Opportunities and Challenges Associated with Networked Workers

“Value comes from connected humans, not monolithic structures.” – Jarche (2013)

The current covid pandemic made the idea of the networked worker prudent and necessary in terms of keeping an organization alive and employees connected. However, it is not a new concept. The mobile-equipped workplace has been a reality for many years. Organizations have been providing company-issued laptops, iPads, and cell phones to enable their employees to access both the intranet and the internet. There is also a high reliance on email as a communication channel. As Jane McConnell pointed out, a shift in performance management is associated with a networked workplace.  Rather than a big annual company meeting, there is an ongoing dialogue with those plugged into the network concerning what is happening in the organization—or at least, that is the ideal situation.

The networked worker is a sign an organization is maturing in the digital age. With this maturity comes opportunities and challenges associated with the networked worker and their access to the internet. Let us look at some of the opportunities as highlighted by several sources:

  1. Increased flexibility and connectivity (Jarche, 2013; Parker & Raine, 2020). The idea of working remotely is quickly becoming the new normal. Working remotely provides flexibility for parents, people with disabilities, and those who prefer an unconventional setting to work from anywhere and at any time. Personally, I have been taking advantage of a hybrid opportunity to work from home for three days a week and be in the office during the other days. It has sparked my creativity and renewed my zeal for my work at a point when I was getting burned out. By being better connected, networked workers can be a creative source that brings business value, as Jarche (2013) noted.
  2. Lifetime learning in the knowledge age (Parker & Raine, 2020). Access to the internet allows for continuous learning through web-based tools to reskill or upskill as needed without paying for a 2-year or 4-year degree when it is cheaper to learn focused skills – soft or hard– online affordably (Parker & Raine, 2020). Organizations have the opportunity to facilitate lifelong learners on the job for the good of the organization. Along the same lines, Jarche (2017) highlighted the benefits of social learning—a process by which people learn from and with each other and help each other get better at creating new practices.
  3. Decentralized decision-making (McConnell, 2016; Kelly, 2016). This can be an opportunity or a challenge depending on the type of organization. In my organization, decision-making is done primarily top-down. Decentralizing it would mean sharing perceived power, which is not always handled well.
  4. Self-managing teams can be created (McConnell, 2016). Managing the networked workers might not be necessary overtime since work would become more transparent (Jarche, 2013; Jarche, 2017). This would ultimately mean the role of managers might have to change or evolve.
  5. Jarche (2013) also suggested that the transaction cost between networked individuals is significantly reduced compared to transaction costs inside the organization.
  6. Faster access to knowledge outside the organization by workers who are networked (Jarche, 2013).

Even with the highlighted benefits, there are sometradeoffs associated with networked workers. Here are some of the challenges:

  1. Increased stress and new demands on the lives of workers as a result of being plugged in all the time, as the pew research showed. Madden and Jones (2008) suggested that networked workers seemed to be always on or always off. Research showed that 46% of networked workers report increased demands that they work more hours, and 49% say that the level of stress has increased. There are no longer boundaries.
  2. Kelly (2016) refers to the internet as the world’s largest tracker. Anyone and anything that accesses the internet can be tracked. But do you know exactly by whom? Kelly (2016) suggests some kind of co-surveillance to even out the playing field — the watched can also track the watchers.  As work becomes even more networked, and there are no clear international rules governing cyberconflict (Kelly, 2016), how can new responsibilities and obligations be managed in a world where civility is not always second nature to most, and information can be used to harm, infiltrate, disrupt, and misdirect, as noted by Kelly (2016).
  3. Kelly (2016) agrees with the large-scale collaboration, massive real-time social interactions, and omnipresent instant connection that networked workers can bring but also warns against the disruption of boundaries. Are boundaries frequently crossed among networked workers as information is shared and as access becomes almost limitless?
  4. McConnell (2016) also suggested that fewer than 15% of organizations were confident that they would retain any knowledge and know-how of networked workers if they decided to leave.
  5. Despite access to the internet, there are still insufficient mobile applications and services available in most organizations customized for their purposes. A challenge for the networked workers occurs when the right web-based application is not available for the work intended, and another one closely related has to be “MacGyvered” for the benefit of the organization. Web-based tool developers now have to come up with ways to ensure their tools are customizable according to industry to make this challenge an opportunity.
  6. There are those referred to as the customer-facing workforce — the janitors, cleaning crew, waits staff, and even jobs like mine, people on the edges of the organization and far from the center. This workforce can often be disconnected from the corporate systems and information flow and have access to very little. This prevents real collaboration with customers and colleagues and impedes smooth work experience in a networked world. The customer-facing workforce are the people asked to sit at the children’s table at a luncheon, while everyone else has a seat at the adult table of the wired and ready workers —they get some food but are not allowed access to the wine bar.

