Woman gazing at the ceiling

‘The more we think, the better we get at it’: John Hawkins, on gazing into space

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Our day jobs have changed to the point that today routine tasks are being done by computers, while the thinking – or ‘invisible work’ – is reserved for humans. Author John Howkins explains why this can create big problems.

It was Alfred Nobel who said, “If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied”. While we can agree that it all worked out fine for the Swedish engineer – his name immortalised in his eponymous prize – a statistician might say that by Nobel’s own admission he seemed to be content with not putting 99.9 per cent of his time to proper use. Welcome to the world of ‘invisible work’, the theme and title of John Howkins’ latest, which examines what we’re doing with all that ‘downtime’ and its implications for today’s workplace.

Howkins, who is in his 70s, has the benefit of having a long career during which to consider the question. He’s been chair of the London Film School, chief adviser to HBO and Time Warner on technology issues such as satellite, video recording and multi-channel cable TV, and his work – as well as his earlier book ‘The Creative Economy’ – has helped shape business and government policy in Europe, China and South America. During this span, he’s spent a lot of time gazing into space assessing the value of gazing into space.

This is with specific reference to people who are creative or innovative – “the two are different, but I don’t make much of a distinction in my book” – to see what it is that “makes them work”. His findings are the basis of ‘Invisible Work’, which, put simply, says that the old models no longer apply, the revelations that drive innovation can strike at any time, and the people sitting next to you, ostensibly doing nothing, are probably working. It’s just you can’t see it. How we manage this, and our attitudes towards it, will play a role in the future of work: a set of circumstances that Howkins believes to be in a more advanced state of flux than it has ever been. This is, in part, because the benefits of the digital revolution – such as communications, artificial intelligence and the assumption of repetitive donkey work – have left us with more time to think: “The more we think, the better we get at it.” Although he doesn’t like the term, Howkins is now seen as a free-ranging ‘expert’ in what innovation is and “how that translates into the workplace”.

In the more recent phases of his career, Howkins has become involved in numerous tech start-ups in London, a set of experiences that means he has first-hand knowledge of the new work paradigm to accompany his hypothesis. What this means is that he has become convinced that work, rather than being about what goes on in the modern workplace, is “about what goes on in people’s minds”. He is careful to draw the distinction between the more abstract concept of work and the more concrete notion of what we call a ‘job’.

“I emphasise this because the ‘job’ is the means to do the work we want to do. In my book I look at what work is, why we do it and how we manage, measure and reward it.” During the course of ‘Invisible Work’, his analysis moves on to how this type of attitude to work “co-operates with the invisible work that goes on inside electronic devices”. In other words, from clocking-in and output statistics, we’ve evolved into something more nuanced, in that neither what goes on in our heads nor the electronics we are using can be seen by others. One of the results of this absence of tangible evidence or objective data is that we are exposed to the accusation that we are doing nothing and wasting our employer’s money and goodwill.

A generation ago, says Howkins, the model was that only a small fraction of employees were ‘trusted’ with the freedom to spend time thinking. “No-one really knows what the design engineers do all day,” was the cry of those handing in monthly reports that needed to demonstrate efficiency or target-hitting. “But now, it is assumed that perhaps half of the people in work do things this way.”


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‘Invisible Work’

The world of work is changed, is changing and is going to change more. A generation ago, we all knew what was expected of us in terms of what we did and when we did it. What’s more, it was visible: everyone knew what we were doing and what we were expected to do.

Today, says John Howkins in his new book ‘Invisible Work’, the old models no longer apply. Success, particularly in the engineering space, depends on the attitudes and behaviours of small, fast teams. It depends on what’s going on in our heads: those critical moments in our work lives that define our careers are now invisible.

Supported by the digital comms network, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the old job descriptions and nine-to-five expectations are becoming a thing of the past and the power has shifted from the boardroom to the individual. Intriguing stuff.


At this point Howkins observes an important correlation between those who have been through the university system and invisible work. He goes on to say that the value of tertiary education is not so much how it prepares us with knowledge of a discipline that might prove a useful leverage tool in the job market, but more that this is the opportunity for undergraduates to familiarise themselves with key concepts of invisible work, such as face-to-face network development, self-starting time management and blue skies thinking.

“So, university is a good preparation for the work that goes on inside our minds – you can call it the imagination or inspiration, or calculations that are very private to us. Nobody can observe this. You can look at me and have no idea if I’m working at all, let alone what I’m working at or, indeed, whether it is going well or badly. Perhaps if I’m kicking the furniture around, that might give you a clue. But, if I’m simply staring into space, then you will have no idea of what I am doing and, if I am typing away at a device, neither will you have any idea who I’m working with, or on what project. Or, if I’m making progress or stuck.”

What’s so important about this scenario is that it bears all the characteristics of the sort of work that “adds most to the value chain in terms of innovation, and that leads to an organisation doing something better than they did it before. It also is the type of internal thought process work that tends to give individuals the highest levels of satisfaction in their job.”

Furthermore, says Howkins, digital literacy has helped us to become better and more confident at it. The problem is that if you can’t communicate what you are doing, get stuck or are simply writing your next novel in your head, “this can lead to alienation between the individual and the organisation”.

Invisible work is a fact of life, says Howkins, and the only way for it to operate seamlessly is for the individual to assume the responsibility that goes with it, and for the employee to provide the context for it to flourish.

‘Invisible Work’ by John Howkins is published by September Publishing, £18.99


AI: What’s in a name?

Artificial intelligence is half misnamed. ‘Artificial’ clearly means something that is man-made and not natural, like the tools in a toolbox and fake fur. But so far humans have failed to agree on a satisfactory definition of intelligence, whether of the human or machine kind. Maybe an AI will have more success. DeepMind’s co-founder Demis Hassabis says the company’s aim is to ‘solve intelligence’. But perhaps intelligence is not what is at stake.

The name was chosen by 25-year-old John McCarthy at Dartmouth College who wanted to organise a summer-long project in 1956 on what he called ‘thinking machines’ or automata. But he was worried that no-one would come for that so, picking up on Americans’ growing fascination with IQ tests, he decided to call it ‘artificial intelligence’. People came and the name stuck (the power of framing and naming).

The one clear lesson that AI has taught us is that our basic ideas about human intelligence are plain wrong. Even simple AIs can pass a standard IQ test with flying colours. Top AIs are off the scale. Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher and expert on AI who is now an Oxford professor and the founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute. He once asked: ‘Suppose we could somehow establish that a certain future AI will have an IQ of 6,455. Then what?’ It is a typical Bostrom question in being both weirdly specific and profoundly unanswerable. But it sticks in the mind. What then, indeed?

Meanwhile, AIs beat humans easily at those games that civilisations have used for centuries as prime examples of high-level intelligence and the ultimate display of human rationality and artistry: chess and Go. It is precisely these games that AIs find easiest to play.

Edited extract from ‘Invisible Work’ by John Howkins, reproduced with permission.

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