On January 14, 2021, my new book, Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age, which I co-authored with DWG’s Founder and CEO, Paul Miller, was published. It’s been a surreal experience, full of excitement and nerves, as a childhood dream to write a book has now been realized.
During the research and writing of Nature of Work, I was influenced by several pieces from a range of genres. I’m a strong believer in the power of “combinatorial creativity”, where seemingly new ideas are in reality a blending and remix of a whole host of different sources that have come before, stowed away in our memories. And as I think through which authors I was already carrying with me as we worked through the creation of our book, I realize they span business works, science fiction, animal behaviourism, and so much more.
Listed in chronological order, here are seven of the works that influenced me in one way or another as we wrote Nature of Work.
1. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) – Marge Piercy
This probably seems a strange entry to open up with – a classic feminist dystopian/utopian piece of science fiction and time travel. But there was something of Piercy’s writing that both haunted and inspired me when I read it however many years ago. The book captures both the horror of a woman of colour trapped and dehumanized by institutional systems, and the wonder of a future time when the human race has found a way to live in harmony with nature and with each other following a period of climate crisis and war. Gender, class and unbalanced power relationships have melted away in the future, leading to localized communities that live in a seeming utopia.
It was the first time I’d really read a piece that balanced dystopia in the present day and utopia in the future – and the future society that Piercy had created fascinates me. It raises the question of what a more harmonious society and planet could actually look like if we pushed the boundaries of what we think is possible, while challenging us to look at how the systems we’ve allowed to evolve in the present are causing untold harm to countless people.
It’s a theme that comes through at various points in Nature of Work – the hurt the human race has caused by losing sight of both the human experience and our impact on the natural world within the context of “work”, and the potential to create a better future by healing those relationships.
2. The Living Company (1999) – Arie de Geus
My introduction to Knowledge Management (KM) happened “on the job” while working for a law firm, and I remember my eyes lighting up at the concepts of knowledge creation, knowledge sharing, social learning, and so much more. I was someone in search of a profession, having graduated with a degree in History just as the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and the blend of KM with the “Web 2.0” practices that were emerging resonated with me in a way my previous roles since graduating hadn’t.
Part of my informal education included my boss suggesting I read Arie de Geus’ The Living Company, and there was so much in that book that felt “right”. The distinction that de Geus draws between “economic companies” (driven by profit), and “living companies” (driven by survival) showcased how organizations can be “alive” as entities that can learn through their people.
It’s a book I’ve returned to many a time, and immediately came to mind as Paul and I started to explore our Nature of Work concept.
3. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science (2008) – Richard Holmes
The front cover of my father’s copy of The Age of Wonder always fascinated me: a gorgeous, opulent-looking illustration of a hot air balloon, straining against its ropes, desperate to take flight. The book is one that explores the relationship between the poetry and art of the Romantics with a wave of scientific discoveries that emerged in the 1800s in the West, such as astronomy.
We so often seem to draw a barrier between “art” and “science”, but this book showcased to me how the two were often intertwined in the minds of both scientists and artists. Discoveries about our world and universe could be blended with a poetic beauty and wonder that helped scientists make sense of what they were finding. And the Romantics likewise infused their poetry and art with the wonder and terror of what their scientific peers were uncovering.
In his storytelling of the period, Holmes shows how poetry and art don’t need to be kept separate from scientific discovery, a lesson which I hope comes through in our own writing for Nature of Work.
4. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents (2013) – Ellen Ullman
Close to the Machine is the memoir of a woman coder in the 1990s, capturing the feeling of creating digital worlds out of code at a time when the internet started to boom, and was filled with promise and excitement around the art of the possible.
I remember reading this while part of that Knowledge Management team in the law firm, seeking to create beautiful digital worlds that our colleagues could occupy to share and retain knowledge. While I’ve never been a “coder”, I do remember how it feels trying to learn the languages of technology and investigating bugs in solutions that refused to work as intended. Ullman’s work not only powerfully describes the experience of being female in a predominantly male domain, but also the sense of building new worlds out of nothing, which mesmerized me.
So much of what we do within the realm of work involves trying to create believable worlds for our colleagues or customers to inhabit, fashioning something out of nothing. This book wonderfully encapsulates that relationship between “human” and “machine”, which helps to create those worlds, while retaining the sense of human.
5. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? (2016) – Frans de Waal
I – love – this book. I’m a sucker for any book or learning or programme about the secret life of animals and nature, and I could have listed any number of books here and captured the same sense of wonder. But in this book, de Waal not only explores the many different intelligences that exist within the natural world, but combines it with the argument that humans all too often interpret nature and animals through our own narrow experience of what “intelligence” is. In so doing, we limit – and often distance – our understanding of all those creatures with which we share the planet.
We so often forget that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it, and this book helps the reader recalibrate their understanding of animal behaviour and emotion, including our own; it’s not that some animals have human traits, such as tool-making, it’s that many of our own traits exist within nature and are shared across many different species.
Works such as these not only influenced Nature of Work by suggesting how much we can learn from nature; they helped through questioning our whole relationship with nature and with each other. We have an opportunity to rethink our understanding of intelligence as one more rooted in the many different forms it takes within nature, including across the human race, encouraging greater empathy in our relationships.
6. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) – Reni Eddo-Lodge
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 triggered protests and shone a light on the Black Lives Matter movement. For many within the world of work, it caused a reckoning of practices and beliefs that have long harmed Black people as well as others from minority communities and backgrounds.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race appeared on many of the reading lists that circulated in 2020 for those looking to learn and educate themselves as a step towards working out how to change and break down both the individual and systemic levers of racism.
The experience of reading Eddo-Lodge’s book was challenging and eye-opening for me in a multitude of ways, including reconciling both the experiences of antisemitism I’ve personally encountered as someone who is of Jewish mixed ethnicity, with the reality of the many privileges I experience as someone who often passes as white.
Listening to and amplifying voices of those who experience prejudice and discrimination, and dismantling harmful working environments and then co-creating them anew to be inclusive, equitable and just, is going to be one of the critical tasks of the 2020s. During our book research, we found that the lesson from nature is that biodiversity – in all its many forms, isn’t a nice-to-have, but something that is critical for the good health of ecosystems. Organizations and work communities, as well as society as a whole, have made steps forward, but still have a long way to go, on individual, group, and systemic levels. Books such as Eddo-Lodge’s are essential tools in that journey.
7. Autonomous (2017) – Annalee Newitz
A second entry for science fiction, Autonomous depicts a future where robots, biotech, environmentalism, and much more feature. The book has a strong theme of discussing ownership and slavery, pharmaceuticals, corporate power, as well as our relationship with AI and robots.
While the plot of the story is fascinating, adventure-packed and explores a multitude of different ethical and moral dilemmas, one thing that particularly stuck with me was the delicate worldbuilding that infuses environmental technological solutions and robotics in the day-to-day.
During DW24 2019, L Vargas spoke about the importance of science fiction – as a genre to read, and as a practice – in helping us imagine futures and ask the question “What if?”. And what Nature of Work essentially does is ask “What if?” for the world of work, where Paul and I tell a story of work more infused with positive relationships with both the natural world and each other.Autonomous presents a particular vision of our future that stayed with me as captivating but dystopian. In contrast, we hope that Nature of Work leaves the reader feeling hopeful around the direction that our working lives can take, if we pull together to create a more “natural” vision of what’s possible.
‘Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age’ by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes is available to buy at www.natureofwork.com