The Opportunities and Challenges of Networked Workers; Utopia or Dystopia

ILD 831, Week Five: The Opportunities and Challenges of Networked Workers; Utopia or Dystopia

Networked workers bring both opportunities and challenges to the world of work.  A recent survey of leading robotics and artificial intelligence experts (Smith & Anderson, 2014) elicited some widely variated opinions about the future of jobs.  So varied, in fact, the reader was left to wonder if the networked worker was leading our future work world toward utopia or dystopia.

In the networked environment, there are several efficiencies to be realized through the inter-connectivity of employees and processes.  The automation of repetitive tasks, thus, eliminating the attendant drudgery and employee dissatisfaction, is but one of the benefits.  Other authors (Jarche, 2013), have identified additional benefits in networked environments such as shared responsibility for organizational success, accelerated learning, creatively responding to challenges, initiative, and collaborations.  The global connectivity of networks is a pathway for a greater diversity in ideas and problem-solving.  The network also allows for the analysis of large and complex data sets that otherwise could not be understood.

The challenges associated with networked workers are also several.  Many fear that technology will displace many blue-collar and other workers.  Worsening the impact of displacement is the realization that the present educational systems seemingly are neither preparing workers for the technological future nor providing the appropriate retraining and retooling of workers who are displaced.  (Smith, 2014).  Management and the traditional, hierarchical, organizational structures might also find the networked worker to be challenging.  This new environment, for example, lends itself to distributed leadership models and to the application of innovations and solutions by employees, without consultation with or the permission of sanctioned leadership.  In such environments, the role, vision, foresight, and experience of managers and leaders can be diminished.  Actions and innovations may produce positive results or they may only seem appropriate without a full appreciation of a larger context provided by traditional leaders.  Fresh eyes on the problem can initiate a solution or further muddy the issue.   In these ways, and in others, it can be hard for organizations to control worker activities or hold workers accountable for their use of time and online activities.  Traditional leadership will continue to be under pressure since the pace of change in the current technological environment means organizational success will require adaption at a pace faster than traditional leadership can accomplish.  Nevertheless, leaders will have an opportunity to employ distributed, resilient leadership models in this environment (Weinberger, 2011).

Freely available internet access to workers certainly has both pros and cons.  The network has the ability to scale-up conversations and problem solving very quickly with real time support or disagreement.  This rapid dissemination of information can have very positive results.  The extent of the information available to workers, however, can be problematic since the internet avoids filters.  As Weinberger noted in chapter seven of Too Big to Know, the great mass of information is not curated and presented without context.  Knowledge is prospering, he noted, but ignorance  is also prospering in this networked environment (Weinberger, 2011).  Technological literacy varies greatly between individuals.  Some workers may take advantage of technology to identify work opportunities, apply, and promote themselves to potential employers.  Other workers may be penalized by their lack of technological literacy or access to technology.  Concerns exist that such differences may ultimately lead to a worsening of income inequality.  Prospective employers, however, can easily identify positive and negative information about prospective employees through social media and other resources (Smith, 2015).  Many employees wonder if technology, as it has in the past, will ultimately create more jobs than it eliminates.  Seemingly, opinions depend upon personal views of the networked worker and whether those views trend toward a utopic or dystopic perspective.


Jarche, H. (2013, November 5). Networks are the new companies. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2015, November 19). Searching for work in the digital era.  Retrieved from

Smith, A. & Anderson, J. (2014, August 6). AI, robotics, and the future of jobs.  Retrieved


Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t

the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room.

[Books 24×7 version] Available from



Randy Roberts


8 thoughts on “The Opportunities and Challenges of Networked Workers; Utopia or Dystopia

  1. Hi Randy,

    Thanks for the interesting and informative blog.

    In your blog, you discuss the technological automation of repetitive tasks. This obviously has the potential of displacing especially blue collar workers who run repetitive type machines. Do you have any thoughts on how this situation can be dealt with? Perhaps these workers are bored and putting them on less repetitive tasks would seem advantageous if there are such jobs available at their organizations. In addition, since education as you also mention, does not seem prepared to handle retraining of these types of workers, what do you see as the repercussions of this situation on the part of educators and leaders?

    As far as employees making decisions without their leaders’ sanctions, to me this seems to be an ongoing issue with or without technology. I guess the old saying of “asking for forgiveness later” still applies. The question is how do leaders connect network workers with the overall picture of success for their organizations (e.g. vision, strategies, etc.)?

    Finally, as you indicated, how do we prepare leaders to employ distributed and resilient leadership models? In your opinion, what type of tools and training for leaders would this require?

