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.)
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

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?

Original Article

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.

    • Adnan Younis Lodhi
    • Section Officer, Ministry of Commerce, Pakistan
    I agree with David Brooks that the usage of new & fast technologies have raised the need for quick decisions. The fast movement of correct or incorrect information has enormous creative and destructive potential. We may not like it much but no one has control over it.

    The new technologies are profoundly affecting all types of organizations. Actually, they have placed CEO's/Managers in uncharted territory. Very few of the Top Bosses can understand the recent tech lifestyle and mores.

    The mode of communications within the organization has also changed and it has challenged the traditional monopoly on information by higher management.One can only sympathies with the top managers with limited tech skills because they lack the essential tools to understands the medium and the message. They must feel left out and their role bit diminished.

    The problem that is going to pose a serious challenge to almost all organizations is how to incorporate the latest technology in organization architecture and enhance the human skills/culture to extract maximum benefit out of it. The tech pace can rattle and disappoint many who can not run fast enough.

    In the end, fortunately or unfortunately, no one knows the destiny.
    • Deepak Alse
    • Program Manager, Wipro
    Rapid convergence of information will bring with it the risk of drowning out diversity. The key challenge is in ensuring that information moves where needed and not everywhere that it can. Interestingly communication technology changes cannot be absorbed well in organisations that are geographically limited in scope. A more diverse distribution of geographies with smaller clusters of people, will lead to a much faster transition to constantly changing modes of communication.

    Faster and more responsive communication tools dont necessarily improve the quality of decisions made in an organisation.On the contrary, they perpetrate a short term operational view of events. An organisation can absorb a lot of change in communication modes if the demographics and organisation's structure provide scope for diversity. Forcing an entire's organisation into alignment with a specific communication technology, is a sure recipe for clogging clarity and decision-making skills. No two human beings communicate in the same diversity is the key. The idea is to allow scope for various forms of communication depending on context, priority and capabilities!
    • J.W. Carpenter, Ph.D.
    • Mgning Director, Pacific Capital Partners
    Our study of private capital success shows that if the formal organization is lagging in the application of technology to communications, records/reporting, and decision making there is low probability of the organization being capable of managing added capital and new projects, not to mention survival as a going concern.

    If it is a vulture investment project, the first thing we would attempt to estimate is the capacity of the human capital in the organization to master the needed technology. That estimate being low, the business is at best a liquidation candidate.

    That is how important technological absorption is to the future of modern business. Without the capacity to absorb technology the business has low value and poor survival potential. My guess the societal effects are just as important.
    • Saurabh Dwivedy
    I hate to say this, but I don't think Businesses and indeed societies have any choice BUT to keep adjusting to the rapid pace of tehnology-driven-information-inflation. The tech-currency is nowhere about to stabilize in the foreseeable future.

    There are a few important considerations involving the changes in technology and its corresponding usefulness to businesses and societies.

    As technology becomes more rapid, more chic, and more real-time, there is bound to be an information overload. This will probably lead to changes over time in the way our brains would process the information. Only till about a decade ago, we used to wait for the newspaper to deliver the full dope on events and stories. Editorials and op-ed columns had a place under the sun and intellectuals were read keenly and indeed helped shape public opinion and business strategies. Then came the Internet, which fundamentally changed the nature of Information dissemination.

    Now, information gathering is becoming an art: One needs to decide what one wants and then head to a popular search engine or related websites that will in most cases have all the information one is looking for. So the time-lag between information generation and its dissemination is rapidly diminishing. Today, if it's out there you can get it provided you know what you want. You don't have to wait for the morning newspaper or the fortnightly edition of the magazine and so on. This has the added consequence too of turning information into an off-the-shelf commodity - much like packaged tuna or a cup of coffee. You just walk into the relevant store and get it. There's no thrill of discovery per se. It's quick, it's fast and it has lost its distinctive stature.

    A point has been raised by Prof Heskett about the value of investigative journalism. With so much information overload, where is the scope for investigative journalism? In the old days, when much of the information was deliberately held under covers by scheming governments/politicians/leaders in cahoots with criminals - the onus lay on the daring Journalist to go out and risk his life to dig the relevant facts. However the nature of the information landscape has in the recent past undergone such a massive change that the information culling mechanisms of the past are no longer required. Today, there is no dearth of information nor is there a dearth of avenues that lead us to information. Hence the landscape that demanded the kind of investigative journalism of the past is fast eroding and is in turn replaced by the emergence of an information-superhighway. The users of this superhighway must know how to drive on it or else they'll crash out.

    Yes, in some ways we can say that the SOUL of reporting will slowly wither away; that's because the pride in the outcome of reporting that reporters and journalists of yore used to experience will no longer be there. It will be replaced by that urgency to be the first - even at the expense of fallacious/incomplete/incorrect reporting - the mantra will likely be - we've got to be FIRST ones to put this on air - the rest will fall in place automatically. A recent example of Japan's hasty announcement regarding North Korea's Rocket Launch, something which Japan had to quickly recant, immediately comes to mind.

