Organising for networked futures

Paul Bessems is a fellow and chairman of the board of the Weconomics Foundation , CEO of Weconet Technologies BV, theme manager of data logistics at Logistics Community Brabant, co-founder of BrainBloc on the TU/e campus in Brainport Eindhoven, and founder of The Institute for New Organizational Thinking. This list is longer than a singular job title, and that is because Paul is a believer in networked organizations in favour of traditional hierarchical models. He works with start-ups, networks, and educational bodies to transmit his knowledge, research, and experience to a wide audience, on a collective journey towards a durable, digital, and decentral future. Ahead of his participation in the RightBrains Digital Leadership Programme, Paul speaks with us about the current state of global transformation, the importance of education, and about the (hopeful) future of organizational relations.

After studying Industrial Engineering and Management Science, Paul worked for a couple of years in education, before starting his own company. He soon realized that a company made up of many employees tends to generate a hierarchical management structure, with a lot of middle-management and people-related work. Since he is drawn more passionately to working as an entrepreneur, trainer, and coach, and due to his belief that society needs new solutions to its challenges, he and his team migrated into a network organisation. This means that instead of clear hierarchies, they work in large and fluid ecosystems. Paul now combines his skills in data and technology with work on new organizational models, where he trains start-ups, students, and professionals.

Replacing the dominant logic

Paul believes this move to a less hierarchical way of working is crucial for more than just digital transformation. “We are really in a moment of fundamental transformation. In the Industrial Revolution, the goal was to produce more prosperity, but now we have to shift the focus towards the durability of that prosperity.” He is very clear that with a new global context, we must configure new ways of working. He combines historical, social, and technological research to draw up generative organizational models for this new context, in-line with current global challenges.

Paul embraces the fields of IT and tech as powerful entities whose innovation is just as much social as digital, perhaps even more so. “Everything we do at Weconomics [the community Paul founded, and the title of one of his 11 books] is driven by social innovation, empowered by technology.” After all, technology can be so powerful to aid social change; “with data technology, you could lower carbon emissions, bring supply and demand together more efficiently, decentralise and re-organise energy supply.”

He believes his biggest challenge is to try to convince people that this new context we find ourselves in requires a new logic, a new way of thinking, that must open the door to new organisational models. “We must let go of the old before we start with the new. Many people of working age are experienced and educated in models of organisation and management that were conceived of 100 years ago with Taylorism and Fordism – many companies and governments still follow these models – and they are so deeply ingrained in our ways of being that it can be hard to unlearn them. It’s easy to learn what blockchain or AI are, but the real challenge is to let go of the old belief systems to make room for a new logic.”

The future of work is… less?

It might sound surprising in the middle of a hiring crisis when tech companies around the world are searching for talent as they grow rapidly, but at least 30% of office work has become redundant. In the Netherlands, that’s the equivalent of 1,8 million full-time positions. Paul explains that if office work is re-organised, we can re-capture many units of lost time, which can be more efficiently used to work towards a better future. “Our ambition is to halve office work within one generation. If you transform 1,8 million redundant positions into more sustainable jobs, then many challenges are solved, for example, the shortage in the labour market. You cannot solve social challenges simply with more budget, but you can try to solve them by making more time available. Such a mass of working time is hidden in these hours of redundant and non-productive office work. If we can use data-driven organising with the blockchain-based digital assembly line to take most of this load, we can get to work on the necessary transformation towards taking care of each other, the climate, of education, healthcare, and democratisation. Our mission is to work less and achieve more.”

Education is a springboard

When looking towards the next decades as a society, Paul bestows great importance on the youth, and therefore on education. “Young people will have to live for a long time with the decisions we are making now. If we don’t take action, it could be too late for their futures. This is not only in relation to climate change but to the challenges that overall inequality brings.” Paul and his networks are busy working with universities, colleges of applied science, and other educational bodies both here in the Netherlands and abroad in their mission to re-organise the structure of work. In fact, they are currently translating one of their books ahead of delivering a Learning Working programme for UN women in Sierra Leone, to stimulate their interest in the field. “Education still delivers people from the old way of thinking. For example, people are still training to become bookkeepers, but technology could do that job. We are putting in a lot of effort to change curricula, giving guest lectures, working with graduating students, and offering programmes to change that.” Paul believes that it is important to renew the educational context to reflect the current technological, social, and political context of our time.

The future is durable, digital, decentral

Paul learned many feminine qualities and skills from an early age when he enjoyed helping his mother run her bed and breakfast. Over the years, he has observed differences not between men and women, but between masculine and feminine qualities and skills, and he believes the latter is crucial for the future. “Flexibility, being open, seeing things from different perspectives, letting go of old ways… These feminine qualities are really useful in situations where we have to work together, which is what we need to do now. Wanting to win, and wanting to own; are traditionally masculine characteristics, but in this moment of transition the important focus is not about competition, it’s about cooperation. It’s about working together. It’s not about owning things, but about organising access to things.”

Paul believes this future will be durable, digital, and decentral. “Decentral means you have to cooperate, to work in ecosystems. Feminine qualities will be so needed here. Our network consists of an ecosystem of a couple of hundred partners, so working together is one of the main characteristics. Instead of being competitive, and a hard salesman, it pays off to work on an equal playing field, to try to find the win-win situation.” Paul looks forward to the collaboration with RightBrains as a reciprocal one; where he can share his experience and understanding, and in turn can grow his network of women, learning from them their methods, challenges, and goals.

Is tech purely about tech?

As a field, digital tech can still be seen as being overly male-dominated, prioritising pace, technical innovation, and competition. Paul is clear that in order to use technology to its full, human-focused potential, the conversation really needs to be less about the technology itself, and more about replacing the dominant logic and finding new strategies. “I thought the field was really about technology, but it’s actually about finding new ways of organising. One of my most formative experiences in the 90s was when I learned that you don’t need an office and a hierarchy and constant development to organise a tech company; it’s not really about the tech itself. The technology is there, it does its work. The future is really about surpassing the old logic and learning how to use this technology for our collective sake. It’s about knowing how to organise things differently.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022