Technology is Leveling the Organizational Playing Field (but not always).

The age of the networked economy is upon us, and with it, comes a slew of issues for leaders to address in their organizations. Digital, network-enabled technology has been sufficiently positioned in the center of many human interactions, from personal relationships to complex economic structures. This near ubiquity (at least in the modernized countries of the world) has led to new ways of interacting with co-workers, sharing information, and understanding power.

A fundamental advantage of a connected workforce is productivity and collaboration. Weinberger (2011), among scores of others, asserts that networks can generate larger quantities of quality innovation than any single (so called) expert. Information can be brought to bear from all corners of humanity and analyzed by individuals with limitless perspectives and life experiences. In my opinion, however, this broad assertion fails to account for the a broad socioeconomic heterogeneity of internet users.

Growth of global internet users since 1993: http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Internet Live Stats (2016) estimates that only 40% of the world’s population has access to the internet, up from less than 1% in 1995. The same site shows that in contrast, nearly 89% of those living in the US has access to the internet (in some form). My point here is that there is still a significant part of the globe that is not yet connected (or as connected) as we might believe. And those of us that are connected – despite contentious Facebook arguments in the last 6 months – are living lives that are more similar to one another than different. I think this is important in the discussion of globalization and the connected global workforce. Like all forms of communication, digital communication is subject to all sorts of cultural norms, biases, and media literacy. I think it’s important to understand just how different our experience of connectivity are from a majority of the rest of the world’s.

That said, it is very evident that even within the more “mature” user base of, say, the United States, there are still huge gaps in levels of experience, proficiency, and digital fluency. In a multi-generational digital workforce, it may be critical for leaders (titular or otherwise) to assist team members with limited technology experience or lower levels of proficiency. In this way, I think the leader continues to shoulder the burdens of facilitating learning beyond the content of the work. Teaching/implementing technology, I think, presents an important opportunity for developing organizational culture. That is, how are employees taught to use technology in their roles, how are norms and expectations communicated, and how do co-workers deal with each other in light of digital acculturation (Jarc, 2015).

From http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/11/19/searching-for-work-in-the-digital-era/

In this same sense, digital workers may use the same tools very differently. The information presented by Smith (2015) illustrates a few of the ways in which different users manipulate their digital experiences. For example, Smith outlines the differences between smartphone users who execute job applications on their devices and those who are using smartphones for “analog” tasks like calling (I mean really, who even does that anymore?!). Importantly, users across the spectrum expect different things from themselves and their technology. This can cause problems in networked teams, when individuals want or need to communicate in dramatically different ways. So, even if we are connected, we are connected in different ways.

Finally, I think the broadening of the networked workforce raises interesting questions about the nature of power and how individual nodes within the network make sense of relationships with others. Husband’s (n.d.) definition of wirearchy addresses part of this question. For Husband, power in the network is “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology” (para. 8). I think that this is a fine definition of a self-governing structure, but I wonder if this definition can play all the way through the end of the human transaction. As a colleague points out in her blog this week, sometimes teams need someone who can overtly assert power, make a decision, and drive teams out of counterproductive ruts. In terms of the networked workforce, with its heavy reliance on tech, does the best, most proficient tech user assume this role? If I can, say, type faster, or produce reports more quickly or research more efficiently, will others begin to look to me as the leader of the networked team? For me, this discussion of perceived power is an incredibly important one, and one that I will certainly continue thinking about!

 

References:

Husband, J. (n.d.) What is wierarchy? Wirearchy [website]. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Internet Live Stats (2016). Internet users [webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Jarc, J. (2015). Parlance, perception and power: An inquiry into non-standard language use in digital media (master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1684659688

Smith, A. (2015, November 19). Searching for work in the digital era. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/11/19/searching-for-work-in-the-digital-era/

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.

