been inclined to agree until I met Chris Sacca over dinner in late 2005. Sacca is a principal at Google, the information search company and one of the first handful of employees. I asked him how Google managed to come up with its flow of ideas. His reply went something like this. Every Friday everyone in Google gathers for an all company meeting, 7,000 people, face-to-face or connected by video. Anyone can ask the senior management any question about the company’s policy, strategy or performance. People who ask more direct and difficult questions tend to get a round of applause. Every Friday, every person working in one of Sacca’s teams files him five bullets explaining what he or she has achieved that week and five more on what they plan to achieve in the week to come. That is the only reporting system. He does some work making sure everyone is on track but most of the time it is up to people to sort out what they are doing, adjust to one another without calling in a manager: the beach ethic at work. Anyone in the company can search through the bullets submitted by anyone else, including those from the chief executive. Anyone in Google can launch a development project to create a new service, so long as they post the details on a central site, so everyone else can see what is going on. They can continue with their project until they want to recruit more than two people or start to use some significant server capacity. Once they have reached that stage they have to take the idea to a company council – a bit like a committee in an open source community – which will make a decision about whether it should go ahead. If it does get the go ahead then the project gets given very few resources to begin with. Sacca explained : “You have to keep resources tight. If they can only recruit one extra person to the project, you know they are going to go out and get the best person they can find.”

All of this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Work cultures are rarely as open and democratic as people at the top of an organisation claim, even at a company as funky as Google. Yet if only half of what Sacca describes is true then it poses a huge challenge for traditional, top down, slow moving organisations, both public and private. If an organisation wants to match Google’s rate of innovation, then technology is only a small part of the story. Google’s most valuable asset is this self-organising work culture which motivates, coordinates and innovates all at the same time and at very low cost. Google is perhaps the most striking example of how a company has taken elements of open source work into the corporate world and in the process created an extremely potent mutant.

Work and consumption are being changed by the emergence of more open ways to organising ourselves at scale. Consumers, especially the Pro-Ams, increasingly want to be participants and contributors not just recipients of services and solutions. Workers aspire to the democratic and participative values that run through open source collaboratives and much of the rest of life. They want to be able to self-organise more. The interaction of new self organising forms of work and new m ore participative forms of consumption will generate new approaches to innovation. New ideas increasingly will emerge from the interaction between users and producers, amateurs and professionals, rather than coming down a pipeline from the boffins and professionals, to the waiting, open mouthed consumers. This more interactive and participative approach to innovation will challenge many deeply held assumptions about what creativity is, where is comes from, how it should be rewarded and organised.

Of course it is ridiculous to imagine most places of work will be like this in future, even in the developed world. Call centres and retail outlets will be experience and service factories: highly regimented, delivering a commodity service, fast and to high standards of quality. Yet as more organisations come to recognise they need to innovate and motivate staff, as well as coordinate their work, so more of the will have to explore recipes like those of Ideo and Linux. Not all these experiments will be an outstanding success. Big companies tend to think that if they bring in modern art, paint walls bright colours, put out some bean bags and most crucial of all – put in a table football table – they will become buzzy, creative places to work.

But even these clumsy attempts at reform confirm the general drift: offices will have to become spaces for creative conversation. The task of the modern office, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in a New Yorker article, is to invite social interaction that makes it easy for strangers to talk to one another. Offices need a social milieu like that in a bustling city neighbourhood, where much of the life takes place on sidewalks and in cafes. Those spaces need to be at the heart of modern offices not in the margins. Do not design the office around the executive offices but around places where people congregate, mingle and talk: cafes, open workspaces, libraries. Workspaces should be designed to promote collaboration, self-organisation and interaction.

More and more large organisations will feel the gravitational pull of these open and participative ways of working. Many will cherry pick elements of the recipe: self-organisation, self-scheduling, peer review of performance, open plan, café style places of work. Some large organisations, as a result, will be more humane, productive and profitable. But it will prove difficult to take the cherry picking too far: open source styles of work depend on similarly open approaches to leadership and ownership. Open source communities encourage freedom of speech and association; decision making is transparent; ideas are held in shared ownership. Not many large companies are prepared for all that this entails.

This call for more open and participative forms of work may all sound utopian and I might have been inclined to agree until I met Chris Sacca over dinner in late 2005. Sacca is a principal at Google, the information search company and one of the first handful of employees. I asked him how Google managed to come up with its flow of ideas. His reply went something like this. Every Friday everyone in Google gathers for an all company meeting, 7,000 people, face-to-face or connected by video. Anyone can ask the senior management any question about the company’s policy, strategy or performance. People who ask more direct and difficult questions tend to get a round of applause. Every Friday, every person working in one of Sacca’s teams files him five bullets explaining what he or she has achieved that week and five more on what they plan to achieve in the week to come. That is the only reporting system. He does some work making sure everyone is on track but most of the time it is up to people to sort out what they are doing, adjust to one another without calling in a manager: the beach ethic at work. Anyone in the company can search through the bullets submitted by anyone else, including those from the chief executive. Anyone in Google can launch a development project to create a new service, so long as they post the details on a central site, so everyone else can see what is going on. They can continue with their project until they want to recruit more than two people or start to use some significant server capacity. Once they have reached that stage they have to take the idea to a company council – a bit like a committee in an open source community – which will make a decision about whether it should go ahead. If it does get the go ahead then the project gets given very few resources to begin with. Sacca explained : “You have to keep resources tight. If they can only recruit one extra person to the project, you know they are going to go out and get the best person they can find.”

All of this has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Work cultures are rarely as open and democratic as people at the top of an organisation claim, even at a company as funky as Google. Yet if only half of what Sacca describes is true then it poses a huge challenge for traditional, top down, slow moving organisations, both public and private. If an organisation wants to match Google’s rate of innovation, then technology is only a small part of the story. Google’s most valuable asset is this self-organising work culture which motivates, coordinates and innovates all at the same time and at very low cost. Google is perhaps the most striking example of how a company has taken elements of open source work into the corporate world and in the process created an extremely potent mutant.

Work and consumption are being changed by the emergence of more open ways to organising ourselves at scale. Consumers, especially the Pro-Ams, increasingly want to be participants and contributors not just recipients of services and solutions. Workers aspire to the democratic and participative values that run through open source collaboratives and much of the rest of life. They want to be able to self-organise more. The interaction of new self organising forms of work and new m ore participative forms of consumption will generate new approaches to innovation. New ideas increasingly will emerge from the interaction between users and producers, amateurs and professionals, rather than coming down a pipeline from the boffins and professionals, to the waiting, open mouthed consumers. This more interactive and participative approach to innovation will challenge many deeply held assumptions about what creativity is, where is comes from, how it should be rewarded and organised.

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