This Tuesday and Wednesday, I'll be attending the Business Process Management Conference down the Peninsula. Why? I'm learning as much as I can about BPM because it underpins the revolution I foresee in business, computing, and learning.

Besides that, the Workflow Institute is conducting a conference on Workflow Learning in October, and I'm one of the ringmasters. It's always a good idea to know what you're talking about.

Workflow is the convergence of work+flow to achieve an optimal balance of work results and individual fulfillment. Business culture is breaking free of the industrial-age mindset that bottom-line results and worker happiness are natural enemies. Work can be among life’s greatest joys; flow drives a loyal, over-achieving workforce. Workflow research investigates how work and flow can converge to replace an unproductive either/or situation with a mutually beneficial worldview of both/and.

The Work I deal with is knowledge work, usually in an environment of next-generation computing which embraces Web Services, agent-based software, enterprise interoperability, extreme adaptability, and many lessons from the Internet. The goal of work is production and accomplishment.

Flow is the trickier piece of the puzzle. I am thinking of Flow in the psychological sense, as Mihaly Csizentmihalyi describes it.

People in flow are fully enjoying their work because they are so engaged in tackling difficult and worthwhile tasks. Channeling flow into work draws on meta-learning, appreciative inquiry, worker empowerment, instructional design, emotional intelligence, and a new concept of the nature of work. Flow is vital because drudgery is avoidable.

Roaming through Half-Price Books a few days ago, I spied a copy of Csikszentmihalyi's latest work, Good Business, marked down from $25.95 to $9.98. I'm already 75 pages into it.

Mihaly's writing is uplifting, for example:

We need a certain amount of stability in our lives. But it is not enough simply to know that the sun is going to rise the next morning, and that the robins will return in the spring. We also have to feel that despite chaos and entropy, there is some order and permanence in our relationships and that our lives are not wasted and will leave some trace in the sands of time. In short, we must have the conviction that our existence serves a useful perpose and has value.

He says that instead of One-Minute Managers, we need hundred-year managers. The author is quite pragmatic about business taking a long-term view. Happy people do better work. They have higher morale; they are less likely to jump ship.

We've had opportunities to improve working conditions again and again. The peasant's lifestyle was impoverished and hard, but the early factory hand or coal miner working 12-hours days in wretched conditions certainly had it worse. People were not treated as machines. Foremen didn't beat machines. Supervisors didn't yell at and berate machines. Plant managers didn't abuse machines to the breaking point. No, the industrial workplace treated people worse than machines, as if they were throw-away tools.

We've come a long way, you think. Out of sight out of mind. But sweatshots, slave labor, stoop labor, lost limbs, and the working poor are all there if you look. Not to mention McJobs.

At least you can see the McJobs. I fear something nearly invisible: the working environment we are creating for knowledge workers.

Twenty-five years ago, the common wisdom was that by the time we reached the 21st century, our biggest dilemma would be figuring out what to do with all our leisure time. Even scooting around in your personal helicopter gets boring after a while.

Instead, we've got a world where nearly everyone has to work. Nobody feels they have enough time. Uncertainty reigns. Cancer, ulcers, and stress are leading us to premature graves. Our institutions are a shambles. Fewer and fewer people take pride in their work. Work encroaches on family time. Labor-saving technology merely raises the bar on what's expected. One in five American workers do nothing on their jobs but show up. The mass of knowledge workers lead lives of quiet desperation. We're rats in a maze.

I am optimistic about the future. Breakthrough technologies are poised to shower us with many gifts. We have in our grasp the ability to create jobs that challenge the worker and grow with her. We can provide clear goals, immediate feedback, and a balance between opportunity and capacity, the very things that define Flow. We can leverage the coming networks and interoperable, smart software to pull ourselves out of our ruts. Or we can engineer the most mind-numbing, rote, awful jobs the world has ever seen.

At the Workflow Symposium, I'd like to get these issues out in the open. How can we learning professionals make the future world of work a more enjoyable and, therefore, productive place? How can we apply our knowledge of learning and behavior to humanize the workplace? How can we ourselves attain flow in our work by performing in an enlightened manner?

I hope you'll join me in taking the higher ground.

Posted by Jay Cross at June 21, 2004 07:16 PM | TrackBack

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