How Much Obsolescence Can Business and Society Absorb?
This month's question brought out both the poets and the engineers among respondents. The rapid pace of new technology adoption within organizations implies change for management and society, says HBS professor Jim Heskett. How does change affect the open sharing of information? (Forum now closed; next forum begins May 1.)
To remain sane and relevant, must we smell the flowers as well as the ozone? This month's question of how much obsolescence business and society (and by implication, we as managers) can absorb brought out both the poets and the engineers among respondents. Most exhorted organizations and their leaders to recognize the importance and take advantage of advances in communications technology to remain relevant and competitive. J. W. Carpenter reported that "Our study … shows that … without the capacity to absorb [information] technology … [a] business has low value and poor survival potential. My guess [is that] the societal effects are just as important." Ganesh Ram commented, "We laugh at the Luddites who destroyed factories in the early Nineteenth Century but … the cost of obsolescence is more rapidly and mercilessly extracted in the always-connected, globally interlinked economy. Nothing is perfect but there is no time-out that we sometimes wish we could call." At the same time, Tom Dolembo reminded us, "After many years in the digital race, I discovered it is just electrons and silicon, nothing else …. Before you ask about reality, put your hands into earth. Listen carefully to a friend over a cup of tea. I cannot imagine, now, a prosperity that will be based on smoke, mirrors, silicon, electrons, and tiny fingers."
Many argued from the proposition that "it all depends." As Todd Mounce put it, "First, an organization will only absorb as much communications technology as the culture, training, and mentality of the individuals working in the organization will allow … the organization should only absorb as much communications technology as is required to efficiently run [it] …." Terry Leach said, "It depends on the existing organization communication patterns" [such as bottom up plus top down, outside in—from customers—plus inside out, etc.].
Challenges of new information technologies and how to deal with them were the focus of several comments. Deepak Alse said, "The key challenge is in ensuring that information moves where needed and not everywhere it can." [This reflects a complaint I came across recently from a senior manager that a problem with the latest generation entering business ranks is that "everyone reports to everyone else everything they do all the time."] On a more personal level, C. J. Cullinane reported that "I work with keeping up with technology but … the newspapers and books are my anchor…. [They also leave] a good audit trail." Phil Clark said, "Ultimately, when a person becomes overwhelmed they will simplify. That has its own danger. Our viewpoint will become more isolated and narrow." Brenda Walker, who chided me for not supplying the Internet link to the David Brooks column that I referenced, suggested that "trusted sources of information filtering … will have increased value [regardless of the medium used]." Mark Chussil said, "…the individual takes on a greater burden to think critically and decide wisely …. When I feel myself drowning in data (or in fear of the lack of data), [I return to the question], What's the problem?"
Will Harwood and Michael Norman posed what for them are more interesting questions that we might consider. In Harwood's words, "How do we measure the quality of the information we receive? What makes information worth acting upon? When is information certain enough?" And Norman asked, "What will be the roles of managers as we know them today …? What skills, knowledge, attitudes and experience will free them from the past and help them become successful … leaders in ever-evolving tech-contributor spheres?" What do you think?
The other night a classmate and long-time friend, at the end of a phone conversation, said, "I'll email you with the directions to our place." Then he paused and said, "That sounds pretty old-fashioned, doesn't it?" It's possible that, along with me, he is beginning to feel out of date. The irony is that he is the retired CEO of one of the largest companies fostering the networking revolution.
The facts are undeniable. Watch an old movie in which people remove the telephone receiver from the wall, type (either manually or electronically), and even begin to email (as in "You've Got Mail!"). It's always good for a laugh. Then you remember that, as I did, you only scrapped your manual typewriter 17 years ago, put away the carbon paper in favor of the "cc" line on email only 12 years ago, and began watching video on your computer just a few years ago. Now there is a growing sense that the desktops and laptops of the past are giving way to netbooks that are a highly-portable cross between the iPhone and the old laptop.
Language has been condensed with the size of tech devices and the continued clumsiness of our thumbs. Along with it, some fear that there is a growing inability or unwillingness of readers or listeners to sustain an attention span of more than a few lines or a couple of minutes. As a result, entire industries, such as newspaper publishing, are dying along with a generation that buys and reads them. People are reading news online, but they are willing to pay very little for it. As a result, in-depth investigative reporting (by pros, not those often sharing their ignorance on blog sites) that is revealing many aspects of the current economic bust—including fraud and questionable management decisions—is dying as well. Along with this there is a gnawing sense that investigative reporting will not even be missed by the coming generations of tech-savvy citizens and managers.
What of the impact on investors and the financial community? Columnist David Brooks has suggested that new technologies actually fostered lightning-fast investment decisions in the recent economic meltdown, but contributed to a herd-like mentality that exaggerated swings in attitudes and markets.
How are new technologies affecting organizations? Are "tech cliques" forming around such media as Facebook, YouTube, and now Twitter? How does that affect the transfer of information that used to take place around the water cooler? And what about those of us with management responsibilities who feel that we are losing the communications race and missing out on a growing part of the "action" in our organizations? In the past, given the snail's pace of tech change, we could wait out the next generation of managers and their technologies until we retired. That may no longer be possible. What are you doing, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky is quoted as saying, to "skate to where the puck is going to be"?
What rate of change in communications technology can the organization absorb? What do you think?
To read more:
David Brooks, "Greed and Stupidity," The New York Times, April 3, 2009, p. A23.