1. The Industrial age is over.
Everyone knows the story. It’s as old as the typical large business or government department.
John is the best sales guy. He likes his job, and his customers like him. He’s always there for them, answering their every call – he’s not just a sales guy, he’s the perfect go-between between the business he sells for and the business that buys from him. His colleagues admire him, and (secretly) envy him.
So, after years of ever growing success, John is given a promotion. An important one.
He will now become head of sales – managing his former colleagues.
Pretty soon, things start to go badly wrong. John starts selling less – a lot less. Because he has to “manage” his former colleagues. Telling them what and how they do things wrong. Desperately trying to get them to sell more – the way he sees it, this is to make up for the time he wastes managing his former colleagues, rather than helping his customers.
His former colleagues stop envying him, and start hating him. They start blocking his success, rather than helping it.
It ends badly. John leaves for a competitor, to take up a senior sales position (after all, he was head of sales, so he can’t go back to the front line – that would be a demotion). He fails again as a manager. His new colleagues learn to hate him quickly, too.
In the end, John stops real work altogether, spending his time in internal politics and smooching to top management, in the hope of becoming one, or making his underlings more miserable than he is, to show that he was always the better sales guy.
Sounds familiar? Because it is.
The story doesn’t apply just to salespeople. But also to chemical engineers. To product designers. To analytical experts. To customer support experts. To teachers. To trainers. Even, god help us, to lawyers.
Our organisations are still built on the assumptions of the 19th century factory – you are either on the factory floor as a workman, or you are on the first floor, with the administration. And you make a career by becoming the boss of your colleagues.
Our jobs are still determined in a pyramidal way, where expertise is rewarded by giving managerial responsibility, and people who don’t “know” the expertise in the same way the experts do, are not allowed to talk to, let alone manage those who do.
But the 19th century is over. The industrial age is over.
We need a better way to describe the people and jobs of the 21st century.
Here’s a suggestion.
2. The network jobs
Skip the 20th century, nothing to see there, and jump straight to today.
We live in a network society. The information age is upon us. And the information network economy is not a factory.
It doesn’t come with floors, that define the jobs. It doesn’t come with a pyramidal structure, where people are told top-down what to do.
It requires different skill sets. But it also desperately requires a different way of describing jobs. Of explaining how people work and how they operate – within the network.
Because it is the network that is the defining feature of any organisation. Organisations that understand that they operate as networks, both internally and externally, will succeed in the 21st century. Organisations that don’t understand this, and continue to operate under the factory model, will find themselves out-competed.
This is because of the “network effect”. Networks create what is called “positive externalities” – the more a network grows and is connected, the more value it creates. It’s in effect causing the famous 1 + 1 = 3 effect.
So what job categories do we have in a network organisation?
I see two fundamental categories: the “node” job and the “connector” job.
A network consists of nodes that are connected. If you have e.g. a computer network, say the three computers in your home, then each computer is a “node”. The wires (or the wireless routers) are the “connectors”.
The same principle applies to a network-organisation.
People are either “node” people or “connector” people.
What is the difference?
“Node” people are experts. They know some stuff really well, they understand it. They can build it or fix it, or develop new versions of it. They dig deep, they have insight, expertise.
“Connector” people are interfaces or polymaths. They know a little bit about a lot of different things. They can talk to the node people, and understand them, but can’t (or won’t) do the work of node people. But they can connect node people from different areas with each other. They work as interfaces, as translators between node people. Connector people actually allow the network effect to take place.
Both are necessary. There is no network without both nodes and connectors. They are different, but both essential in their value-add. Without nodes, there is no network. But without connectors, there is also no network.
3. So how does this help John?
In our story, John is a node person. He is brilliant at selling. But he does not want to become a manager, instructing or managing other sales people.
In a network organisation, we don’t need pyramidal managers. We need node people and connector people.
This also means that the hierarchical pyramidal approach to managing the sales department needs to give way to a network- connector approach to managing the sales department.
Such a new manager does not tell the expert – node people how to do their job. Instead, they connect the node people with each other and with other departments, to make sure that communication works effectively. That sales actually talks to product development and product support, so that customers’ views become an integral part of the internal processes of the business.
Should those connectors have managerial authority? Not necessarily, but they do need to have connector authority. They are the ones ensuring that the node people of different parts of the organisation can talk to each other, and work with, rather than against, each other.
A network cannot function in a top-down dictatorial way. There’s simply too much information to be exchanged, and sending it up and down all the time is a massive waste of time. Information has to be shared between nodes, in an open way.
Only then can the network effect start to take place.
So, as an organisation, you have to change your job descriptions. You have to say whether a job is a “node” job or a “connector” job.
That does not mean that people can’t change – it is perfectly possible for a node person to become a connector person (or the other way around). But it should not be the result of, or connected to, a hierarchically defined career. Because node jobs are not better or superior to connector jobs. Connector jobs are not better or superior to node jobs.
They are different, and co-dependent. An organisation needs both in order to scale up to an internal network effect, and to allow its internal network to generate a network effect with outsiders.
Once organisations start to learn about the difference between node jobs and connector jobs, they will be able to find much better fits between the capacities and requirements of their human capital, and the job descriptions.
In addition, this approach will also weaken the classical pyramidal hierarchical systems, sources of inefficiency, friction and distorted human collaboration.
John would like it.