    Naturally, the brain barraged with an overload of information will start selective pruning as a natural response. People will dig deeper into things they want to know - that will pre-suppose they having a rudimentary idea of what it is they want to know. The SHOCK VALUE of completely new information will probably be lost because most people will not have a clue what's happening beyond the realm that immediately concerns them. They will not even bother to find out simply because the mass of information would have become completely unnavigable.

    Thus this age of techonology-driven information will likely produce a new breed of tech-savvy Readers as well. Like they say - the old order must give way to the new!
    • CJ Cullinane
    I have to admit that I read two papers (hardcopy?) daily, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and feel guilty about the environmental aspects. I feel I get more out of them than online but generate a lot of recycling.

    I think we are losing our ability to look at problems and opportunities in depth. I love the networking the computer allows but believe it is somewhat superficial. The amount of information online is staggering but I am not sure if it is accurate. It can be argued that the written word may also be flawed, remember the NY Times fiasco, but it does has a good audit trail.

    For me a combination of online information and reseach and the written word seems to work best. I work at keeping up with technology but it expands faster than I can keep up, the newspapers and books are my anchor.

    When I was going for my undergraduate degree, the hand held calculator was not available, forget the computer and cell phone. These are great times to live in and I look forward to learning as much new technology as I can. Great subject for this month's discussion!

    Charlie Cullinane
    • John Arnott
    • CEO, The Arnott Design Group Inc.
    This is a subject dear to my heart. Despite the name of the company, my practice is now pretty much limited to helping companies align design strategies with corporate strategies.
    What I find fascinating about this subject is the way in which instant communications reduces the herd to a reactive, or tactical only responsive mode.

    I like to think of strategic development and particularly anticipation as a form of power; you may not always get it 100% right but by the judicious use of contingency planning, you should probably do alright.

    What I think it is leading to is a further stratification of markets and some companies can capitalise on the fleeting nature of trends such as ZARA and their rapid response production system. But I wonder what will happen to brands based on older preferences and tradition, Breuget etc. will younger, instant generations grow into them?
    But my main issue is the abdication of power, or conviction that requires consistency and value development; will they evaporate?
    • Phil Clark
    • Clark & Associates
    The impact on rapid communications and the new technology have yet to be felt. Think about how we let people know about laws or public notices. The law requires they be published into public record. What is public record today? What happens when these publication fold? What are/will be the "official" sources of information?

    The real impact of the technology will be the changes it forces on society. They will be rapid and significant. The survivors will keep up. Those that choose not too, will languish...whether a person, a business, a society, or a nation. Hang on. It may be quite a ride!

    Ultimately, when a person becomes overwhelmed they will simplify. That has its own danger. Our viewpoint will become more isolated and narrow. So the real challenge will does the best information to impact our lives and nations evolve. Therein lies the challenge of the 21st century. The danger will be to determine what is the truth and whom to trust.
    • Mark Chussil
    • Founder and CEO, Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc.
    Fascinating subject.

    The social aspects are huge. Access to information, and to the skills needed to process it, becomes a new have/have not divide.

    More subtly and perhaps more importantly, the individual takes on a greater burden to think critically and decide wisely. For all their faults, the major media had standards of excellence and integrity. Those standards may be infuriatingly lax in some cases, but there are no standards at all in networking media or in what one can write on a website. How can an information-based society work well if we don't know what information we can trust?

    Professor Heskett brings up missing out on the "action" in the office. Inside or outside the office, I've certainly felt the nagging little anxiety that I might be missing something, especially when young'uns (not that I'm an old'un) suggest I'm missing the BIGGEST opportunity EVER because I have not yet "established a presence" on a network that didn't exist the previous week. Am I actually to market my company's services to Fortune 500 companies via 140-character tweets on Twitter or twits on Tweeter? Am I dooming my company to die a horrible web death if I don't?

    I remember HBS Professor Raymond Corey stopping us dead in our tracks almost every day in first-year marketing. He'd let us work ourselves into an impassioned, impossible analytic knot, and then he'd ask quietly, "what's the problem?" Oops. That's another aspect of information and action: we view every factoid as a) being unambiguous and b) requiring action. I've delivered a couple hundred business war games, strategy simulations, crisis simulations, and management-development programs, and I'd say that the more-data and act-now biases are pretty much universal. I'm not against data and I'm not against action. I am, however, against crowding out thinking. Take a deep breath. What's the problem?

    When I feel myself drowning in data (or in fear of the lack of data), that's where I return. What's the problem. What do I need to solve the problem. What additional bit, if any, would help me make a better decision. What could go right, what could go wrong. There's never enough information, and there's always too much data. Think.

    So what does it all mean? I guess I'd better Google the blogs and face the books and arrange for faster broadband. Check back later. Meanwhile, I've got to do something.
    • Brenda Walker
    • Rebel Content
    David Brooks wrote "instant communications lead to unconscious conformity." While communications may have accelerated the adoption of viewpoints, I disagree that it actually led to the herd mentality itself. There is comfort in conformity, reinforced by many of our institutions that support and promote it as a more sure path to success.

