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Business Intelligence

MIT professor sees far-flung future workplace

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Weisman
March 14, 2004

Are you ready for the era of decentralized work?

In the future, high-tech and knowledge-based businesses will be run as loose hierarchies or self-managed democracies. Skilled workers will organize, disband, and regroup around different assembly projects, much as film and construction workers do today. Even the systems of cars will be designed by competing teams of freelancers, giving automakers a choice of, say, fuel cells or solar cells.

Such is the vision of organization theorist Thomas W. Malone, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. In a book, "The Future of Work," to be published next month, Malone synthesizes two decades of research on how information technologies and cheap communications are shrinking, flattening, and democratizing organizations, and changing the nature of work itself.

"The implications for business are much more profound and far-reaching than most people have realized," Malone wrote. "We are, it seems, on the verge of a new world of work, in which many organizations will no longer have a center at all -- or, more precisely, in which they'll have almost as many 'centers' as they have people." In response, he suggested, managers will need to shift from a command-and-control style to a coordinate-and-cultivate mode.

Malone, who was codirector of a five-year MIT research initiative called "Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century," predicted as far back as 1987 -- before the Internet had entered the popular lexicon -- that goods and services would be bought and sold electronically, intelligent software agents would be applied to commercial use, and many business activities would be outsourced, forcing ordinary workers to become nimbler and more entrepreneurial.

While the liberating features of new technologies were heralded and their dot-com practitioners lionized during the late 1990s, the popping of the Internet bubble temporarily tarnished the idea of technology loosening corporate hierarchies and unleashing the creativity of rank-and-file employees. (Remember those 3 a.m. foosball games?)

Malone, however, believes those notions were not so much wrong as premature. "Just as people overestimated the potential of the technology during the upturn of the boom," he said in an interview, "so they underestimated the potential of the technology during the bust."

The current recovery may be a good time to take stock of how much technology already has transformed business. Malone pointed to Linux, the open source operating system designed by programmers around the world, as a model for future development projects. "The thing that interests me most about Linux is not that it's open source, or even that it's free," he said. "It's the really decentralized structure they have."

Malone also applauded eBay Inc., the technology-enabled auction house, for empowering buyers and sellers in a market environment. And he noted that some companies, such as Spanish manufacturer Mondragon Cooperative Corp., have become miniature democracies where workers elect directors and vote on other issues. But he conceded such models are in their early stages and won't always work where economies of scale or rapid decision-making is required.

Still, the decentralizing trend is gaining momentum, as technologies introduce efficiencies that disrupt existing business operations. "The real story is what technology-augmented decentralization is doing to business and society," said Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie, now the founder and chief executive of Groove Networks Inc. in Beverly. "Fundamentally, the technology is being used to reduce the cost of coordination to get a problem solved."

Ozzie endorsed Malone's premise, citing voice-over-Internet technology playing havoc with the business model of long-distance telephone carriers, and Groove's own peer-to-peer software that cuts through organizational barriers to let individuals create a "meeting place" with customers and collaborators on their personal computers.

All of these changes will spur new opportunities. And Malone believes one of them will be enabling individuals to bring a broader range of values to the business world through their choices of work.

"As in any time of dramatic change, small choices will often have big effects. . ." Malone wrote. "You can -- if you choose -- use your work to help create a world that is not just richer, but better."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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