3 minutes on my PhD / by Tim Mahlberg

One of many professional identities I perform, is that of PhD candidate here at the University of Sydney Business School, in the discipline of Business Information Systems.

The curiosity that I brought with me to the university is one of possibility in our work and workplaces, and a couple of questions I've been pondering over for quite a while

Do you also ever imagine that your work could be more than just the job?

How about, have you ever worked for a boss that just saw you as a series of ticks on a job description? I definitely have.

Our jobs and work are such an important part of who we are. We spend so much time at work, travelling to work, studying for work. It is a central part of the human experience, and it matters to us

However, research reveals that 87% of employees are either ‘not engaged’ or are ‘actively disengaged’ in their work. 77% of people take a job that doesn’t align with their interests, ambitions or long term goals. These statistics are frightening.

Wouldn’t it be great if work could be a place that engages the parts of ourselves that really lights us up?

The problem I feel is that most jobs just aren’t big enough for people. (A favourite quote of mine by Studs Terkel from the book "Working" in 1947). 

However, change is in the air, and work is transforming in a large part through technology. Social media has created new spaces for us to work, build new identities through interactions with our colleagues, and start new conversations.

Perhaps for some, this leads to new forms of knowledge work, introducing organisations to topics and innovations that have the potential to transform, to disrupt, to transcend BAU, and take the institution into new exciting directions.

Perhaps these professional identities being built online at work, are quite different to the one that those individuals are employed to be?

My research proposes to call this online identity formed in digital workspaces, performing work alongside and in addition to formal work roles, an alter-identity. Think of it as a digital superhero; who we wish we could be at work, doing the work that really matters to us. 

Sometimes this might be supported by our forward thinking bosses, or frowned upon as frivolous by colleagues, or perhaps completely hidden from view

How I’m doing it

Through my observations in professional services, I’ve seen people building these online identities along side their formal work roles.

Take for example Heather, a senior partner in risk and audit driving design thinking in her firm through Yammer, and Linked in

Or Michael, an IT systems architect sharing his passion for robotics, and machine learning, through a range of digital forums.

Or Penny a Client Manager in Tax Advisory dreaming of a cyborg future with her 20,000 followers on Twitter.

But as you could imagine, it isn’t as simple as this. Workplaces don’t usually just “let” you be who ever you want to be.

There are KPIs to reach, contracts to win, profits to be made. These digital superheros have day jobs too.

And sometimes things go sour.

How it relates to the real world

I imagine a workplace where people are invited to bring all of themselves.

Where managers recognise that helping their employees to work with their passions is good for business

I aim to reveal insights of an innovation of work through social media, and how embracing digital superheros will lead to new benefits for organisations.

I’m excited by what my research could mean to this new age of digital disruption in our workplaces, and for the future of work where technology no doubt plays a huge part.

And perhaps we will find that the true purpose of technology, is to help us to realise ours.