    Saurabh Dwivedy comments that information gathering is an art. Likewise, trusted sources for information filtering and recommendation (along with contrarianism) will have increasing value, presenting opportunities for journalists (and media companies) who are not deterred by the hand-wringing negativity now swamping their field.

    A friend who is an award-winning investigative reporter for a major daily recently attended the Watchdog Conference at Columbia School of Journalism and was struck by the drive to create new organizations and models for investigative reporting. He sees a positive, thriving future. He also noted that new tools for information gathering have made his work more efficient and faster, though no less rigorous in the fundamental pursuit of verified facts.

    Disruption and ambiguity can and will lead to innovation and success, for those with the creativity and curiosity to change and shift with advances.

    Relative to shifting with advances, it's telling that the David Brooks column referenced by Mr. Heskett is cited to the print edition of the New York Times, without providing a link to the column, which can be found here:
    • Terry J. Leach
    • Founder and CEO, Commodatas LLC
    What rate of change in communications technology can the organization absorb? That is a good question and I believe the answer is that it depends on the existing organization communication patterns. An organization's communication patterns include every means the organization currently communicates with everyone in the organization. For example, does mid-level and senior management gather input and ideas from all employees? In other words bottom up communication rather than top down? Is the organization open to new ideas from outside the organization such as ideas from customers. Does the organization involve customers in the creation process of products or services? The answer to these last two questions is very important to determining the rate of change in communication technology that an organization can absorb.

    The increasing rate of change in communication is expanding the boundaries and definition of what is an organization. Organizations which do not open new channels of communications and absorb those communications into its business processes will eventually fade away.
    • Yaron Kaufman
    • CEO,
    E-mail is still a quite updated communication tool. Maybe even the most important. Nevertheless, managers at all levels must be familiar with all those new technologies. Failing to do so - or neglecting them - will finally result in poor managerial performance. Why? Since they affect customers' behavior. "Tech cliques" are not the real reason one should be updated with latest tech developments. Competition is (there will always be enough people around the water cooler that care more about sports). An organization that doesn't harvest social media opportunities risks becoming an old-fashioned.

    I'm not saying, of course, that managers must have Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter profiles. I'm not implying they should upload videos to YouTube. But they must be updated enough to see that competitors already have customer support on these platforms! They must be quick enough to read what their customers say about their organization on their blogs. They must find new creative methods to evangelize their products to other decision makers who are using those technologies.

    They have to be read fast to see small, yet powerful competitors that take advantage of technology to turn whole industries and business models upside down. Organization culture that not embraces the changes might result in heavy business losses.
    • Mohit
    @James: Interesting point about investigative does appear that reporting is becoming a market of lemons. For the foreseeable future, it does appear that, we have left it to the "tech cliques" around Google etc to filter noise from the signal.

    By bringing more people to an equal level, the internet has "democratized" knowledge. That may sound like a good thing until you realize that "popular" is not equivalent to "correct". Yet, it might still be better than the system we had before. Time will tell.
    • Jay Somasundaram
    • Systems Analyst
    We shouldn't get side-tracked by the technology. There is rapid change, but the change to watch out for is skills in the under-lying discipline. For example, in the discipline of communication, we have a much sharper understanding of the range of necessary skills, we can learn these skills (such as emotional intelligence) from well chosen seminars or books: we no longer need to rely solely on instinct. Keeping up with the tools of communciation, their strengths and weaknesses is a useful, but less valuable priority.

    I seem to remember a study of about forty years ago that senior managers spent only 2% of their time on strategic management while it should be closer to 40% - that they spent too much of their time in the quadrant of urgent but unimportant. Has modern technology really made things worse? A decade ago an executive would spend time getting the coloured charts formatted just right. Today it is fiddlinq with the iPhone. Are things that different?

    Certainly the world is accelarating, but our ablility to cope with this change is also accelerating. I'd suggest, however, that there is no harm in slowing down and enjoying the scenery.
    • Sreeram
    • Senior Engineer, Eaton
    I concur to the author's ideas, but only partially.

    The communication revolution has done more good than bad.
    The communication revolution had removed the monopoly of developed countries in aspect of knowledge sharing.

    I remember days when my friends in US would send me hard copies of books for my engineering study making me wait for weeks to read the book.

    Today I can get the same over the net in matter of minutes.
    The new technological spurge had brought the companies to think in more optimized way in reduction of costs, because the competition is more visible across the globe. Hope I could get some comments on my opinion.
    • Nisar Moosa
    • Branch Manager Gewadar, HBFCL Pakistan
    It does not matter how this information is available, that is via hardcopy or online, the more concerning fact is how it can reach the desired [person] to produce a required outcome. If employees and ordinary people in society lose interest and validity then this information explosion can create a social catastophe. Information has to be correct, relative and timely, then it can craete a long-lasting impact. Otherwise we merely add junk to our information highways. Technology is a tool, not a master. It can only add value in transferring information, not in the worth of information.
    • Kumara Uluwatta
    • Senior Lecturer, Wayamba University of Sri Lanka
    Absorbing obsolescence is highly dependent on the cultural anthropology of people. On the other hand, without the awareness of technology change, people may absorb more obsolete technologies rather than going for the new. Therefore, technological advancement should be implemented in parallel with an awareness programme about it.
    • Abdikhani Ali
    • Project Officer, Diamond Park
    To assess this we need to look at four broad aspects of communication: Infrastructure, Medium, Need and the dynamics of innovation in relation to communication.

