How can enterprise technology serve us – and not the other way around?

October 31, 2011 by

In her ground-breaking book “Alone Together” MIT Professor Sherry Turkle reveals the dark currents running through our supposedly wonderful “connected” lives. She talks about the addiction we have to always being online and accessible. Turkle came on IBF 24, our 24 hour intranet and digital workplace marathon recently and talked to me about how we each feel as if we are “together” when we are actually more and more alone. Although there are extremely helpful software packages such as PieSync and many more that can make business operations much easier.

When I read her challenging and disturbing book this year, it reminded me of a book I had read a few months earlier “I am not a gadget” by the pioneer of virtual reality and tech innovator Jaron Lanier. Both Turkle and Lanier tell us that we are at a flex point with technologies, where we have to take stock and decide what we want the technologies at our finger-tips to do for us – or we will sleep walk into a period where they will take charge of us.

They call for a kind of “technology awareness” where we reclaim some power we have lost and take back control and autonomy. A simple example from Turkle is the dad happy to be collecting his child from school but as he waits, what the child is greeted by is not a smiling, arms-open dad but a dad staring fixated at his Blackberry – and the child’s face falls, as they stare at their distant, lost parent. I have done exactly that myself.

This is not an issue just around email and social media outside the workplace but a problem of the “digital workplace” itself, where we now spend our days. We want and need to be connected (we say) when in fact we are becoming addicted; addicted to being “connected”.

I experienced this when I recently lost my iphone for two days only. Not only could I not work but I also felt ‘unconnected’ and impotent in both work and energy. I felt I might as well not even get out of bed as I was unable to access the digital workplace at all. This loss of connection lasted only 48 hours but is etched in my mind.

Why employers secretly feed our addiction

It’s one of the counterpoints to the digital workplace that the liberation that results from being able to work when you want, and increasingly where you want, is also feeding an addiction to staying ‘in touch’. Yes, you can work when you want but colleagues and bosses will also feel free to connect with you outside normal working hours.

I recently chatted to a few middle managers together in a bar in Chicago about the digital workplace in the context of my new book on the subject. They seemed to consider that working ‘all hours’ was fine because the payback for them was so valuable. Now, that’s their choice of course, but when I suggested that weekends and evenings are leisure time, the reply was ‘yes, but I have it all under control and I like it’ ……but isn’t that the kind of thing people say when they’re accused of being addicted – some version of ‘it’s all fine?

Are Blackberries really addictive?

The Blackberry was, of course, the first mobile device to really penetrate the corporate world and get us all hooked. With it grew the reputation of the ‘crackberry’ – recognition that this truly game-changing technology was addictive. There was widespread media coverage about the dangers of becoming hooked, and how the world of work was seeping into the world of non-work. But are Blackberries and similar devices really addictive and potentially dangerous?

Well yes, as different academic studies in the past few years have tended to suggest that Blackberries are addictive. In 2008, an Australian study conducted nearly 30 interviews with senior bankers. Dr Kristine Dery, from the University of Sydney concluded:”There is a real problem for organizations where stress, burn-out and addiction to ‘crackberries’ are real threats to long-term talent retention and organizational effectiveness.”

One of the most comprehensive studies was by MIT Sloan Management School in 2006. They spent several months observing the behaviour of staff using Blackberries at a US private equity firm (referred to by the fictitious name Plymouth Investments). The study found that individuals were sustaining ‘an almost constant connection with their organizational lives’.

What’s positive and what’s harmful?

So that’s the downsides but what does a positive application of technology look like? There are many to mention but it’s mostly about our relationship with the technology. At British Airways staff voluntarily post short video clips to a sort of internal “You Tube” with explanations on how to extract coffee jugs from tight spots on Boeing 747s and at AXA call centre staff talk to camera about methods they have developed to deal with angry callers. Short, instructional personal statements that attract huge traffic.

Ride-sharing intranet sites at the Highways Agency in the UK, web cams on the company car parks and local traffic at Pepsi offices or whereabouts details in real-time at Nokia – all instances where simple services make a real difference to working lives. It is a time for us to wake up from the slumber of lethargy and addiction to workplace technology and availability and realise that it’s all make work more efficient and even more pleasurable. I am starting to have set periods when I switch off the technology connection and get time to think, reflect and concentrate. It’s strange but I notice that it’s inspiring and a change worth making.

Also from the Highways Agency, on their intranet portal is a ‘My Actions’ tab which is a great example of how intranets can help give users more control/ be more effective by flagging the status of tasks from across different systems. Such positive instances of connection and value are around us.

As we know, intranets have been used to enhance business operations since they were first created to support functions such as call centres. But with systems and data now merging in innovative ways, huge progress is being made on intranets that support operational processes to drive a multitude of efficiency savings.

It is true that relieving the burden of monitoring processes, and letting systems take the strain, allows employees to focus on service, the future, and the flow of value to the customer. This approach is not suitable for all business life; knowledge workers need to address a host of other intranet practices such as internal communications, knowledge management and collaboration. But having systems that let knowledge workers know when they need to engage with a process, means they can devote their energies to working creatively and highlighting valuable real-time business insights and metrics. This is an issue of our relationships with the technology – not with the technology itself – and that power is in our own hands.


Categorised in: Digital workplace, Intranets

Paul Miller

Paul Miller is Chief Creative Officer and Founder of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), rated by the Financial Times in 2020, 2021 and 2022 as one of the UK’s leading management consultancies in digital transformation. He is a business and social entrepreneur. His latest book is ‘Nature of Work – The new Story of Work for a Living Age’ (co-authored with Shimrit Janes). His previous book, ‘The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future’ (co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh), was shortlisted for the Management Book of the Year 2016 Award. Paul’s previous book, ‘The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work’, helped to popularize and explain the term “digital workplace”. Paul has given many inspirational talks on the digital future of work, for audiences at Microsoft, IKEA, Google, Accenture, Harvard Business Review, Cisco, European Commission, IMF, Adobe and Oxford University.

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