Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Leadership and the Technology Revolution

It is perhaps bold and exaggerated to claim that the rapid advancement of technology, particularly the Internet and mobile computing, have dramatically changes the way people communicate with one another.  The fundamental nature of communication, as seen in the content of communication, has changed very little in centuries – but it cannot be argued that the speed and frequency of this communication has increased significantly as a result of communication technology.

Meanwhile.  the practices of leadership and organizational management have been slow to change: the freedom of information and communication have posed a threat to the traditional means of coordination (i.e., control) and the notion that anyone can communicate anything to anyone else without express permission, facilitation, or censorship has been horrifying to traditional leaders, who want to prevent people from using this ability, or wish to ignore that the ability exists in hopes it will go away.  It has not, and it is not.

By removing the formal controls, technology has empowered people to speak freely – to communicate directly with one another at their leisure, without protocols and without permission.   In society as well as in organizations, this has broken the silos and enabled people to form large and amorphous networks of their own choosing, doing whatever is most efficient rather than what is permitted.       Most of this has occurred informally – social networking through Facebook and other “social media” services – and its uses have been largely frivolous.   Some of it has reached the political realm, much to the chagrin of totalitarian leaders who used information access to control their people.   Some of it has reached the commercial real, where autocratic managers controlled their workers by much the same means.

Admittedly, the instances in which free communication among people have toppled long-standing institutions are rare – but likely far less rare than imagine: when a small and nimble company has stolen the market from a traditional corporate giant, it is often due to the benefits it has gained from a more open structure and communication.  As such the nature of the revolution remains concealed: one company has toppled another (never mind what enabled them to do so).

Regarding technology itself, it is often relegated to a specific department and ignored by the rest of the organization.  Very often the IT department is a staff agency with no strategic authority, and is left to provide technical solutions to the demands of other departments in a firm – and these other departments are merely looking for more efficient and effective ways of going about business as usual, rather than considering that the capabilities of technology enable them to do business in new ways that are significantly different and superior to those of the past.

Of particular importance is the democratizing power of technology – to put the power of information into the hands of the workers, and to circumvent leadership control.   This undermines the hierarchy and silo of traditionally organizational structures that in the present age act as barriers rather than facilitators of organizational effectiveness and efficiency.

But there remains the question as to whether democratization leads to commoditization.   Without leadership to guide an organization in a distinctive manner, the mass of employees succumbs to crowd psychology – superficial thinking, dramatic reactions, and predictability.  Where the mind of an individual can conceive of a distinctive approach, the mind of a crowd is invariably reduced to the lowest common denominator.   So while there is the sense that the changes in technology should lead to a revolution, one wonders if that revolution will produce a better result.

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