The Task of the New Leader

I will admit that I have been burned out on technology recently, having come through some rough tech experiences over the past year in my business.  I have been frustrated by things like server outages, software compatibility, hardware failures, and even business associates with terrible email and social media etiquette!  At the same time, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and humanity, and this course (ILD 831: Technology and Leadership) offered a way to get out from under some of the practical stresses and look at tech in a broader way.  A recurring theme for me throughout this course has been the question of how technology has shaped (and is shaped by) humanity over the last 500 years, and of course, more recently, how the digital and network revolutions have exponentially accelerated many of these changes.

Early in the semester, we tackled the idea that network technology has “flattened” the world.  Friedman (2007) and Florida (2005) attacked the problem along the general battle lines of technodeterminism and social constructivism.  Friedman suggested that technology eliminates knowledge/social gaps while Florida asserted that it actually increases those gaps because of the contextual structures in which the technology is or is not being used (spikes of activity).  I believe that both approaches have merit and that the interplay between them is where the task of leadership is most daunting.  That is, leaders in the 21st century must be able to understand how technology shapes language, epistemology, cognition, and social relationships, while at the same time, building social/organizational systems in which technology’s positive impact will be maximized.

Tools of the Trade

Looking at individual pieces of technology, our class delved into discussions of how digital tech works, how it is applicable in today’s organizations, and what future innovations may look like.  My classmates and I reviewed the features and functions of many digital tools to unearth what works, what doesn’t, and in what context.  This exercise demonstrated that not all apps are created equal.  Not all social media outlets have Facebook’s sticking power, and many utilities aren’t worth the MBs they take up on your drive.  Leaders may find themselves causing more harm than good if they are simply trying to keep up with technology adoption.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced a poorly planned technology rollout and grimaced as we watched frustrated users rebel against the new time tracking or project management system that middle management put in place.  For me, this underscored the point that not all tech is good tech, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should (…force technology on our schools or organizations).  What we should be doing, though, is moving toward an implementation of technology that enables “us” to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and move forward under the power of the collective intelligence.

Knowing and Learning

Weinberger (2011) and Shirky (2008) both emphasize that technology has indeed reshaped human epistemology.  Aside from the technical functioning of the “net,” these authors carefully demonstrate the new shape of knowledge, the new heuristics we’re developing to “filter forward” and “find stopping points.”  Weinberger (2011), in particular, carefully outlines how the net is limitless, lumpy, sticky, and democratic.  In true media ecology tradition, Weinberger outlines all of the ways that networked knowledge and “social epistemology” (Turner, 2012) change because of the technological framework that is now common to so many…in developed countries, at least.  Husband’s (n.d.) concept of Wirearchy furthers our understanding of networked knowledge, specifically the ways in which social norms are transmitted.  This is of particular importance for leaders and organizational members, since our concepts of power, deference, and authority are inextricably bound up with our social norms.  Thus, we find that within networked societies, the very notion of power and authority has changed, along with the ways in which we value the knowledge of the so-called “experts.”  We are now collectively more expert than any one expert, no matter how credentialed.  The ramifications for understanding power dynamics in a digital-technology-based world are long-reaching and provide fertile ground for future scholarship.

The Haves (internet) and Haves Not

While “the net” is generally thought to be completely ubiquitous, estimates suggest that less than half of the world’s population has access to the internet (Internet Live Stats, 2016).  The split between access and non-access is much like Ong’s (1982) distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  Though, because of the nature of technology, specifically connected, mobile technology, many of Ong’s (oral v. literate) psychodynamic characteristics collapse and new iterations emerge (Jarc, 2014).  Within these discussions, I proposed that “internet users” at a fundamental cognitive level are more similar than different.  Within the 40% of people on the planet that have access to the internet, however, there are immense gaps in usage habits, connection speeds, preferred devices, and content consumed; these differences could potentially lead to huge gaps in collective intelligence, and must be considered in the move to artificial intelligence, collaborative working, and disruptive business models.

Because of the uncertainty in the future of digital technology, there are many ethical considerations to consider.  To my point above, access to technology, and the rights that users have regarding connectivity are critical.  Reviewing the ethical considerations of technology allowed me to think about thinking about the morals of technology.  That is, as new questions and problems arise, so to must new ways of thinking about what’s “right.”  I dove into the world of net-neutrality and encountered compelling arguments on both sides of the discussion.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the challenge of developing critical meta-level analysis of the tools, the users, and the content found in the connected world.

Looking Ahead

Finally, we must reflect on (and implement) technology and leadership in aggregate.  Leaders need to develop technical skills and digital literacy in order to lead by example.  We need to keep a finger on the pulse of digital innovation while filtering forward (Weinberger, 2011) useful innovations and passing on problematic ones.  All this needs careful situational/contextual analysis, and as such, I believe that leaders must continue to develop emotional and social intelligence.  A leader’s EQ will be on display as they teach the machines how to learn and work alongside human teams.  Leaders can no longer rely on title and hierarchy for power; authority must come from the ability to coordinate nodes within the networked workforce.  No one is quite certain where technology will take us in 10, 20, or 30 years, but good, thoughtful leadership will help make sure that society grows more prosperous as a result.  There have been/will be challenges and pitfalls, and it’s up to us digital natives to help future generations learn from our missteps.

This is the task of the new leader.

References:

Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

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

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

Jarc, J. (2014) Mobiliteracy: Applying Ong’s psychodynamic characteristics to users of mobile communication technology. Communication Research Trends, 33 (1), p. 21-26.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shirky, C. (2008).  Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.  New York: Penguin Press

Turner, S. (2012). Double heuristics and collective knowledge: the case of expertise. Studies in Emergent Order, 5, 64-85

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.