    The infrastructural change is revolutionary rather than evolutionary. By this I mean if it does not resonate with you then death is with you. In that case we need to remain in tandem with the change and revolution in order to be relevant. Furthermore, we need to appreciate that the carpet has been pulled out from under the print media. Long gone are the days when you would walk into the organization to see memos on your desk or on communication boards; we have moved to electronic bulletin bulletin boards.

    As forneed, people want to contribute, feel involved and directly relate to what is being conveyed (the herd mentality and movement), and they need perceived 'real-timeness' of the information, availability any time and anywhere.

    If we align ourselves with infrastructural change then we will appreciate that all the other innovations (entrepreneurial enterprise) are taking place within this space (electronic real-time, availability within the space dimension and moving towards the end user needs). Taking away nothing from this, look at Facebook, Twitter and the like as they espouse to 'real-timeness' participation and the ability to cocoon oneself to what we feel is relevant.

    We read and see what we want, not what you think we want. As for the organization, it's time we appreciated individual communication preferences and needs, and address this with a specific, well-tailored medium of communication that will address the specificity of the user. Thus if we need to be leaders and actually direct the communication and decision, let's look at participation, empowerment, and the needs of people (tap into the herd mentality).
    • Will Harwood
    • Visiting Research Fellow, University of Kent
    Perhaps the real issue is that we need to focus on what is being communicated rather than on how it is being communicated.

    The rapid transmission of information gives the impression of being informed, of having the facts at our figure tips, and being in a better situation to make decisions. But the reality is often very different. Early reports are revised and updated as new information becomes available and a better picture of the true facts emerge. Decisions made in haste, in reaction to an unclear, incomplete or biased picture destabilize situations in ways that cannot be undone. But we fear not acting because waiting may mean acting to late. The key questions are:

    How do we measure the quality of the information we receive?
    What makes information worth acting upon?
    When is information certain enough?

    If we can answer these questions about information then it matters little how it is received. We might observe that fashion is he emphasis of form over content and today we are discussing fashion.
    • sandeep k krishnan
    • Leadership Partner, IBM
    Two major aspects I would like to share:

    a) While communication is becoming easy with technology, we do not have enough of best practices on how to use technology. While organizations like IBM is at a level 5 - very mature (based on my experience) in other organizations it might be at at a 1-2 and we do not have standards on how to make it level 5.

    b) Huge level of privacy and confidentiality comes to play with technology. It is even interesting to know character definition and reference check can be done through a facebook or orkut! Linkedin is another example!
    • Shabbir Merchant
    • Chief Value Creator, Valulead Consulting
    I am afraid I hold an intentional exaggerated viewpoint on this subject. The technological advances in the communications dimension have brought very little advancement to the overall quality of life of the human race. PDA's, blackberry's, facebook, myspace are serving the dispensable needs of a fraction of our human population.

    Without denying the basic benefits which have accrued, the fact remains that these technologies are intrusive and have adversely impacted the power of 'human thought'. It is the power of the human thought which has made the human race the most progressive living being on earth and if that very ability is being adversely impacted, we have to be worried for the future generations.

    Going forward, we need to do more research to understand the real impact of these technologies and gadgets on our quality of life, our ability to think and more importantly, have they made this earth a better place to live in for a majority of the human beings. If not, we need to steer the advancement of these technologies with an intention to enhance the well being of the human race.
    • Gerald Nanninga
    • VP, Retail Ventures, Inc.
    My concern is that with all of these new communication devices, our conversations have become more numerous, but also more superficial. Our talk is a mile wide, but an inch deep.

    Sound bites avoid deep contemplation and nuance. You cannot fully describe, let alone solve a problem in less than 140 characters. Superficiality oversimplifies--it tries to paint a gray world as either "black" or "white." This increases the polarization of society.

    Superficial disscussion will not solve complex problems. In fact, the increased time needed to react to all these sound bites takes away from quiet contemplation.

    Text messaging has reduced conversation to shorthand "catch phrases." If everyone is using the same catch phrases, how are we adding anything new or original to the conversation?
    • Prashant Pandey
    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    Is it really important that changes in communications technology be absorbed by organizations?
    My thoughts: Is there a 'real' need? An organization I had a chance to work with employed a global consultancy service to help them figure out the best E-business suite for them. A product X was identified and implemented. Of course the prime reason was that a competitor had migrated recently and 'top management' thought it would be best to move themselves too.

    Of course what was missing and never done was validation of the need. I do not know about their competitor but for them, a) at a huge expense the solution was procured, deployed, data migrated and users trained. The bottom line staff managing inventories and stocks etc. continued with what processes they used (had copy, register logs, excel sheets) and used this new tool just as an additional place where they 'had to' enter data. One store location in fact posted a job position for a data entry operator to perform this operation since they were anyway stretched due to other systems/processes. Result: Nothing gets better, the system was scrapped 1 year and 3 months later. So is there a need, that is the first basic question that irrespective of pace, dimension, reach of any new technological advancement in communication is the one thing to be ascertained.

