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.

Leading in the Future: Identifying and Adapting to Technology’s Rapid Evolution

According to some estimates, more than 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last 5 years. Of course, this is a difficult to define measure that calls to question the nature of recorded knowledge. However, the point remains that in just a few short years, humanity (and machines) have started to generate unfathomable amounts of data about everything from our health to our shipping preferences, travel habits, schedules, and our love life! Throughout Too Big to Know, Weinberger (2011) stresses the abundance of knowledge available in a networked world. I believe that the exponential trajectory of technology and data growth will continue for many years to come. Our generations will exist entirely in technological and social flux; change will become a fundamental aspect of our epistemology.

As leaders, teachers, and innovators, it is important that we understand how media and technology evolve indistinguishable from the social/cultural incubators in which they develop. This semester, I’m teaching one of my favorite classes, “Mass Media Communications” in which a constant recurring theme is the media economic cycle (Vivian, 2008). We’ve used this throughout the semester as a framework for investigating how various media works, and why it impacts society in the ways that it does. Vivian suggests that there are 6 broad steps that each medium goes through (if it’s successful): invention, entrepreneurship, industry, maturation, and the defense of infrastructures. I believe that we can apply this framing to the future of digital technology so that we can be aware of all the ways in which it can/will impact our organizations or students.

Invention and Entrepreneurship

For example, invention and entrepreneurship continue to disrupt the ways in which we do business. As the “tool assessment” assignment demonstrated, there are hundreds, if not thousands of new tools and technologies emerging every day. Many of these will not make it past the entrepreneurship stage for a variety of reasons. We must develop a refined sense of digital literacy so that we can effectively filter forward (Weinberger, 2011) the valuable tools from the junk. Effectively handling the barrage of innovation will (has already) become a duty of the responsible contemporary leader.

Growth of Industry

When a technology reaches significant enough adoption, you can see the supportive cocoon of industry grow up around it.

Image from:
Revolutionary People from the Renaissance

After Gutenberg invented the printing press, the demand for ink, paper, metals, and skilled pressmen increased (and in the case of the press operator, came into existence!). As the industrial revolution mechanized printing, those demands continued to grow into a complex network of professionals, materials, production methods, and consumption habits. As leaders create and implement strategy for organizations, thinking should include analyzing the opportunities present in the emerging industry. What are places in which you can expand market share or increase the competence of your team? Of course, technology – specifically networked systems – are filled with links (and few “stopping points”) which are permission free and always available to the public (Weinberger, 2011). In this way, leaders can become facilitators of knowledge, helping to build the right networks, fostering optimal cultures and posing good questions.

Maturation

I do not believe that the digital age has matured yet. I feel like we are digital teenagers, racing down the “information superhighway.” Sure, we follow most of the rules, but still make some rash, irresponsible decisions. Weinberger’s (2011) suggests that the net is (and may forever be) unresolved (p. 174). Organizations are adopting technology for the sake of keeping up, or creating a Frankenstein’s monster of new systems in old infrastructures. Commercial banking, for the most part, still operates on foundational systems from the 60s and 70s while at the same time, trying to disrupt business models with innovations like blockchain. This video from Corning shows off some of the ways in which technology will eventually become more naturalized. The ways that we use technology today still feel foreign. UX is getting better, but many systems still have a learning curve, parlance, and set of knowledge needed to use them. I think a hallmark of media maturation is its total normalization (and ubiquity) to a point where the technology disappears. Leaders can continue facilitating systems design and digital literacy in order to make using technology less of a novelty and more of an extension of ourselves.

Defending Infrastructures

Finally, leaders must be keenly aware of the ways in which the “next big thing” will disrupt our operations. As noted above, by staying aware of changes in surrounding/supporting industries, leaders can try to predict where innovation will appear. With strategy and some luck, we might be able to put ourselves and our organizations in a strong position to defend the infrastructures that support us. At the same time, I believe that a good leader also knows when to let go.

 

References:

Vivian, J. (2011). The media of mass communication. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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.