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.

10 thoughts on “Technology is Leveling the Organizational Playing Field (but not always).

  • Nice post. In some ways, it hearkens back to our first week and the flat versus spiky discussion. The world is flatter, but there are still some spikes, and tapping in to both the global diversity and the condensed nodes of knowledge will be another important skill!

    • James

      Yes, Dr. Watwood! I was thinking about the flat/spiky idea as I was working on this. In those examples, I think you can see how like breeds like. I think the network is the same – or at least that’s what I’m trying to explore here. We talk so much about the diversification that happens online, and I wonder if the opposite holds at all.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Anonymous

    James,

    Good afternoon. I agree with your comment to Dr. Watwood. I think that in general we are attracted to those that have similar opinions as our own, especially on topics that are of particular interest to us. In Krista’s blog (https://rd2dochazen.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/networked-workers-are-like-citizens-serving-on-jury-duty/) you mentioned how she speaks of how “robust discussions and dialogs” can slow decision-making for an organization. How can we as leaders balance the encouragement of robust dialogs and varying thoughts versus like-minded thinking within organizations? Like minded network thinking can make decisions easier in most cases but I think we can agree easier is not always best. On the other hand, if we spend all day discussing different points of view, it can be difficult to get anything done.

    Jason

    • James Jarc

      Jason, great questions… one direction I took in thinking about this:

      There seems to be a lot of evidence in the literature pointing to “task conflict” (Simons & Peterson, 2000) as a way to increase the quality of group decisions AND to improve group morale, feelings of trust, and perceptions of in-group membership. Task conflict refers to any disagreement between team members regarding the content of their work/task/problem. In contrast, relationship conflict is when individuals find themselves at odds personally. As you’d imagine, relationship conflict is problematic in organizations, but task conflict can be highly generative. In general, though, many researchers have discovered that the two types of conflict are correlated with one another and seldom appear by themselves (p. 4). This leads to misattribution of task conflict as personal conflict, and can then hinder the productivity of the group.

      As leaders, I think it’s important to create team environments in which dissenting viewpoints are encouraged but managed. That is, can we establish a fair and equitable procedure for listening to and evaluating all opinions? Simons and Peterson (2000) discovered, for example, a blurring of task and relationship conflict when task conflict demonstrated loud, forceful or aggressive tactics. That is, when a task dissenter got angry, yelled, or was perceived to be bullying others, that turned to harmful relationship conflict rather than productive task conflict.

      Intragroup trust is also positively correlated with preserving the distinctions between task and relationship conflict. So I think that team leaders should develop processes that ensure transparency, ethical decision-making, team building, etc. in order to perpetuate a trusting team environment. In terms of the technology discussion, I think that collaboration software and accountability features are a huge help in establishing trusting teams.

      Reference:
      Simons, T.L., & Peterson, R.S. (2000). Task conflict and relationship conflict in top management teams: The pivotal role of intragroup trust. Cornell University, School of Hospitality Administration. Retrieved from http://scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1723&context=articles

  • James,

    Great post! You present an intriguing and insightful reflection on the many questions raised by the broadening of a networked workforce. Your final comments brought to mind Haslam, Reicher, & Platow’s (2011) identity model of leadership. The model has three components, reflecting, representing, and realizing. Reflecting necessitates that the leader understands and is accepted by the group, representing involves instantiating the group’s identity via relevant vision and actions, and realizing focuses on helping the group attain, and function according to, that which it values. I am curious as to whether you have considered perceived power, leadership, and networked teams in terms of Haslam et al.’s identify model. At first glance, it seems the model might support the meta-level of networked knowledge, the fundamental principles of wirearchy, and an integration of followership and leadership that could drive perceived power. As usual, you have given me much to think about, James!

    -CatOnKB

    References

    Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., Platow, M. J. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence and power. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

    • James

      CatOnKB – thank you for the kind words, and for your new perspective on this question. I had not considered the identity model of leadership in this context, but I agree that it offers a deeper meta-level way to think about networked knowledge. At the same time, I also see how that model could be further complicated by the diversity of such a group. Norms and shared beliefs might be difficult to uncover. Leader representativeness might also be difficult to portray in the digital space. I think this also raises questions about digital identity management and the ways in which we establish our “in-group prototypicality” (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2011) through a networked medium. Perhaps technical expertise does set a foundation for group prototype in a community where tech is the supporting medium of communication.

      Thanks for posing that question and pushing this discussion further!

  • Anonymous

    James,

    It was interesting to see the educational divide that is occurring for smartphone usage in job searching, I wonder if there is a similar generational divide. Recent trends show that more and more people are relying on mobile devices for internet access (see: https://qz.com/580024/more-americans-are-relying-exclusively-on-their-phones-for-internet-access/ and https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/aug/06/smartphones-most-popular-way-to-browse-internet-ofcom). This trend is even faster for the developing world, leading some reports to say that 72% of the world connects to the internet via smartphone, up from just ~11% in 2015 (https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Slowing-Growth-Ahead-Worldwide-Internet-Audience/1014045). Of all the talk about organizations adapting to the new networked workforce, I’m not sure enough of the conversation is mentioning the fact that the interface people are using is rapidly changing as well. It was nice to see you incorporate that into your post.

    Chris

  • Chris Kean

    James,

    It was interesting to see the educational divide that is occurring regarding the use of mobile devices for job searching and I was wondering if there would also be a generational one? Increasing people are using their smartphones as the main way to connect to the internet, see: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/aug/06/smartphones-most-popular-way-to-browse-internet-ofcom and https://qz.com/580024/more-americans-are-relying-exclusively-on-their-phones-for-internet-access/. In fact according to some reports, 72% of people in 2016 connected to the internet on a smartphone, which is an increase from ~11% in 2015 (https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Slowing-Growth-Ahead-Worldwide-Internet-Audience/1014045). So much of the conversation regarding organizations and technology center around dealing with training the networked workforce that is seems the interface of that networking is not being discussed as much as it should be. It was nice for you to incorporate the way people connect in your blog post.

    Chris

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