Toward the end of his life, Albert Einstein turned his mind toward the development of an equation that would combine the fundamental forces of the universe into a single expression beyond general relativity. Einstein was not alone in believing that there was a single theory linking all of creation together. Writing over a decade after Einstein’s death, Ludwig von Bertalanffy posited the idea of a general theory of systems that considered that the underlying substance and interactions of the pieces and parts of one structure could be found in those of another. This study of the similarity of wholeness, as it came to be known, created a bridge between the philosophies of the natural sciences—such as physics and chemistry—and the social and behavioral sciences. The ability to study systems across disciplines and domains provided a new set of pathways to explore ideas and relationships between seemingly disparate topics.
The end of Einstein’s life coincided with the advent of the Third Industrial Revolution, a new age for firms and organizations in the production of goods and services driven by novel technologies, including vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, and microprocessors. In contrast to the prior two industrial revolutions, the Third Industrial Revolution saw a shift from the appreciation of the physical and tangible to a greater valuing of knowledge and the intangible. Although remarkable for many reasons—not the least of which were the introduction of personal computing and the Internet—the Information Age, as it became known, was strikingly similar to the two industrialized periods that preceded it in that, while it accelerated the production of goods and services through innovative new methods and tools, it did not move industry past dependence on human labor. Individual tasks, even subsystems, could be automated, but an entire industry could not operate autonomously.
The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, are capable of transforming work to remove human decision-making labor. For obvious reasons, such as the reduction of cost, increase in efficiency, and mitigation of risk, the marketplace seems headed in that direction. As a result, the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is changing our understanding of the very nature of work itself. Even simple terms like “work”, “role”, “task”, and “job” suggest one mental model in a certain context, such as describing an artist’s “body of work,” and something entirely different in another, for instance when we tell a friend about our tough day “at work.”
My research looks at the ways organizational leaders are challenged to redefine the building blocks of their companies, roles, tasks, jobs, and work, and what needs to happen so that organizations can sustain and grow into the future in equitable ways.