    What are the overheads and return on investment? An offshoot of the brief view i presented above, these are other areas that need to be looked at. Large organizations can theoretically hog technology as it appears on the horizon but the actual consumers should be only those for whom such advancements translate to tangible benifits. Basics, but yes often overlooked in the glitz of technological developments.
    • Saurabh Dwivedy
    I find Mr. Brooks' comments in the article linked-to by Brenda Walker a bit too contrived: I quote from Brooks' article:
    To me, the most interesting factor is the way instant communications lead to unconscious conformity. You'd think that with thousands of ideas flowing at light speed around the world, you'd get a diversity of viewpoints and expectations that would balance one another out. Instead, global communications seem to have led people in the financial subculture to adopt homogenous viewpoints. They made the same one-way bets at the same time.

    The last line above viz: They made the same one-way bets at the same time is to me a gross oversimplification of the extraordinary set of events that precipitated the crisis we currently find ourselves in.

    As mentioned by Brenda - communications did not encourage herd mentality: it's like putting the effect before the cause - the 'herd' was already there; it's likely they used technology to further their cause than technology furthering theirs.
    • Jesus Arguelles
    • CEO, ARCA
    Perhaps the question is not how much obsolescence we can absorb but should we absorb any at all or simply accept the inevitable--that communication technologies are simply a tool that is constantly changing and that we are ill prepared to absorb the quantum impact that these technologies have in the architecture and management of a firm. The provocative nature of the question brings to mind the links among the need for built-in/planned obsolesce in our products, its relationship to the production possibility curve, the technology adoption curve and the creative destruction process. Mikhail Bakunin, [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, and in Werner Sombart 's Krieg und Kapitalismus (War and Capitalism) (1913, p. 207), However regardless of how the question is posed, it is an extremely complex one given the many dimensions and approaches one can take in addressing the question. Off the cuff, the rate and strategy for internalizing communication technologies as fast as they are created is determined by many factors that fall mainly within the realm of management's vision and tolerance for taking risks and realizing rewards.

    In my mind, there is no magic formula for attaining sustained systemic optimality and equilibrium between adopting and discarding communication technologies because of the inherent chaotic nature attributed to systems. Hence, best practices, benchmarking, quantifiable metrics, quality assurance measures, ROI, etc. are good familiar proxies and part of a corporate technology culture that is evolving. These points of organized and well-documented references provide us with a framework to assess absorption potential of technologies but still leaves us in "technological purgatory."
    • Tom Dolembo
    • Consultant, Dolembo Associates
    I find myself exhilerated by the plunge of my hands into fresh earth, the cry of real sandhill cranes on a real marsh, the immediacy Jupiter through my telescope, conversations with friends and the sting of deep cold snowshoeing, the rush of cold water into my wet suit on a spring dive. After many years in the digital race, I discovered that it is just electrons and silicon, nothing else. The illusion of life that it affords is enticing, perhaps necessary in our new virtual worlds. But these lives and investments are just simulation. Odd. It doesn't have an odor besides a faint stench of ozone.

    David Brooks intimated that technology may have facilitated the plunge last fall. Electrons do move at the speed of light. So do our digital investments. We are supposed to believe obsolescence is defined by the potential to digitize. I suggest a revolution is happening. Yes we will absorb vast new ideas and inventions, and indeed we are embarking on a global prosperity unimagineable by the fakers and gamers who have dominated our virtual paradise to date.

    Markets demand reality, real value, worldly trade. When I think of the years I spent believing the importance of anything on that LCD or CRT, I cringe. Earth, stars, wood, smells, these are worldly requirements. I understand now, why. This silicon based world was not virtual, no, it did not exist, it never existed. It was a figment of imagination. Those IRAs and whatever did not exist, do not exist, except as electrons racing on silicon. 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.
    • Todd Mounce
    In my undergraduate studies, I had a professor who asked the question, "Are we advancing with technology, or merely keeping up?" We spent sixteen weeks working on a definite answer to this question only to conclude with a simple answer, but indirect answer. We determined an organization has to determine what type of technology is best suited to serve the needs of the organization at the time when a decision has to be made using the information available. After the determination is made, move forward by acting on the decision. Yes, technology is advancing, sometimes by the minute, but you cannot hold out on important decisions that need to be implemented in the organization based on what new technology might be available for purchase tomorrow.

    The same holds true for the question proposed by Professor Heskett. First, an organization will only absorb as much communication technology as the culture, training and mentality of the individuals working in the organization will allow. Second, and more importantly, the organization should only absorb as much communication technology as is required to efficiently run the organization. Just because the communication technology is available, does not necessarily mean an organization must implement it. If un-necessary communication technology is implemented in an organization that does not need it, there will be point of diminishing returns.

