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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2023-10-10 10:01

Cathryn Barnard



As the outside world becomes more complex, a key element of continuous learning is that we find, and connect to, a community of others who share similar...


The world gets weirder by the day. 

As I write, the UK Prime Minister has U-turned on climate and environmental pledges just weeks after some of the most extreme weather events ever seen in mainland Europe. Despite a rising tide of increasingly sophisticated AI applications being made freely available to the general public, various technocrats continue to openly argue for a moratorium to halt further developments until a comprehensive analysis of the wider risks to society can take place. Rising anxiety and risk of burnout are undermining organisational progress. Western economies are stalling and none of the conventional fiscal interventions appear to be working.  

Worse, our mainstream media now seems little more than a sensationalist squawk-box of divisive and inflammatory hyperbole. Media personalities are thrown under the bus while politicians go unpunished. Celebrity scandal fills the headlines while governmental failings barely get mentioned. As misinformation continues to dominate the Internet, it’s increasingly hard to know who, or what, to trust.

In parallel, from a business perspective, trading environments have become increasingly challenging to navigate. We’re so far beyond normal, there are no maps or signposts we can use to help us. Every aspect of work is changing and the best we can do is accept that whether we like it or not, we’re now all, as Wired Magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly would say, “perpetual newbies”.

For any discerning professional, this is problematic. 

A key part of the identity that comes from being ‘professional’ is that one knows what to do and how to respond to any given situation. This is no longer the case. Industries, sectors, markets, roles and responsibilities are changing faster than we can track and it’s vital to keep up with trends, shifts and undercurrents if we’re to remain relevant and of strategic importance to the stakeholders we serve. 

This is why I’m investing in a community of practice.


What is a community of practice? 

I first came across the concept in 2016 as I started researching the future of work. My friend Nicky had recommended Harold Jarche’s online course, Personal Knowledge Mastery [1] as an essential framework of practical methods to connect work and learning in the digital age. I took the course and loved it.

As the outside world becomes more complex, a key element of continuous learning is that we find, and stay connected to, a community of others who share similar interests or who are doing similar work. When we can discuss and compare novel situations with others who understand our operating context, we’re better able to sense-make and adapt. 

Full-time permanent staff are unlikely to find enough provocative stimulation from within their own organisational networks, so it’s important to look beyond these settings to find fresh thinking and innovative ideas. 

For those working as small business owners or solopreneurs, joining some kind of professional network helps see a bigger picture beyond what one might be exposed to on a daily or weekly basis. 

Throughout 2023, a litany of media articles and social media posts have warned us all to get to grips with AI. A prevailing mantra has been to adopt AI or face being replaced by someone who knows how to use it. Those who consider themselves professional will inevitably want to know what lies in store for their professions, not least when threatened with possible job or career obsolescence. These are worrying times. 

I believe a community of practice is a helpful antidote to those worries. 

It’s useful to understand the roots of the concept of community of practice. It was first proposed by Swiss educational theorist Étienne Wenger in the book Situated Learning that he co-wrote with the cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave in 1991. On his website, Wenger describes a community of practice as:

“Formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope.”

“In a nutshell,” he writes, “communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”[2]

I’m particularly drawn to the analogy Wenger uses of a tribe learning to survive. The world of work is changing so fast now it’s no longer possible for any professional body to stay ahead of all the permutations of change and meaningfully provide direction to its members. While it can, of course, map, track and interpret the trends playing out over time, it lacks the scope and ability to evaluate the implication of those trends as they arise in context. 

The best way for a collective of professionals to evolve their skillsets, competencies and capabilities is to share their interests, observations and experiences, for faster collective sensemaking and learning.

Coming together to discuss projects, events, developments, articles, videos, podcasts and books can be extremely helpful and even more energising. Humans are hardwired to be helpful and collaborative, so the act of sharing resources and debating scenarios instils a healthy sense of wellbeing, even when the external environment can feel unnerving and hostile. 

With my background in staffing and teambuilding, I’ve long been convinced of the power and potential of community over rugged individualism. I witnessed first-hand the elevated performance of teams as they bonded socially in the quest to meet tight deadlines and milestones. 

As a topic, the future of work has become inundated with pundits and commentators since the pandemic. The push-pull frictions surrounding hybrid work continue to dominate the headlines and a new ‘froth’ article appears on almost a weekly basis.

In parallel, several meta-trends shaping the future of work have dramatically escalated this year. The release of mainstream Generative AI will radically reshape the daily work tasks of many. The sharp increase in disastrous weather events will also, inevitably, alter life for millions.

When I first began researching the future of work in 2016, I remember reading that trends would converge to create complexity beyond comprehension. It didn’t register with me what that might mean in practice. And yet now it feels like we’re here.

Although we spend all day every day submerged in the analysis of key trends, there’s now so much going on that we need to figure out new ways of keeping on top of it all, and new ways to distinguish useful information from meaningless self-promotion.

Across the world, there are incredibly intelligent, other-focused people who want to act as a force for good as we address our most urgent environmental and societal challenges. One thing I learned from my staffing career is that much more can be achieved through group endeavour than it can in isolation.

For this reason, not only will I invest in a community of practice to help with collective problem-solving, but I’ll actively contribute to its creation. A community of practice made up of folk with an interest in and experience of distributed and asynchronous work, who can contribute towards new and progressive ways of carbon-minimalist working is what’s needed right now. Being able to access and contribute to a network of dynamic thinkers is exactly what I (and all professionals) need to get a better grip on the complexity surrounding us. We all need to tap into collective intelligence to make sense of the world and to adapt. 

And I for one am ready for it. 

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If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of integrating communities of practice into the flow of work and how we’re going about it at Working the Future, pop a note in the comments below and we’ll be in contact. 





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