Perpetual Beta is the new reality

Harold Jarche

March 1, 2013


When I discuss life in perpetual Beta, it is often from the perspective of the individual. My interest in personal knowledge management (PKM) started with my own need to stay up to date in my field. It has since become a core part of my professional services. Sometimes it seems it’s the workers who are always spinning around, trying to find or keep work, while organizations move at a glacial pace, or even seemingly backwards.

A recent article in Businessweek shows that companies are facing life in perpetual Beta as well.

A study by economists Diego Comin and Thomas Philippon showed that in 1980 a U.S. company in the top fifth of its industry had only a 10 percent risk of falling out of that tier in five years; two decades later, that likelihood had risen to 25 percent. In finance, banks are losing power and influence to nimbler hedge funds: In the second half of 2010, in the midst of a sharp economic downturn, the top 10 hedge funds—most of them unknown to the general public—earned more than the world’s six largest banks combined. Multinationals are also more likely to suffer brand disasters that clobber their reputations, revenues, and valuations, as companies from BP (BP) to Nike (NKE) to News Corp. (NWS) can all attest. One study found that the five-year risk of such a disaster for companies owning the most prestigious global brands has risen in the past two decades from 20 percent to 82 percent.

Disaster may be just around the corner, it seems.

PKM, through seeking, sensing & sharing, can help networked individuals deal with the complexity of the network age. We’re finding that this is not a nice-to-have, optional set of skills but core to business survival. BP, Nike & News Corp. could have handled things better if people were actively and openly sharing their knowledge.

Soft skills, like collaboration and cooperation, are now more important than traditional hard skills. While cooperation is not the same as collaboration, they are complementary. Collaboration requires a common goal, while cooperation is sharing without any specific objectives. Teams, groups and companies traditionally collaborate. Online social networks and communities of practice cooperate. Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being cooperative means being open to others outside your group. It also requires the casting-off of business metaphors based on military models (target markets, chain of command, strategic plans, line & staff).

Cooperation, sharing with no direct benefit, is needed at work so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by increased complexity. Collaborating on specific tasks is not enough. We have to be prepared for perpetual Beta. What worked yesterday may not work today. No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results.

Work in networks requires different skills than in directed hierarchies. Cooperation is a foundational behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us will be working. Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate so that people in the network cannot be told what to do, only influenced. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

As we transition from a market to a network economy, complexity will increase due to our hyper-connectedness. Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is life in perpetual Beta. Get used to it. Preparing for this will require time, social learning, and management support.