    In the end, management has to determine what communication technology is needed to efficiently run the organization and make decisions accordingly. As new technologies emerge, they must be evaluated with a decision being made based on the information available today. Tomorrow, a new technology will emerge that will require a new evaluation.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC (India) Private Limited
    The advanced communication technology has provided us robots in the shape of mechanical devices which serve our commands through, for example, the click of a mouse. The time saving is immense. Information about anything is readily available and one need not go about hunting the print media. Before advent of such technologies, lot of time was spent (rather wasted ) on mundane basics such as finding spellings, arithmetical operations, etc. Today, all these and most other routine tasks are automatically taken care of without taxing the brain. One has only to pick up the method of operating the gizmo and the results follow. The faculties can and are then free for utilization for more important activities. That is why it is an innovation centric environment and progression towards improved mechanisms is brisk.

    So far so good. However, we tend to be suffering from information overflow and too much dependence on what others have kept in store for us. Our independent
    thinking gets suppressed.

    Being too much attached to the screen by remaining glued to the computer takes a toll of the health as well. We seem to be reducing if not losing eyesight at a fast pace. Some other physical and mental deficiencies also crop up.

    Short cuts by way of poor spellings and punctuation in the emails impacts the quality of such communications and this is dangerous particularly when ticklish issues are involved.
    To summarise, while we must go with the tide and swim along with the latest technologies, we must also rest our brain more often and let it develop independenly and produce wonderful results by own efforts. That will lead to better progress and total development.
    • Mayur
    • Design Engineer (Structures), W&B
    The rate of change in communication technology which can be absorbed by a company solely depends on the business objectives of the company.

    The foresight and experience only can trigger appropriate information at a calculated time duration. Whatever be the communication medium, the content of the information to be communicated is more important than the rate of change of communication technology.

    A company can only afford to absorb the rate of change of communication only when it has clear objectives of how to make the technology affordable and profitable after absorbing it. If not the company loses the balance of the processes, which results in losses.

    Thank you.
    • Ronan Gruenbaum
    • Ashridge Business School
    Much has been written in the past about the 'digital divide'. Those that are connected (or 'online' - to use its broadest context) and those who are not.

    All of us, commenting on this page, reading this article (which we found through a recommendation from another? through the Working Knowledge newsletter? an RSS feed?) and understanding the context are, by definition, 'connected'.

    What is very easy to forget is the millions of people of all ages and generations who are not connected.

    I've presented and taught sessions on these new technologies to Gen Y managers who don't use Facebook and don't even know what a Twitter/Blog/Podcast/Wiki/RSS feed is.

    There is a big danger that as early adopters engage with more new technology, the late adopters and those who opt-out will fall further and further behind. After all, it was easy before... you got an email address or you didn't. You bought a mobile phone or you didn't. But with the huge variety of technologies and communication methods now available, there is no obvious area for new-comers to engage with... and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the options around.

    And what are organisations, if not groups of people, that include early-adopters and opt-outers?

    The WWW took several years to achieve the critical mass that meant every organisation had to have a website and every worker had to know how to use it on at least a rudimentary level. It will take many more years before that critical mass is achieved with a lot of the Web 2.0 technologies (by which time many more new technologies will be around).

    Fundamentally, therefore, I think we need large scale adoption of various forms of aggregators - so that those who Tweet, and those who text, and those who blog, and those who post comments on other websites (etc.) will all be available in one, portable, user-friendly place.
    iGoogle is getting there, but it's only when we get that integrated with the TV, mobile phone and eReaders that we will truly see the mass use of these tools.
    • K.S. Ramachandra
    The reality, whether we like it or not or cope with it or not, is that the pace of technology and paradigm changes taking place and affecting every aspect of business, technology, operations, lifestyle, society and environment are indeed putting unbearable pressure on people in their attempts to be in command and float. This is true not only in information/communication technology but more so in all other domains too. For example, the technologies that have revolutionised drug design and development (DDD) include, high throughput screening (HTS), Combinatorial chemistry, Computational Chemistry, Genetics Algorithm, Toxi-chip and bla, bla, bla have caused paradigm shift in the way DDD was practiced a decade back and still many new milestones are being achieved in these and new technologies to enable DDD happen much faster.

    The capabilities and knowledge base of a retired professional in DDD or a Professor of yesteryears may be proved obsolate for the present day needs.It reminds me of Alwyn Toffler's "Future Shock". Is it inevitable for everybody at a certain point of one's life? How far one can continue to keep his ears, eyes and mind occupied in keeping pace with the surging new technologies not to be left over? What amount of stress does it impose on them?

    Emerging technologies like nanotechnology, nanomaterials, nanomedicine, genetics, will further increase such situations. My point here is not to say that these developments are creating more problems. Certainly these technologies are expected to make life more comfortable. The product lifecycles are getting shorter and shorter leading to more and more obsolescence of things, systems and human potential. Everything passed or failed at its currency value. One who wants to be in pace and maintain currency forever will have to sacrifice some precious things of his/her life (like social, spiritual and personal pursuits). Some of you all may not agree with this.
    • Shaiful
    I see we are headed to confusion and becoming increasingly uncertain about our future (lost, most probably, which in turn to more confusion, round and round we go within the loop).