Whether freely available internet access is always a positive thing for businesses or institutions has to do with the nature of their work and the sensitivity of the data the organization handles. It might not be prudent for an organization to block the rise of the networked worker and expand the access to the customer-facing workforce if it wants to show it has a culture of adaptability and sustainability (Burke, 2018).

References

Burke, W. (2018). Organizational change: Theory and practice. (5th ed.). Sage.

Jarche, H. (2013). Networks are the new companies. https://jarche.com/2013/11/networks-are-the-new-companies/

Jarche, H. (2017, December 30). Embracing automation. https://jarche.com/2017/12/embracing-automation/

Kelly, K. (2016). The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. Viking Press.

Madden, M., & Jones, S. (2008). Networked Workers. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2008/09/24/networked-workers/

McConnell, J. (2016). The organization in the digital age. https://www.netjmc.com/key-findings-organization-in-the-digital-age-10th-edition/

Parker, K & Raine, L. (2020, April 13). Americans and lifetime learning in the knowledge age. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/spring-2020/americans-and-lifetime-learning-in-the-knowledge-age

Published by Vivian Amu

Doctoral student of interdisciplinary leadership.

4 thoughts on “Opportunities and Challenges Associated with Networked Workers

  1. I was struck by your metaphor – “…The customer-facing workforce are the people asked to sit at the children’s table at a luncheon, while everyone else has a seat at the adult table of the wired and ready workers —they get some food but are not allowed access to the wine bar.” As organizations adjust to the new normal of hyperconnected workers and customers, defining just who is “customer-facing” might be the adjustment many are overlooking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vivian,

    Lots to think about in your post! Workers do see continuous training as essential for career success (Raine, 2018). This aligns with your second point about lifetime learning. While the web may allow for continuous learning, I think structured programs, certificates, and stackable credentials will be one path to the reskilling and upskilling needed. McDonald (2021) noted the difference between upskilling and reskilling. Upskilling enhances or expands an employee’s skill set, which involves continuous learning and is important for career advancement. Reskilling is about acquiring new skills for an entirely different position. Both are important today. McDonald’s (2021) suggested that reskilling and upskilling opportunities include in-house platforms, external learning platforms, virtual mentoring, peer-to-peer learning. Leaders can help identify skills gaps and help think critically about meeting this workforce challenge that can become an opportunity for workers to expand their skill set. Have you seen much reskilling or upskilling of workers in your industry or company? If so, what role has the internet played in that?

    Thanks for such a thorough post addressing networked workers!

    Megan

    McDonald, P. (2021, June 9). As businesses prepare for the future of work, the need to upskill and reskill workers becomes more essential. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulmcdonald/2021/06/09/as-businesses-prepare-for-the-future-of-work-the-need-to-upskill-and-reskill-workers-becomes-more-essential/

    Rainie, L. (2018). Skill requirements for future jobs. [PowerPoint slides]. Slide Share. Pew Research Center. https://www.slideshare.net/PewInternet/skills-requirements-for-future-jobs-10-facts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Megan,
      thank you for your response to my post.
      I actually like the idea of structured programs, certificates, and stackable credentials as a path to reskilling and upskilling. I am an example of someone who does just that. However, for those who cannot afford paying for such or those with very limited time, taking a web-based course to enhance or acquire a particular skill set makes a huge difference in confidence and job security.

      Regarding your question, at my place of work, upskilling is more common than reskilling. People at the point where they are thinking of reskilling tend to just leave. The role the internet played was significant because of covid. All training of any kind was through an online platform — webinars, 3-week online courses, and instructional videos which YouTube provided.

      Thanks for the dialogue.
      Vivian

      Like

  3. Great opening. I agree completely that it is not a new concept, but one that has been amplified by the current state of the world. I am a big proponent of the opportunity you identified in lifelong learning, and the digital age makes it much more convenient and possible in each year that passes with new tools and opportunities. One set-up I really like is WGU’s competency-based approach combined with the tuition approach through its flexible scheduling (https://www.wgu.edu/student-experience/learning/assessments.html#openSubscriberModal). Another approach I favor that has not gained a lot of ground, but in a networked world should grow in popularity, is subscription education that is formal (i.e., not Linkedin Learning or Udemy, etc..). FutureLearn (2021) published an article at https://www.futurelearn.com/info/blog/learning-subscriptions-2020 that presents both learning on demand and learning subscriptions that I found interesting.

    I also found your analogy insightful on the children’s table. Good imagery.

    Steve O’

    Liked by 1 person

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