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“To be in a state of self-control, a person must know: what he/she is supposed to do, what he [or she] is actually doing, what choices he/she has to improve results wherever necessary. If any of these three conditions are not met, a person cannot be held responsible.”

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JM Juran

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“As automation and artificial intelligence increasingly replace algorithmic and analytical tasks, the economy of The Conceptual Age will favour workers adept in areas that favour creativity, empathy and meaning (‘human’ concepts that are otherwise difficult to replicate by machine).”

Dr Jason Fox

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There is a lot of bullshit being written about “The 4th Industrial Revolution” tying it to technology, renewed business moral awareness, inequality, automation, whatever. I hate labels and I hate trying to attach change to anything specific when it is more likely a confluence of factors.  I will say whatever is happening feels like a seismic shift in business ideology. That said. Whenever I scribble something about the Future of Work I keep coming back to Dr Jason Fox’s Conceptual Age idea he discussed with Mike Walsh in a podcast.

It seems to be the axis mundi for, well, everything we talk about. Purpose, distributed leadership org models, data/digital, thinking, innovation, etc.

Well crafted conceptual thinking.

In about 2010 I first wrote about something called “deconstruction thinking” wherein I suggested the future business model will reflect more of a “do, deconstruct & re-do” mentality. At the core of a successful deconstruction thinking model is the ability to think conceptually or in terms of concepts not rigid constructs. It was kind of a bastardized  mosh pit of scenario planning, ‘teal’, Toffler ‘polymalleable organizations’ and effectiveness over efficiency.

At the core of any future success is the coalescing of prioritized fragments into a conceptual whole in a timely fashion. This will demand not only critical thinking, but also the ability to envision how that thinking can exist in a future state.

Simplistically, concepts are about networked value creation which can occur structurally or transactionally.

Structural conceptual thinking, implemented as networked value creation, is not that difficult and has been done for decades.

Transactional conceptual thinking, combined with the actual networked value creation, is hard – very difficult. It’s about envisioning opportunities/issues, envisioning resources/ideas/abilities and envisioning how to put it into action. In other words, its difficult.

I continue to believe the future of work (in any industry) will lie in the hands of people who can not only envision THE work (present & future) as concepts in combination with the ability to articulate it in ways that make it tangible enough to be understood and acted upon (this, generally, is an idea Dr. Jason Fox has discussed).

This will demand one to embrace paradox & contradictions and dismiss either/or choices as too simplistic in a more complex conceptual world of thinking. No one should confuse this with speed or ‘faster world.’ It’s not. It is simply about moving parts of which some move fast, some tectonically slow and the majority somewhere in between.

It will take a combination of accessing ‘black box’ output (which demands some level of trust & learning) and judgement and embracing a conceptual framework of synthesizing paradoxical tensions.

The new decision making Concept world, one enabled by technology and the ‘black boxes’ of knowledge computers offer in terms of knowledge, is ultimately a deconstructive thinking world. A world in which it is understood that a stimulus can create desired, and sometimes undesired, responses and success is often more based on reacting & adapting to an initial stimulus than perfecting the initial stimulus. This demands conceptual thinking both to construct a plan of action as well as being able to ‘deconstruct’ and adapt as plans get implemented.

I would argue that over time the black box thinking <the intangible and vague ‘knowing’> becomes more tangible as well as we gain more faith in certain black box thinking application. Given that belief I would also argue that Concepts, which outlines are vaguer in the beginning, gain substance & tangibleness over time.

I would also point out there is an inherent ‘human’ aspect to this idea.

Even with all the technology noise there is a persistently human future of work looming over the entire conversation. Computers are just not capable of empathy, curiosity & imagination which are the cornerstones to effectiveness. If I were to label the next age I would steal Jason Fox’s Conceptual Age more than just Human, or Technology, or IOT or even digital.

Oddly, the biggest challenge to thinking conceptually is NOT ability, but rather efficiency.

What?

The paradox is that business has a need for quality information more than ever, yet, quality information, in the form of data or minds, is readily available. Therefore, concepts exist they simply need to be crafted. Which leads me to what Dr. Jason Fox said:  “I worry about the curse of efficiency.” Once again, paradoxically, the conceptual age is all about the effective use of time. that may sound very similar to efficiency and therein lies the greatest enemy of the Conceptual Age.