    I still believe face to face communication is the best provided we can comprehend the knowledge of emotional and spiritual intelectual, needless to say one require high intellingence capability. As more we rely on the technology to feed our life the more we are trapped in incompetencies. Eventually we are tired and get fed up.

    The most important factor is the human factor. We are most dynamic creation so how come we rely on something less dynamic? Actually we are more becoming more savvy but the reality is the reverse, is what really happening.

    These days the business and society are equally becoming less and less empathy in our judgement from generation to generation. Therefore we have to understand and these reality.

    We have to figure out how to grasp the big picture.
    • Michael M. Norman, ED.D.
    • Management Consultant and Futurist, Work Place Skills, LLC
    Are technologies really making life seem faster, or are we getting slower? Personally, I believe we have simply forgotten how to encounter new places, new experiences and new challenges. This is not a small issue for organizations. How we do like continuity with the past!

    In my opinion, current managers of small to large info-oriented organizations may have to sacrifice something they hold dearly--control of the work environment and lives of what I call the contributors (formerly known as employees). We believe we can control bodies, but information isn't about bodies. People will no longer be employees for they will have access to mass amounts of information; that is if management feels secure enough to give them access to that information. Here again, management may not have full control over the information the contributors create, manage and which they can keep.

    Ultimately, concentrations of high tech and high levels of contributions will require the suppression of organizational growth through bureaucratic gerrymandering. Consequently, we should need fewer bodies in a physical space. How should we lead minds and what they contribute?

    That brings me to a true dilemma for organizations: What will be the roles of managers as we know them today in technology loaded work settings of tomorrow? Plus, what skills, knowledge, attitudes and experiences will free them from the past and help them become successful info. leaders in ever evolving tech-contributor spheres? What will happen to professionalism and so on and so on?
    • Ganesh Ram
    We laugh at the Luddites who destroyed factories in the early nineteenth century but the information age may yet make neo-Luddites of some of us--too much of protesting against the inevitable, trying to deride the superficiality of today's Twittering Gen-Y collaboration.

    Dire predictions of the demise of the older communication channels or the loss of good sense have generally proven untrue. Examples that come to mind are: the Internet did not kill the printed book (though printed newspapers have had to adapt), nor did it diminish the reach and importance of television.

    Information Technology, some of us remember, was a phrase coined to signify the convergence of computers and communication networks. IT has willy-nilly evolved to become not a mere tool like a hammer or a pencil or a widget-producing machine, it has enabled previously inconceivable possibilities: a data mining programme suggesting the placement of a product in a supermarket, a long-tail sale on Amazon of a rare manuscript to someone willing to pay its due price, and a Twitter group providing the latest inside news during the Mumbai terror attack.

    Yes, creativity human knowledge and wisdom, shall always be important. In fact, the judicious use of and new methods of addressing the downside of the new technologies and means of communication, requires the human element.

    A business organization is a microcosm of the communities and society in which it operates. Hence it is influenced by and influences the larger trends. Fashion and fads will always emerge but the trick is to distinguish frivolous ones from those that indicate fundamental changes.

    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.
    • Dr. Yogendra Vashishtha
    • Innovation & Research Manager
    This is very interesting discussion. It is very hard to keep pace with the latest technologies. Initial reason is lack of time but it becomes harder to catch up later on due to lack of interest or patience. Only a practitioner can have have full appreciation of the technology and understands its full impact in future and all possible applications to improve business efficiencies. This is a puzzle.

    I see very senior professionals who have so much subject knowledge but have developed a technological lag over the years. This not only make them inefficient time wise, they also lack appreciation for the new vision. On the other hand, I see young engineers enthusiastically using the latest technology but lack solid experience which can convert data into actionable information.

    What is the answer?

    1. Corporations have to constantly invest in training and keep people's skills up-to-date.

    2. Decide a definite minimum obsolescence as acceptable and do not allow this gap to grow at any point in time.

    3. Be prepared to sacrifice short-term gains and enforce modern approach to work even if it means some delay in getting the response initially.
    • Denise Love
    • NAHDO
    Technology is a wonderful tool and will continue to evolve. But, as with any tool, the underlying fundamentals apply. How an organization or sector uses the technology indicates how that organization manages its affairs in general. Technical decisions must be applied in a framework of sound ethical leadership and to meet clearly defined objectives, balancing innovative practices with realistic controls.
    • Rodgers Harper
    • Principal, The Harper Company
    Seems to me there are four responses to your observations. First, meaningful technology change is happening fast enough to create an advantage for those who can devote resources to stay on top of changes and understand how to use them. Perhaps this drives more outsourcing or resource sharing to limit investment that will too soon be obsolete. Second, the business model for quality journalism must undergo a massive change. We cannot have an effective democracy without in depth reporting and quality editorial content, yet the New York Times gives away what is arguably the best in the business. Traditional reporting needs a new revenue model. Third, the proliferation of gossip is different that the proliferation of news, i.e. reporting events that have meaningfull consequences for a relatively large number of people and we must adjust our filters according to our desire to learn or be entertained. Finally, I think these channels offer tremendous opportunity to deliver commercial and social messages and should get a lot of attention from marketers, politicians and others seeking to move masses of sometimes uncritical opinion.
    • Anonymous
    Having started teaching people about computers when Word Processor was a new and unfamiliar term to most, I'd like to inject a note of caution about these new technologies.

