Uncertainty and the end of business as usual

Uncertainty has become the norm. That's the end of business as usual.

In 1914, Winston Churchill declared business as usual “the maxim of the British people” in the face of the First World War. This was the era when late modernity had just started. Business as usual was a remedy for the threat of the times. And it was emblematic for the Industrial Age: business was predictable and followed a linear path, with low uncertainty. And that held true, despite of the disruptions of war.

In 1987, Black Monday heralded the end of business as usual, with the largest stock market drop in a single day so far. Jay Schmiedeskamp, back then the director of economic surveys at Gallup, commented:

This introduces uncertainty, and uncertainty is the enemy of business as usual.

Two years later, the Iron Curtain fell, and late modernity ended. But uncertainty remained, and today it’s just a basic condition of the world we live in. Business as usual has turned from friend to foe. In 2016, Martin Zwilling wrote:

In this era of accelerating change, business-as-usual is the enemy of every business, new and old.

When uncertainty is the norm, it spells the end of business as usual. The late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterised this world, in contrast to post-modernity (a concept he rejected), as liquid modernity, where

change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ — now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.

Hence, work has turned from business as usual to temporary projects; from repetitive industrial labor to ever-changing assignments. Uncertainty is built-in. Bauman describes liquid modernity as software-based, and that is both an apt metaphor and an accurate description.

The business world is now software-driven

Not only is software eating the world, it is also the tool of choice for our liquid modern societies. Since software can be adapted and changed fast, it responds to uncertainty while creating more of it. Much of the business world is now software-driven and itself drives software.

To a large extent, software and machines now carry out what once was business as usual. This way, it vanished from our sight. Work has changed tremendously. It now means dealing with uncertainty. What once was the responsibility of management is now spread over the whole company, and beyond.

Everyone needs to deal with uncertainty. We now get paid for it. Management in its classical, industrial shape is obsolete. We need to answer questions wherever they occur, instead of delegating answers to a hierarchy of decision makers. This simply takes too much time. We must make decisions in real-time. Every employee is now a decision maker.

Thus, we counterbalance uncertainty with ad-hoc, temporary, volatile and fugitive certainty that changes as fast as we need it to change. Keeping this balance is now our business as unusual. We are creating uncertainty, and we are dealing with it.

Everything turns into services

This can only work within and through systems, with and through communication. These systems are constantly reproducing themselves, and they are constantly changing. Change and reproduction depend on each other: no reproduction without change, no change without reproduction.

Systems reproduce and change themselves through communication, the basic process of social systems. Communication is always selective, as a synthesis of information, message and understanding. To deal with uncertainty, selection is key.

Selection reduces uncertainty through the reduction of complexity, at the price of introducing new uncertainty. A selection is uncertain since it may fail to reach this synthesis. Communication is inherently risky. But risk is uncertainty we can measure and thus manage.

Software and uncertainty in combination turn everything into service(s), including products and work itself. Software and machines take over whatever can be automated and thus made a service. Hence, they reduce uncertainty to risk. What can’t yet be automated is the uncertain part: imagination, creativity, care, social and emotional intelligence, to name a few.

Services are predictable for their users, since uncertainty is absorbed by the service provider. Work turning into a service means the same for the workers: they have to absorb uncertainty, in their daily work as well as with regard to their role, career, status and income.

That’s the end of business as usual.

Photo by Evelyn Mostrom on Unsplash