The digital hunter-gatherer

Ade McCormackPeople often comment on how much the world has changed in the last ten, or 50, or 100 years. But at the recent IP Expo, Ade McCormack, who describes himself as a digital anthroeconomist, argued that instead, we should look at the whole of humanity’s evolutionary journey. He suggested that by seeking this perspective, we can understand a lot more about our nature, and effectively, make nature our business partner.

A look at history

Looking back to when humans were hunter-gatherers, you can get an insight into ways of working. They were highly social, because lack of communication could mean death. Work and life were highly integrated, because you carried on hunting until you’d caught your food. People were highly mobile. They made decisions in real time, and in a creative way, because their lives depended on that. Even when the agricultural economy developed, humans were still highly social and mobile, and work and life were very closely integrated. You still couldn’t just switch off at 5pm, because animals don’t work like that.

The big change was the arrival of the industrial economy. People became a ‘labour force’. They were paid to turn up at a certain time, and leave at another, and not by outcomes. There was no mobility, you just had to turn up at the factory gates. Nor was there any sociability: talking was punished. This led to a split between work and life, and the idea of a work-life balance. This is the model that we’ve been operating for about 200 years.

But the digital economy has changed everything. It has allowed people to be mobile, creative, social creatures, making decisions in real time. Effectively, McCormack suggested, it has meant a return to true human nature.

Current trends in work

McCormack pointed to a number of trends that are changing the way that businesses operate. These include:

  • Businesses are trying to drive down costs, and become more agile.
  • At the same time, there has been a rise in collaborative consumption, which allows us to get more value from the things that we own and don’t currently use.
  • The concept of reverse innovation has emerged in developing economies, where entrepreneurs work out how to create a business model that is profitable in a poor economy, usually because it’s highly efficient. This has meant more competition for industries in developed countries.
  • The boundaries of organisations have started to blur through the rise of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding. These practices mean that companies may not even employ the people that they value most.
  • Asymmetric business models mean that businesses give away services for free, in order to attract future business, or other customers.
  • Many companies have embarked on a ‘race to the bottom’, automating processes to reduce costs. Some are operating at a near-zero margin, and are struggling to find ways to make money.

Companies have had to find new sources of competitive advantage apart from low costs, the main one of which is people. Processes can be done by computers, but only people can be creative.

The future of the worker

This return to creativity at work is almost like a return to the world of artisans and craftspeople, but with technology. McCormack describes these ‘new creatives’ as ‘digital hunter-gatherers’. They have options from a career perspective. Because they’re the best at what they do, they can choose when and where they work. They’re working because they want to, not to fund a lifestyle. And they don’t necessarily play by the rules.

There aren’t enough of these people and their talent to go around, so the balance of power is shifting from employer to employee. At the same time, the old rules about management and leadership are also becoming non-functional. After all, if you’re the best at what you do, you’re highly motivated. You don’t need a manager checking up on you. Stick and carrot simply doesn’t work for these hunter-gatherers, any more than it did on the plains of Africa.

A return to basics

Instead, McCormack suggests, they are driven by the need to master what they do, and to make an impact on the world. They seek meaningful work, and to leave a legacy, and don’t base their decisions purely on economics. Like our ancestors, they are highly social, mobile and creative. They use tools to achieve their ends, although the tools are now technology, rather than sharpened sticks.

McCormack’s ideas make a lot of sense. This anthropological approach certainly goes a long way to explaining the otherwise inexplicably fast shift from industrial to digital world. It also gives a perspective on motivation and ways of working that could be invaluable to those running organisations.

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