    When we introduced word processing I spent a lot of time explaining to managers that they didn't need to go through 8 drafts just because they could, particularly when the 8th one looked a lot like the 2nd. Wordsmithing has now been added to our working dictionary and it still adds up to a waste of time doing something marginal.

    When we introduced Presentation Graphics software managers who used to turn their ideas over to a team started spending a lot of hours putting together slide decks that did little to address their issues and more to exhibit their lack of graphic design and writing skills. Where they used to hold a meeting to discuss issues and make decisionsand and they would hand out a simple document or two, we are now treated to the PowerPoint sing-along (where slides are read to us) and discussion and decisions never actually happen.

    When we introduced email we discovered that people's inofrmation management skills were weak at best. Now we have remedial courses in how to manage your inbox.

    I feat that these new technologies will lead us to:
    increasingly clogged mailboxes full of notifications about new friends and requests for input
    endless collaboration cycles - because we can now get input from everyone online, and
    really bad decisions because the important information in mired in the morass....
    • Charles Bakakimpa
    • Go - Tel
    Change or you perish..... an outlook that most organizations are preaching. I imagine all these new tools to be human expressions that try to look for an opportunity to reach out to friends in the most efficient and quickest manner shouting..... I WANT TO BE WHERE YOU ARE.

    The challenge for organization and I is to be able to process this information still in the quickest and most reliable fashion and thus making us busier by the second.

    I need to read my email by sorting out spam from genuine mail, I have to open mail carefully with the hope that I shall not receive a virus, I check my email with the hope that it has not been phished. The list of ROAD TOLLS goes on before I can just read my email.. All these technologies are just as vital as they are presenting us with a new forum of ROAD TOLLS. Never before are we seen backward and forward linkages relation to one single activity - Reading Emails.
    • Ozlem
    • HR Director, TAV Airports
    If Karl Marx was alive, i guess he would call this situation "a new mode of production."

    We are producing information about ourselves, the work we do, ideas/opinions we have, things we like/dislike etc and disseminating it by every means. Internet has already changed the way we communicate, investigate, live deeply and irreversibly.

    I don't think there is any other chance for organizations but to accept and understand the nature of this change i.e. the change in producing and disseminating/sharing information. It is also directly linked to the way we do business. Example: Internet is almost the most effective distribution channel right now. Now everyone is in charge. The only problem that lies within this change for me is the accuracy and reliability of the information.
    • Lorenzo Ferlazzo
    • Ferfin
    This is a fascinating, multi-faceted topic which speaks to the issue of information management. Jim Heskett ultimately asks "What rate of change in communications technology can the organization absorb?" which highlights the opportunities for further evolving "smart content" delivery, which by itself to date has most visibly and successfully coalesced into those so-called "tech cliques" that have generated significant footprints.

    Jim Heskett's comments also voice concerns on information quality, which in principle differ little from concerns expressed at the advent of print and to a lesser extent, telegraph. Some big differences in the 21st century include quantity and transmission mediums, which may increasingly benchmark business model standards understandably directed at "internet overload" because currently operating with reduced capacity for useful "intelligence" extrapolation, wherein lies abundant opportunity for technology differentiation akin to power transmission, currently an inefficient network now transitioning to a "smart grid" system with greater investigatory objectivity and more productive feedback loops.

    The current dependency on "tech cliques" could be interpreted as a manifestation of consumer uncertainty seeking product guidance and thus represents an ideal testbed for business models focused on sourcing definable revenue channels through progressive improvements in assimilatory hardware and software. As with print, internet and a host of other highly complex interactions including industrial value chains, these modular exercises greatly enhance abilities to manage and direct information, which the recent Oracle / Sun merger may appear to prove as an illustrative case in point.

    Amongst so many anecdotal references, consider how the noise of coffee houses in and around Lime Street in London transformed the insurance industry, or how traders manifesting interests under a buttonwood tree at Wall Street transformed the financial industry. In both instances daunting circumstances hastened pertinent efficiency drives, which is why prospects for communications technology may be considered immensely tangible, genuinely exciting, and realistically embraceable by organizations, and by way of fun reference to societal adeptness at self-generating primordiality, self-perpetuating adaptability and a lot of coffee-drinking, infer a positive outlook on the headline question of obsolescence.
    • Richard A. Eckel
    • President, Systems Synergy, Inc.
    The real concern with any communications technology is not the displacement of existing technology (forced obsolescence), but the increased productivity that results. With recent advances, the accessibility may have improved, but the cost has been a reduction in the quality of the information stream all are condemned to refine incessantly.

    Along the same lines, the improved accessibility continuously reduces the autonomy of the subordinate as superiors realize the ability to be continuously connected. The unintended consequence is arrested development of team agility as superiors are less motivated to provide for contingency leadership; Team flexibility and autonomy are degraded under pressure as leadership assumes convenient unbroken command and control access.