    Best regards,


    1. Hello Lisa:
      Thank you for your challenging questions. Job displacement is not a new phenomenon. We have dealt with this many times throughout history. Always we found it challenging; for example as we moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized society, and now as we move from an industrialized society through a technological revolution. I see retraining and reeducating as critical. I sense that the educational system is largely caught by its current culture. It is shortsighted now to not be transforming (new delivery models, new pedagogy, programs designed for new student demographics, etc.) higher education and it is shortsighted of federal and state governments to be diminishing their support of education in my opinion. I sense that educators and governmental leaders are in precarious positions.
      Leaders, I feel, have an obligation to communicate the mission and vision of their organizations to their workers, but also, they have an obligation to help prepare workers for innovations, changes, retraining, etc. I am constantly redefining the positions of my staff in our academic library. Much of their traditional work no longer exists. By preparing them to move into new roles it allows us the resources to innovate and to develop new and better services as needed. What I find challenging is the difference between what information I am exposed to as a campus leader and what information my staff is exposed to in the course of their days. And some of the information I encounter is purposefully not to be shared with everyone.
      What do leaders need going forward? I think about that often. I sense we need to become or learn to be excellent facilitators of innovation, conversation, and change.

      Randy Roberts


  2. I’m glad you brought up the elimination of drudgery as one of the benefits of a networked workforce: with greater automation these jobs are fast becoming things of the past. Many are arguing that the elimination of low-skilled jobs will lead to mass unemployment. What are your thoughts on this theory?


    1. Professor Robinson:
      Minimally, I feel there will be significant work force adjustments to be made. I noted in one of my replies to another post that I have not found a list of the new jobs that people anticipate will be created. I can imagine there will be programmers, app developers, instructional designers, and similar positions created. Beyond that, I have not found a significant list of new positions. And beyond that, I am more concerned that organizations are not well poised to retrain and transfer employees to new positions and education is not well prepared to address the issues of retraining a significant displaced work force. I am not sure the service industry can absorb the number of displaced workers that might be created. The current political climate only disturbs my thinking about this. I feel that many people in the U.S. believe if we can return to how we were from 1945 to 1975 everything will be alright. For me, technological advances make this return to the past a chimera. (Random House, “a creation of the imagination; an impossible and foolish fancy.” Thank you for the question. As someone much more connected to the future of technology than me, what are your thoughts about future workforce displacement?

      Randy Roberts


  3. Randy,
    I enjoyed reading your post this week. I am wondering what you think about your future work? Is it a utopia or a dystopia? My work in healthcare is very specialized to where most of my tasks cannot be automated as they require working with people and responding to his or her needs for training. I think it would be interesting in my work, if there were to ever be automation of my tasks just to then see how that would impact the work I do.


  4. Hello Keshia:
    I sense that academic libraries will become, or will need to become, very different places in the near future. Much of what we do will continue to require the human element. Some of our work processes can be automated, but mostly we have already changed by applying technology as a tool to expand or expedite services and products, rather than automating. Web-scale discovery services, digitized resources that libraries create, open source, databases that aggregate many resources, etc., are all examples of change. The user experience is increasingly paramount for us — whether the user is in the physical library or whether they are interacting with our resources and services remotely through the network. For many librarians who are well advanced in their careers, they see this as a dystopia. And so do some of our users who lament the demise of the library experiences of the past. For other librarians, many who are in positions that did not exist a decade or a generation ago, it is closer to a utopia. Thanks for your great question.
    Randy Roberts


  5. Randy,

    I enjoyed reading your post this week. I agree with the statement of (Weinberger, 2011) that knowledge is prospering but ignorance is prospering in our networked environment. You are absolutely spot on with your assertion that technological literacy varies greatly between individuals. Recently my husband shared an article with me about my organization. The article was disturbing and did not resonate with me. After reading the article I asked my husband which website the articled was retrieved. He responded that the article was shared with him on Facebook. I did a quick search on a few news website and did not find the article. If the article was real, based on the content of the article, the article would be published on a major news website. I shared with my husband a recent article with Tim Cook’s calling on technology companies nationwide to create tools that help diminish the volume of fake news. The fake news article mentioned that there are scattered efforts in some schools to teach media literacy, with a focus on digital skills, but it is by no means universal. The web is information overload. As leaders, we must be able to detect realistic information from phony information.



  6. Hello Randy,

    Pardon the tardy comment but I have been out for the last week with a health issue. Thanks for highlighting distributed leadership in your post. To me, the most important role of a senior manager and leader of an organization is not so much decision making but implementing plans and change effectively and efficiently by taking into account the human resources element. As we boil down any interaction between people, it is the dynamics of the relationship that is usually at the foundation of how decisions are made, support given (or withdrawn), and power distributed. In my opinion, a smart leader will use these dynamics to support employees, especially networked employees based on their abilities and attributes of the organization’s staff members. As Weinberger shared (2011), the key to good distributed leadership is combining the right balance of guidance with trust in team members to accomplish the mission whether the leader is present or absent. Ben Hammer


    Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.


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