Technology, work and management
Nearly everyone has been affected by the technology, which has both positive and negative effects. Vastly improved communication systems mean we no longer meet face to face as much. Stephen Walker looks at the impact of computing power and online communication on work.
Better communication is leading us to being more isolated. That isolation brings management problems. Technology serves up massive amounts of data but we don’t necessarily have the wisdom to use it. How do we recognise, value and pay for the wisdom when the knowledge is available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection? And what is next? A move from virtual reality to augmented reality?
Few could argue, apart from the Amish and perhaps some undiscovered remote tribes, technology affects every aspect of our lives. In reality everyone, with no exceptions, is affected by technology. Wooden spears, the horse and buggy are both examples of technology. When we talk of technology nowadays we mean new technology, and at this point in the 21st century we mean the iRevolution: The widespread use of computing power and networking technologies.
When I was at school I had a weekend job as computer operator for a horse racing betting business. The computer sat in an air conditioned room occupying half that particular floor. It was an ICL 64 bit machine with several of those big tape units and two line printers that ejected paper horizontally. Today I’m composing this on a 64 bit machine connected to four terabytes of storage that cost less than £2000. That’s the real impact of technology, the cost reduction and the enabling of new possibilities. Let’s take a look at some of the key areas touched by technology in our working lives.
When we moved to Suffolk in the 70s and tried to phone London, we would often get the recorded message 'lines from Colchester are engaged, please try later'. Then they installed the STD system and computer-based routing of data packets and multiplied the capacity, and the quality, of those copper wires many fold. Now in Suffolk we complain we don’t have high speed broadband so we can stream the latest computer generated cartoon movie to our networked TV.
That ramp up in communication technology means, over my broadband fibre connection, I can have video conferences from right here for zero additional cost. I have access to a virtual training room that will seat 250 people so I can present to them, without any of us having to leave our offices. This technology would seem like magic to my grandparents.
Now everything is moving to the Cloud and my £2000 IT investment is probably ten times more than it needs to be by next year. Cost reduction together with capability explosion is driving rapid innovation. Does this mean that more of us work in cubicles isolated from human beings, communicating to virtual colleagues represented by Gravatars?
Couple that isolation with the increased span of control technology enables and we can be even more cut off.
Sitting in a cubicle designing a wind turbine is an intellectual exercise. There is no physical element of the job and there is a danger that virtual reality displaces actual reality. Actual reality has the inconvenient habit of not following the theoretical models built into the design software. So it makes sense to buffer the design process from that and let them get on with the next design, while the prototype lab builds the physical object.
I realise I am sounding out of touch now 3D printing is possible, albeit with a restricted range of materials. But we should never forget that designing in a virtual reality is an approximation at best. It is only as good as the model of reality built in to the software. This disconnect between screen and reality is a major concern. The standardisation of ideas brought about by the models of reality being the same, and the widespread propagation of ideas is appalling.
Look at cars today. With very few exceptions they have been designed using similar parameters on similar software yielding similar designs. All that computing power, all that innovation and just one outcome. I think that is a failure of vision. The technology disconnects us from reality, from our peers and from our bosses. You can now be managed through spreadsheets – or whatever the latest web-based app might be.
No need to talk, just type in your numbers and carry on. That isn’t good for the soul. People like to be recognised for what they have achieved. Perhaps gamification has been invented to 'reward' people automatically for their achievements, no need for the manager to worry themselves about their people. The software will do it automatically.
Do we need to study anymore? So long as we have basic computer skills can’t we just Google what we want to know? If that fails we can go on Facebook and ask for advice surely? I confess Google provides the answers to many questions as I write these articles, but you need some knowledge to know what questions to ask. I was horrified to read that recent medical research had been hampered because old research from 70s had not been scanned into Google. A chance conversation between researchers led to the discovery of the missing research in an old bound copy of a learned journal’s proceedings. If it isn’t searchable online it doesn’t exist.
But all that information is a tremendous resource – for good and evil, be it bomb making instructions or how to reduce infectious diseases spreading. My unskilled hands successfully laid a hedge after carefully studying information online. That means I didn’t have to pay a gardener to lay the hedge for me. A clear case of disintermediation. An expert produces an online resource which means the commercial value of that knowledge is decimated.
How many of us now Google our symptoms before going to the GP so we can have an informed discussion with him or her?
This piece continues next week.
Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He is a published author of articles and now a book, “The Manager's Guide to Conducting Interviews”. He speaks at Conferences and is a Keynote speaker on organizational performance and the managerial behaviour needed for success. It is all about “upgrading organisation performance by improving the manager-employee relationship” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog.