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The Unbundling of Work

by MindBridge partner Katy Tynan

In 1999, in his dorm room at Northeastern University in Boston, Shawn Fanning wrote a piece of code that changed the world. Facilitated by the steady increase of broadband Internet access, Fanning’s software allowed individuals to share their music with each other. For free.

This full frontal assault on the music industry’s revenue stream did not go unnoticed, and by 2001, Napster was crushed under the weight of multiple lawsuits. But no matter how much the record industry wanted to go back to the way things used to be, it was too late. The unbundling of music had begun.

For years, the record industry had been using a strategy of grouping a single hit together with 7–10 other songs, and selling the whole package as an album. This bundled product allowed them to charge a premium for the whole set of songs when many people only wanted to purchase one or two of the tracks. And despite the ability of the music industry to offer songs individually with the advent of digital technology, they had continued to push the album paradigm, as well as the price-point, even though digital music had none of the associated costs of production that came with traditional records and cassettes. Although they succeeded in driving Napster itself out of business, they could not avoid the subsequent demand to buy songs on an individual basis.

Unbundling as a trend has continued across a variety of industries. From music it spread quickly to software. No longer could Microsoft sell one package of applications as an office suite. Customers demanded the ability to buy just the elements they needed. And on the heels of that has come the unbundling of education. MOOCs and online certificate programs are growing at an astounding rate while traditional four year degree programs struggle to defend their value propositions and attract students.

The unbundling trend has come about largely because the digital economy has given rise to the ability to personalize the user experience in a way that was simply impossible in the brick and mortar world. We could not have unbundled music without the ability to divide and deliver every track separately without incurring a huge cost to the producers of the product itself. This same principle applies to software and education as well. And this trend has given rise to a generation of consumers who expect the ability to personalize every aspect of their lives, from music and learning to work and family life. This, in turn, has given rise to an emerging demand to unbundle the 9–5 job.

Caitlyn Marshall is a writer. A graduate of Emerson College, she spent five years working in marketing, moving from an assistant up to a content manager at a consulting firm just outside of Boston. Even before she got married and had two kids, she struggled to understand the rigidity of the full-time job.

“It seemed ridiculous to me as a creative person to have to commute into the city and sit at a desk during a set period of time in order to do the work I do. I was happy to come in for meetings and to collaborate with the team, but sometimes I write late at night when it’s quiet. Sometimes I want to take a walk or meditate to keep my focus. All of those things are so much harder when you have to go sit in an office all day.”

An annoyance during the early years of her career, it grew to a major sticking point after her daughter was born. Both Caitlyn and her husband worked full-time, and in both cases it was an all or nothing choice.

“I talked to HR about going part-time, but at that time they considered my work a full-time role only. They were nice, they wanted to help, but what they told me was that it wouldn’t be fair to give me a choice to choose my hours if everyone didn’t have the same choice.”

This is the crux of the issue. Both the Millennial generation and Gen-X have grown up with technology, and with a clear understanding that it can enable them to work in a much more flexible way. In fact, during the day-to-day processes of most professionals, a majority of their time is spent on email, phone calls, and other activities that don’t require them to be physically present in an office. And so a generation of workers questions the rationale of this routine that creates traffic jams, costs money, and ultimately creates an artificial society that often feels more like Dilbert than the engaging, collaborative community that CEOs envision.

Why haven’t we changed yet? The technology exists to support not only remote working, but much more flexible and personalized work. While flexible work has been hotly debated for a decade, the number of organizations that offer these options is surprisingly low — 20% according to a study by Stephen Sweet of the Sloan Center for Work and Aging at Boston College. Only 18% allowed workers to share jobs, down from 29% in 2008 according to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM).

This despite ample studies showing that flexibility improves engagement, retention, and productivity.

It’s not about technology, it’s about trust.

While many employers have expressed a commitment to flexible working, managers often lack the authority, training, and support to effectively personalize schedules for individuals on their teams. And without these tools, flexibility can’t be implemented throughout the organization. While time in seat is known to be a terrible metric for productivity, it’s one of the easiest to measure. So when push comes to shove, new managers and leaders who are overstretched fall back to measuring people’s commitment to their jobs by how much time they spend there, not the quality or relevance of their work.

And beyond the logistical challenges of managing flexible workers, there is unspoken inertia on the part of those who have made their way up the corporate ladder under a different set of rules. During change management exercises and organizational development processes, it’s not surprising to hear senior managers talk about the need for new hires to “pay their dues” before they are permitted to adopt a flexible schedule.

Yet despite these challenges, changing demographics and evolving technology are increasing the demand for the unbundling of work, and for a more personalized experience. A recent study by Millennial Branding showed 45% of millennials choose flexibility over pay. And flexibility does not simply mean the ability to work 40 hours in four days rather than five. Younger workers are looking for an engaging culture, meaningful work, and flexibility in terms of where, how, and what they work on. A generation of digital natives, millennials know that what they learned in school will not carry them through their careers. So the ability to learn new skills, take on new responsibilities, and create opportunities to use their talents is what the emerging workforce values. Often these goals are incompatible with rigid employer policies, and as a result millennials are flocking to startups and entrepreneurial pursuits.

A 2014 Bentley University study showed 67% of millennials want to start their own businesses versus a mere 18% who want to climb the corporate ladder.

As with the music industry, the technology is now in place to support the complete personalization and unbundling of the job, and the demand has grown. In 20 years, the 9-5 full-time job may be as much a memory as the LP.

MindBridge CEO and Partner Esin Sile Speaks at Evolution and Growth in Business Ecosytems Symposium

Dr. Esin Sile, CEO and Partner at MindBridge Partners, is a featured presenter at this week’s symposium on Evolution and Growth in Business Ecosystems. Her presentation, entitled Impact of Incubators and Accelerators: Measuring Value Created will discuss the growing trend of ecosystem based launch environments for startup companies, and the emerging metrics for evaluating impact and value these organizations provide.

More details on the symposium, and a complete list of presentations and topics can be found on the conference website.