Networked Workers: Challenges and Opportunities

The Top Skills of 2020 (just a few months from now!) are somewhat intimidating, especially for a system of education that is, frankly, largely unsure of how to make the transition to a networked economy. There are some signs of hope, particularly due to STEM (and sometimes STEAM) initiatives, because these programs place an emphasis on creative thinking and the design process. However, at this time, these initiatives are hardly transdisciplinary or fully enmeshed with literacy in the new media age. Workers are not yet being properly prepared for this “new” reality.

One takeaway I gleaned from comparing the Top Skills infographic and the two Pew Research readings this week by Smith and Smith/Anderson is that one of our key societal challenges will be to build a new world of work that, well, works for everyone - and particularly the middle class. We appear to be transitioning to an economy that will prize, even more highly than before, Aoun’s competencies of critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility. These are higher-order cognitive categories. How will we close the gap between the haves and the have-nots in these areas? How will we keep workers focused on systems and synergy and not simply constantly distracted by the pinging of an inbox or live March Madness updates? To balance the optimistic Kelly, who paints a picture of humanity constantly flowing from one screen to the next in an almost perfect rapture of personal productivity, how will we prevent all that screening and flowing from distracting and disrupting?

How will we address Smith’s observation that more and more job seekers, especially those with “relatively low levels of educational attainment,” are increasingly reliant on mobile technology as their means to access opportunity? Is the current employment system mobile-friendly enough? Company websites? Offices? How will we reach and engage people who feel intimidated by basic employment-seeking and job tasks in a digital world? In my experience, we still have workers who are intimidated by e-mail, let alone virtual collaboration with a team scattered around the world. How will we bring these folks into the fold as part of a productive and seamless team?

A growing digital divide continues to be one of my top concerns about the first half of the 21st century. Although I recognize and appreciate that, as a number of thinkers summarized in Smith and Anderson’s piece, new jobs have historically been created to replace ones “lost” to advances in technology, I am exceedingly worried that (a) this time will be different due to the nature of the change, and (b) the destabilizing impact of rising income inequality if our social and political system fails to adequately address the problem in transition. I suppose I side more with the optimists than the pessimists in this regard, but I do not have much faith that in our polarized political environment that there will miraculously emerge some grand consensus about some Marshall Plan for the Digital Age with regard to displaced workers, or guaranteed national incomes for all (would this even work?) as a result of the coming explosion in productivity and automation of a potentially huge portion of both skilled and unskilled labor.

Jarche’s take on networks was exceedingly positive and optimistic (and certainly not without reason). However, when he asserted that “Inserting managers into a network decreases connections between workers and creates bottlenecks,” I found myself wondering if he might feel differently about leaders as opposed to managers, or if he saw a distinction between the two at all. Managers and bureaucracy can certainly gum up the works, but are we really turning the world of work over to a Monty Python-esque autonomous collective? I noticed that all they do is stack… mud (hopefully it was just mud) throughout that entire scene, and the pointless work being conducted throughout the film provides repeated sight gags.

A few key opportunities and challenges from this week’s assigned and optional readings…


  • Networked workers can come together to work creatively and critically on any number of different projects without a traditional “boss” or bureaucratic red tape about which to worry, making the organization more nimble, flexible, and responsive as a result.

  • 24/7 connectivity makes it possible for teams to connect synchronously or asynchronously from locations around the world.

  • Automating jobs could free humanity to pursue not only higher-order work in their networks, but higher pursuits in general (community projects and philanthropy, the arts, etc.)


Here’s hoping we are able to navigate this transition, this new workplace reality, so that our networked world of work does not end up resembling the confusion, chaos, and unfiltered raw anger of Network.