The industrial age and the fusion age

 

In the upcoming Everyone Innovates Here book, I found myself grappling with what to call the emerging economic/cultural/technical era that most of us feel that we are entering. I decided that the term that worked the best for me was the Fusion Age, but I only briefly unpack that in the book -- I needed to lay it out enough to make the case, but not end up down a futurism rabbit hole.  We are still squinting through the mist at this point, and I’m sure the name that the historians use won’t settle in place for a couple of decades yet.

 

But I think it’s important for all of us to be thinking hard about what seems to be coming and how that is already beginning to change how we work and communicate, and even think.  As I do spend some time on in the book, a variety of pressures are pushing us to make that transition faster than we probably would if left to our own devices.

 

Chances are you have already encountered, read about or at least sensed some of these evolutions. So here’s a Cliff Notes version of the transitions as they seem to be unfolding:

 

  • Labor-> Problem solving.  The Industrial Era depended on a plentiful supply of labor who could be trained, coerced and structured to deliver products efficiently (hence, the assembly line).  Fusion Era challenges appear to lend themselves less to the application of routine, infinitely repeatable processes, but they depend on the ability to generate creative solutions to problems.  Businesses increasing prize problem-solving and teamwork over most other skills, even though systems ranging from education to human resource management still often resemble Industrial Era counterparts.

 

  • Supply chains -> Networks.  Industrial-Era businesses typically relied on a daisy chain of suppliers -- and when possible, they directly controlled the entire chain - for example, U.S. Steel’s control over everything from the Minnesota ore fields to the ships to the steel mills.  By contrast, even our early Fusion Era businesses are counseled to focus only on their “core” business -- they rely on an extensive network of vendors, and may not even own their own office buildings.

 

  • Protocols -> Adaptive systems.  Industrial-Era businesses and organizations tended to rely on codified processes -- manuals, procedures, regulations.  Fusion Era organizations appear increasingly likely to rely on adaptive and evolving processes, such as the Holacracy method adopted by companies like Zappos that are trying to keep a competitive innovation edge in a field experiencing rapid evolution.

 

  • Defenders -> Belayers.  Much has been written about what “modern” leadership should look like, and those writings bear little resemblance to the Organization Man of the 1960s.  One way of thinking about this transition: traditional leadership derived much of its command-and-control approach from a responsibility to defend the organization from challenges, whether from outside or internal, that threatened or challenged the organization’s structure, culture, norms, etc.  Contemporary leadership approaches are focusing more and more on enabling and empowering employees -- like a belayer on a climbing team, whose job is to make certain that the climber can reach the pinnacle.

 

  • Buckets -> Currents.  Industrial-Era processes tend to group things, separate things, classify things.  Again, the traditional assembly line gives us our best mental image of that -- men in the town where I grew up spent years executing the same step in the manufacturing process, like installing a fender or cutting hot steel into specified lengths,  over and over again. Manufacturing made an early shift to the Fusion Era on this front, with team-based methods and systematized quality control becoming the norm from auto manufacturing to paper mills by the 1990s. Now most manufacturing processes have a team that follows the product through much, if not all, of the production system together.  

 

  • Sole source -> Aggregator/Curator.  In the Industrial era, most of your information came from a limited number of sources: one or two newspapers, three TV channels, perhaps a couple of magazines or the occasional club meeting presentation.  We are acutely aware at this moment as to how that has changed, as formal and informal sources across the spectrum have exploded. One of the most profound long-term implications of this appears to be the rise of the curator/aggregator function -- the vetting, packaging and presentation of sources.  On the surface, this can look like a return to the older form, but the role is significantly different, as the curator depends on its reputation for selecting correctly and does not directly control the editorial. The proliferation of professional conferences, sometimes targeting very narrow verticals, appears to speak to this emerging Fusion Age role.  

 

  • Efficient -> Resilient.  The Industrial Age, perhaps more than anything else, prized efficiency. The entire purpose of the assembly line, the paper mill, the mega-farm, the state education system, was to gain efficiencies, both in terms of speed and in terms of consistency and predictability.  But as writers such as Nassim Taleb have demonstrated, efficiency comes at a cost: the more efficient a system is, the more fragile it is. A system that is designed to optimize efficiency depends on a complex chain of elements designed to fit precisely….but if one piece fails, there is no backup.  And in a world of high unpredictability, resiliency arguably matters more than optimal efficiency.

 

I will unpack the ramifications of some of these shifts in upcoming posts.  But these shifts drive Econogy’s mission: we understand that we need new ways of working, learning and collaborating to thrive in the Fusion Era, and that is true of experienced professionals and students alike.  The sooner we learn to Create Fusion in our work and our communities, the sooner we will overcome the most stubborn of our current challenges.