The role of narratives in a digitalizing world

The future is here, it is just not evently distributed yet.  William Gibson


If we had a time machine and travelled 20 years into the future: what would we see when looking at organizations and observing the employees working there?

Well, we of course don’t know exactly, but quite surely, we would see much more digitalization in organizations than nowadays: The picture painted of the working-world of tomorrow is efficient, ergonomic, independent of time- and local restraints, process-optimized. It shows us human beings interwoven with assistance systems, in concentrated dialogue with mobile devices, clamped into robot arms, connected with thousands of analytic instruments and data clouds – and it shows us immediately available, regardless of time and local position.

“Leisure” with the connotation of being offline and of being unconnected probably is a phenomenon, that won’t outlast the next decades. Working-time and not-working-time will merge and diffuse.

The working world of tomorrow will be formed by technological possibilities instead of organizational or even human needs. Technology is the major force for change, organizations and their employees will have to follow and to deal with whatever technology makes possible.

Why I am so sure about that? Well, it is so much easier, to try out, what algorithms and programming can make possible, to go ahead and be playful and innovative – it is on the other side much more complicated to define some restraints for the “freedom of innovation and technology”: who is able to define ethical, ecological or economical values and strategies, and who should be able to regulate the digital transformation in a globalized world?

Therefore, we can be quite sure: thorough digitalization of our whole working and private life will be reality in a few years to come.

Implications for Organizations

Digital transformation will create new formats of working such as working independent of time- and local restraints, and virtual collaboration within fast changing teams across different organizations. This will have a severe impact on the individuals: digital transformation with its new working formats will go along with a loss of employees’ engagement to their organizations, with an increasing de-personalization and individualization among the employees. It will go along with a massive pressure on all professionals, that are expected to work everywhere and anytime….

Digital transformation also affects the HR processes of course – from “hire to retire” probably will not be the classic journey anymore. “Normal” working biographies with the idea of stability at the workplace will be replaced by dynamic biographies, that are dominated by the idea of a mobile teleworker. We will have narratives of the knowledge worker that operates in the gig economy and moves from one assignment to the other. Leaving the stable systems into mobility and teleworking, also will affect the idea of leadership and hierarchical structures.

That also means that the individual work biography becomes individualized and projectized: in line with post-modern thinking, the pressure is on the individual to define their own life-narrative. With the blurring boundaries between work and life, and the continuous opening of organizations the "organizational" and "professional" identity becomes less and less a fixed reference point.

So what? Some considerations on the role of narratives for the future of work

First of all, organizations need to be aware of the narratives they use to frame the individuals work with the organization! For organizations, the question of engagement and identification becomes central: what do we have to add to the individual story? How can we add a meaningful reference for the individual life project? There is a strong need for new sense making in organizations, a need for engaging the employees emotionally, to build up relationships that will outlast the digital transformation.

New questions for new narrations are needed, and non-hierarchical ways of finding, crafting and sharing them among the members of organizations. Why do we work in this organization, what is the underlying deeper sense of our work, of our organization? How do we find common meaning and sense as a group? Why do we share what kind of values?

All those questions create new narrations, that must be shared and crafted throughout the organization to create a co-creative working space, a meaningful together in an otherwise partitioned working world.

These new narratives need to be developed on a societal level and on an organizational level. For society, it is about an openness and flexibility for different "narratives frames" that individuals can life into. For organizations, the question is what they have to offer in terms of narrative material for sense making and identification with the organization. In a positive scenario, the ability of organizations to offer a purpose-driven narrative enables the attraction and engagement of the employees they need.

Digitalization of our world will therefore need new narratives to give orientation, meaningfulness and the feeling of belonging to an organization, and, on a broader scale, a society with certain values and norms.