Work is an activity, not a place | Opinion

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal 

My thanks as always to the ever-provocative Harold Jarche for the headline of this column. A couple of weeks back he used the quote: “Work is an activity, not a place,” taken from the 2007 book “Nine Shift, Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century” by William Draves and Julie Coates in a piece he posted to Life in Perpetual Beta.

Never mind that I think “Life in Perpetual Beta” is the coolest blog name ever, Harold can almost always be counted on to share something firmly, as though it is true and he is just letting us in on it.

I choose to read Harold differently, as though he is sharing questions with us that he is posing to himself and then working out possible responses right in front of us or even along with us. Rather than telling us what the future will look like, he offers his readers the opportunity to work alongside him in a creative process that is likely unfamiliar to most of us.

The process he is engaged in is both exciting and intimidating, because these are big questions he is addressing and answers are far from immediately forthcoming.

If you have been following Harold’s thinking and sharing this year, and I recommend that you do, he is working on the questions associated with the impact of social technology on work and learning. One of the distinctions he has drawn, talent versus labor ,which is particularly important in my mind, was first brought to our attention by Gary Hamel in his 2007 book “The Future of Management.”

The distinction sets obedience, diligence and intelligence as qualities of labor that are readily and cheaply available versus the qualities of talent, creativity, passion and initiative that are scarce and in high demand.

There is no question in my mind that a case can be made for the use of mobile technology to free us up from the notion that work is, or requires, a place. However, I am not sure I can as easily agree that work can then be simply defined as an activity, especially once you distinguish labor from talent, as Harold Jarche has done.

Even Harold, in making his case for the increased use of mobile technology as a facilitator of cooperation, acknowledges that much of the “work” he refers to is taking place within a social context. It is cooperation that allows for the accomplishment of work, and any degree of cooperation hinges directly on implicit trust, which is a function of how humans are related.

But talking about labor or talent cooperation and how it is facilitated by technology might be the more relevant issue.

How any level of trust is arrived at will always be a function of what matters to the parties involved. What leads to credibility in one case might have little or no meaning in another.

But no matter what, there will always be some conditions that humans lay down that must be satisfied before full throttle cooperation can be expected. Whether meeting these conditions is made possible by mobile technology or facilitated by mobile technology might be a “chicken-and-egg-type” question.

Getting back now to the notion of work as an activity. I believe that for a good part of the current and potential workforce there is a task, and then there is the act of being at work.

Being at work means connecting with humans, primarily in person. But certainly completing tasks, without interaction, does not fit their definition of work, neither does merely cooperating.

For many workers, there is a condition of social exchange that is a basic requirement for work to be satisfying.This connection is emotional as much as anything. Yet it is an expectation rarely explicit, but most certainly noticed when missing.

Getting that portion of the workforce that counts on the emotional content of the work experience across the bridge to working mobile will be every bit as challenging as having people understand that in a capitalist system, whether democratic or not, if what you bring to the party can be performed cheaper by someone someplace else on the planet (or a machine), it will be.

Our education process needs to proceed simultaneously at all levels to have that portion of the workforce, both current and future, understand that they are predictably headed for disenfranchisement, unless they embrace not only technology, but also the idea that they must develop themselves as talent and no longer rely on the availability of employment calling for labor.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He also publishes a weekly blog at


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