How people view time. Efficient time or effective time or a greater “efficacy of time.”

The world has, does and will revolve around ideas. Technology will simply distribute, analyze and amplify ideas. In this case, concepts. This may paradoxically seem both time efficient and time inefficient. In other words, we will get the pieces of the concept faster and faster and, yet, coalescing the appropriate pieces into a meaningful concept will take longer & longer.

Will we be patient enough for the Conceptual Age? Regardless. I continue to believe there is a bigger idea The Conceptual Age. One which captures the nexus of technology & humans & meaning.

What may help us in our Time war is that, conceptually, concept thinking is motivating. Its action in thinking. Instead of linear problem solving it is more like gathering disparate puzzle pieces and arranging them into a cohesive, or coherent, shape. We may be motivated to concept slower.

 

The challenge to the Conceptual Age (beyond time).

Concepts, at their core, embrace tension or a paradox (not a dilemma). While a dilemma forces an either/or a paradox, and a concept, synergizes all components of tension into an idea/action/product/plan.

The trouble is when organizations are faced with these competing demands, they often tend to choose one or the other, compromise between them, or attempt to reconcile them. This happens for many reasons but I would suggest the overriding reason is that business people constantly attempt to simplify a complex reality. most of us embrace it because, well, people have a general tendency to see the world in black and white terms, which is a false dichotomy (Scandinavian Journal of Management).

Even trickier (worse) when you consider what John Dewey said: “there is no such thing as a final settlement because every settlement introduces the conditions of some degree of a new unsettling.” Concepts are never settled. They are always evolving.

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“Sureness will always elude you. The detective will always circle around what he wants, never seeing it whole.

We do not go on despite this. We go on because of it.”

Sara Gran

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The Conceptual Age.

The best way I can visualize the Conceptual Age is by leveraging the Swiss Cheese Model , but for concepts and not crisis/accidents.

 

The Swiss Cheese model highlights accidents occur when hazards align. In my mind, conversely, the optimal concepts can be found when an alignment of ‘organizational depth moving pieces ‘(aspects of business are constantly in motion but at different speeds – fast, medium fast, medium slow, slow & unmoving) is recognized , articulated and acted upon.

 

Conceptual thinking comes in all sizes (venti, tall, grande), but I will suggest the largest value segments:

 

Structural

Or

Transactional

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Pillars

Or

Opportunistic

 

The ability to discern these concepts in a timely, actionable framework AND be able to articulate in a way to assemble resources to take advantage may turn out to be the most valuable human resource a business may have. I call it ‘resource’ because it is quite possible in the future this is a human/technology combination. Technology assessing, sifting thru, “information cues” (this does not have to just be data) and highlighting probabilities as they arise with human judgment/assessment of organizational capabilities (mustering resources is accessing mental resources as well as tangible resources). In other words, articulating the varying concepts, defining the definitions, affect the way competing demands are described and how the resulting tensions are dealt with.

Lastly.

The effect on ‘knowledge workers’ and managers. Whenever we speak of ‘thinking conceptually’ there is a belief this is for the ‘intellectual elite’ (the eggheads). It is not. It will affect everyone.

  1. I disagree with many future of work experts. I don’t believe managers will become obsolete in world of automation/AI. Managers are the connective tissue in organizations. In fact. I see managers as integral to any transformation from efficiency to effectiveness. I actually see them as the cornerstone of the Conceptual Age.
  2. All jobs will be reshaped by technology and all jobs will play a role in the Conceptual Age (Mike Walsh: design work).

In the end.

The Conceptual Age has emerged from not only the emergence of technology in business, but also the challenges to

conventional wisdom from science, philosophy and knowledge. I would suggest people, mindful of the of the overarching issues with business (lack of moral leadership, hierarchy control limitations, diminished meaning and engagement in tasks and work) and aided by the easy movement of ideas created by technology, in a larger narrative, the Conceptual Age is seeking a new understanding of a human-centric world. The Conceptual Age will be a cornucopia of ideas, some of them contradictory, but will be defined by reason, conceptual thinking and, inevitably, how those concepts inspire progress.

I do believe The Conceptual Age is going to be an equal opportunity employer. And I think Concepts are the products with the highest value in the future.

 

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Written by Bruce