Knowledge Management and Collective Learning in the Age of Google

This week’s readings were fascinating to me.  I’m hoping this area will potentially be a part of my dissertation research.  I’ve been curious about communicating leadership via technology, as well as facilitating (teaching) creativity through technology.  In my role as an educator in several creative disciplines, I’ve wrestled with how leaders can foster communities of practice and open up dialogues in on-the-ground classrooms and online courses.  Specific to the knowledge management discussion, I think there needs to be a balance between archived, best practice, explicit knowledge (Dixon, 2009) and postmodern, socially generated heuristics developed in the cloud (Weinberger, 2011).  I would tend to agree with Jarche’s (2016) recent assertion that, “While people learn from formal instruction, they also learn in the workflow and outside work” (para. 8).

In my classrooms and online classes, I believe it’s still important to “deposit” – as Freire (1968) might describe it-  explicit knowledge into the minds of the learners.  In graphic design, there is a specific tool to use when attempting to accomplish a specific task.  In web development, HTML syntax is extremely important… a missing semicolon can ruin an entire web page, not to mention frustrate students and instructors alike!  In this way, I think that knowledge management serves an important function.  Organizing and disseminating (Dixon, 2009) the proper tools and processes is a requirement that must be satisfied before we can even begin to think about creativity or adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009).  Once a student or employee has access to a baseline amount of information, then the leader can begin to shape and use sociotechnical systems (Burke, 2014) to optimize social learning (Jarche, 2010).

In terms of confronting those adaptive challenges (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009), I do believe that collective experiential knowledge (Dixon, 2009b) is powerful (and necessary).  In my web development level III course, for example, we work a lot on troubleshooting obscure problems that don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer.  There’s no way I can teach the solution to every potential technical problem.  In this case, I need to manage the process of identifying aspects of the challenge, thinking critically about paths to resolution, and, most important to the new KM discussion, how to seek out and apply the expertise of the multitudes.

Just yesterday, I got an error on a client’s website: “php.mailer.Mzh.517.UNOFFICIAL FOUND.” The first place we go is online to the “expert exchanges.” Sure enough we landed among the discussion forums and GitHub pages posted by experts, and wove our way through different resources to find the right places to look to fix the error.  Through this network of professionals, and my own decade of experience with the system we were using, we were able to locate the right file, and fix the problem.  This is an example of socially generated knowledge that is then archived in the online format.  I’m curious to think about how this changes as storage and access methods evolve.

To Davenport’s (2015) point, I would imagine that few companies in the digital media space would ever attempt to deploy a traditional KM system in light of the available social knowledge already available online.  I know some organizations do maintain code repositories and other such silos of information that can be readily accessed.  I think a major difference in the new knowledge management world is context.  Most of Davenport’s critiques seem to boil down to a forced flow or a context-agnostic adoption of a system for the sake of having a system.  I appreciate Jarche’s (2010) comment that “Stock [archived information] on the internet is everywhere, and the challenge is to make sense of it through flows and conversation [context]” (para. 23).  Thus, I think the role of the leader is to help maintain a basic level of explicit knowledge through systems and institutional memory, as well as allowing for the creation of knowledge networks and organizational learning.  Not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but doable with the right tools and human resources!

References:
Burke, W. W. (2014). Organization change: Theory and practice (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Davenport, T.H. (2015). Whatever happened to knowledge management? The Wall Street Journal: CIO Report.
Dixon, N. (2009a, May 2).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part one. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/05/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-one.html
Dixon, N. (2009b, July 30).  Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part three. Conversation Matters [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/07/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-three.html
Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of the oppressed.  Continuum Publishing Company: New York, NY.
Heifetz, R.A., Grashow, A., Linsky, M., (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Jarche, H. (2010). Closing the learning-knowledge loop. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from http://jarche.com/2016/12/closing-the-learning-knowledge-loop/
Jarche, H. (2016). A framework for social learning in the enterprise. Harold Jarche: Adapting to a world in perpetual beta [blog]. Retrieved from http://jarche.com/2010/02/a-framework-for-social-learning-in-the-enterprise/
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.